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When the mines fall silent

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FLIN FLON -- Will Round 2 of the NDP government's self-described "fight" to save mining jobs in Thompson prove any more successful than Round 1?

Given the vital importance of those jobs to northern Manitoba, northerners hope so, though the signs may not be overly promising at the moment.

Nickel behemoth Vale recently announced it may suspend operations next August at its aging Birchtree Mine, which employs about 210 workers. It is also delaying for a year a decision on how to proceed with its highly touted new 1-D mine.

On the plus side, Vale now plans to keep its smelter and refinery -- which employ about 500 people, or 40 per cent of the company's Thompson workforce -- running until the end of 2015, a year later than initially projected.

When Vale confirmed two years ago the smelter and refinery would cease operations, the province promptly announced Premier Greg Selinger would "fight" the matter.

Churchill MP Niki Ashton, who lives in Thompson, also got on board, at one point convincing pot-stirring American documentarian Michael Moore to write an essay that accused Vale of all sorts of dastardly deeds.

At another point, Thompson MLA Steve Ashton gave an interview to the Thompson Citizen that produced a rather tough-sounding headline: Steve Ashton Threatens Vale with Provincial Mining Legislation on Smelter and Refinery Shutdown.

It was all for naught. The smelter and refinery decision stood, though Vale has stated from Day 1 that no one will be laid off as a result.

Now amid weak nickel prices comes the Birchtree Mine announcement, and although the word hasn't been used this time around, it sounds like politicians perceive this as another "fight."

"We strongly believe that Birchtree can continue to be economical, particularly if viewed as part of the larger assets holdings in Thompson," says a provincial spokesman.

Adds the spokesman: "Manitoba has taken the position that the best course of action is to look at cost-management measures, as Vale is doing, and continue mining until the workforce can be transitioned to the 1-D project, if necessary."

All northerners can take that position. That would be ideal. But it's not something the NDP can decree any more than it could force the smelter and refinery to keep running.

For all of the province's talk of working on "options" with Vale, market conditions and the availability of product carry the day in resource economies.

Thompson's struggles are no more heartbreaking than those in Flin Flon, where miner Hudbay has shut down its copper smelter and a mine over the last two years, or The Pas, where lumber giant Tolko has been forced into layoffs and very nearly left town in 2006.

In Vale's case, unless the province is prepared to hand over tax dollars to a global corporation that made $22.09 billion last year (as politically unsightly as that would be), it's not clear what true "options" exist. To suggest otherwise may amount to raising false hope.

To its credit, the NDP has committed to helping anyone who may be laid off from Vale find jobs at other northern Manitoba mines, including Hudbay's massive Lalor project under development in Snow Lake, a 240-kilometre drive away.

The province has also passed (but not yet proclaimed) a piece of legislation, the Thompson Nickel Belt Sustainability Act, that would put provincial taxes paid by Vale into an economic-development fund for Thompson.

Economic development should be more of a focus for the NDP not only in Thompson, but also in The Pas and Flin Flon. Northerners are under no illusion about their present economy: Mines do dry up and only so many trees can be chopped down.

Fortunately, despite some setbacks, mining and forestry appear relatively healthy in this region. Thompson, with an ostensibly promising nickel-fuelled future, would surely bounce back should a worst-case scenario materialize or, in other words, should Round 2 of this "fight" end in "defeat."

Jonathon Naylor is editor of The Reminder newspaper in Flin Flon.

jonathon_naylor@hotmail.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 8, 2012 A15

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