Thunder Bay is on the cusp of being the mining hub for Northwestern Ontario and that could result in 7,000 jobs in the Northwest at the peak of production between 2023 and 2028.

A Mining Readiness Strategy was released this month by the Thunder Bay Community Economic Development Commission. The study examined the economic impact in the next six to 10 years from the progress of six currently operating mines and 15 major exploration projects in the North, including a projected total economic output estimated to be up to $8.71 billion in the Northwest.

With Thunder Bay’s convenient proximity to the mines and exploration projects, John Mason, project manager of mining services with the Community Economic Development Commission, says it was the right time for the study.

“We are well over 400 companies in Thunder Bay that provide exploration and mine services, from engineering and fabrication to laboratories and health and safety, . . . the list is long,” said Mason. “Those companies are already engaged and we want to grow that in a very rigorous and regimented strategic way while creating more relationships with these producers and have homegrown solutions to not just build but operate and support and eventually close out mines with Thunder Bay talent.”

Mason says the workforce is another key piece of the framework which involves education.

Among the consultations with more than 40 “entities” in the Northwestern Ontario mining industry, there was a focus on the college, university, trade unions, Indigenous trainers and other mining associations, to examine the criteria for training.

Mason says there are currently a minimum of 3,600 people working directly in the mines in Northwestern Ontario and nearly 1,000 of them live in Thunder Bay.

“We are now looking at doubling that workforce by a middle part of this decade,” he said.

“That’s another reason we wanted to do this study. We know that hiring is one thing but retaining is another and we are starting to run out of people. Skill trades are one area we are really challenged by.”

Mason said electricians, heavy duty mechanics and millwrights, to name a few, are in high demand in the mines right now.

“Those areas are just a broad brush on some of the needs for skilled trades people.” he said.

Other challenges involve electrical transmission and supply into areas such as Red Lake and the Marathon Greenstone area.

“As new mines come on, there is not enough supply into those areas and there needs to be advocacy to illustrate that need to government and other entities,” said Mason, adding that renewable energy such as wind and solar are welcome but it really is a question of taking energy off the provincial grid and how to get it into these particular areas.

He called the “backbone of electricity, of the Northwest line from Thunder Bay east; the West Tie, Watay Power(Wataynikaneyap Power) and Hydro One’s Waasigan Transmission Line Project, a developing project from Thunder Bay to Dryden, all helpful.

“They are major trunk lines — like a spine — getting electrons into other areas off secondary highways, and that’s the challenge,” Mason said.

Another item of concern on the study was the absence of all-season roads, he said, emphasizing Red Lake, the home of Ontario’s largest lithium project, Frontier Lithium, which is the third major lithium deposit along with the Ring of Fire.

Mason said we are lead by the gold and palladium sector, but “lithium is coming” and “that’s the next world order.”

He pointed out that between November 2020 and January 2021, there has been numerous announcements for the “big three” auto makers in southern Ontario.

“That’s a $5 billion commitment to three big contracts for vehicle assemble and electric vehicle batteries. It’s terrific. Ideally we would produce the metals and the batteries here in Ontario as well,” Mason said.

“Palladium cobalt, nickel, copper, other metals — including lithium — fuel the aeronautic industry. They fuel telecommunications, the computer industry and there’s just so many things that these metals are required for.”

Lithium mining is relatively new to the area and not in production yet, however, three of the projects are getting close.

Mason said they anticipate there could be three producers within the next two to three years in Northwestern Ontario, Frontier Lithium, and two of them — Rock Tech Lithium Inc. and Avalon Advanced Materials — are owners of two separate deposits with a joint venture. They are the venture group that wants to construct a lithium plant in Thunder Bay to produce battery metal.

“They would be taking the lithium concentrate at milling facilities at each site, north of Kenora and the other North of Nipigon, bring it to Thunder Bay and put through chemical process to have it ready to go to the battery industry.”

The six mines included in the study are the Red Lake gold mine owned by Evolution, Musclewhite (gold) Mine owed by Newmont, Hemlo Barrick Mine, east of Marathon, the New Gold Inc. mine northwest of Fort Frances and the Lac des Iles palladium mine and Harte Gold’s Sugar Zone Mine located in White River, and Canada’s newest gold mine. The Ring of Fire Eagles Nest chromite deposit mines were also included in the study. The 15 major exploration projects involved lithium and gold projects.