November 2012    Print this article

New edition of a book on the history of mining in Québec: Des mines et des hommes

Interview conducted by Nicolas Bégin, MRN

A new edition of Des mines et des hommes, a book describing the history of mining in Québec, will be launched on November 28, 2012 at the Québec Mines convention. Author Marc Vallières, an associate professor in the history department at Université Laval, has spent the last few months updating the book, which originally reviewed the history of the mining sector from its origins up to the early 1980s. Mr. Vallières took time to answer questions from the Québec Mines newsletter about his new book.

Québec Mines newsletter (QMN) –What was your biggest surprise when you started your research to update Des mines et des hommes?

Marc Vallières (MV) ­– After taking the history of Québec’s mining industry up to the mid-1980s for the first edition of the book, and after working on various other projects, I came back to find that the mining industry was booming in 2011. My biggest surprise came when I compiled the data in Québec’s public accounts concerning the revenues derived from duties on mining company profits. At a time when mining royalties had been increasing steeply for several years, I was amazed to discover that the resulting revenue plummeted in the mid-1980s and even became negative from 1988 to 1995 when refunds and tax credits exceeded royalties. This reflected the scale of the difficulties faced by the mining industry during this period, and also resulted from various incentives to stimulate exploration and production. In the following years, however, the royalty flow became positive and increased gradually up to 2009, when there was a big jump resulting from changes to the law. In his 2008-2009 report, Québec’s Auditor General questioned the level of royalties based on a compilation going back to 2002. He would probably have voiced an even more critical opinion if he had known the situation during the 1980s and 1990s.

QMN – How would you describe the evolution of the mining sector over the last 30 years?

MV – The main feature of the last 30 years for the mining industry has been the transition from a difficult economic situation during the 1980s and 1990s to strong growth in the 2000s. To start with, the industry was dealing with low and even declining prices, depleted reserves of several key substances, strong international competition and a lack of exploration. Since 2000, the spectacular increase in prices has reflected strong worldwide demand for both traditional metal products and exotic new substances, such as the rare earth elements, to supply manufacturing industries in China and Asia. The industry was shaken up and entered one of the speculative boom periods that have been a feature of its history. Are we looking at a long-term trend or a one-off event? Only the future will tell.

QMN –When did respect for the environment and social acceptability begin to emerge in the mining sector?

MV – Social acceptability is a recent concept in the mining sector. The idea of obtaining prior agreement from local communities and institutions before beginning to mine a deposit does not feature in discussions about mining investment before the 2000s. This is mainly due to the anticipated economic benefits in terms of jobs and spinoffs for local and regional economies, which were hard to challenge without public knowledge of the environmental risks. The question arises especially when mining projects are located close to inhabited regions, for example in connection with the uranium deposits near Sept-Îles or the shale gas in the St. Lawrence lowlands.

However, respect for the environment is an idea that emerged quite early on. It can be traced back to the construction of the Noranda Mines chimney stacks in Noranda in the mid-1920s, when forestry operators feared losing the timber from the surrounding forests. Later, fishermen complained about the discharge of liquid pollutants from mines into rivers and lakes in the Abitibi and Gaspésie regions. A more authentic, more comprehensive environmental conscience began to emerge in the 1970s, when environmental issues were highlighted by the government services or departments concerned with air and water quality, and by ecological associations that played an active role in public debates. The creation of the environment department in 1979 and the establishment of an environmental assessment process gave more support to these concerns, which could no longer be ignored.

QMN –Since the first edition of the book, what, in your view, is the biggest change that has occurred in Québec’s mining sector?

MV – The main change since the first edition is the new need to justify and defend the mining projects proposed by developers and endorsed by the government, even at the exploration stage. There is no longer a social consensus that all mining projects must be accepted, wherever they are located and without an in-depth examination of the consequences. The questions add a new layer to long-standing debates about the royalties that should be charged on non-renewable resources and the need to increase the percentage of minerals extracted in Québec that are processed by the industry in Québec. Given the context, it is preferable for mining companies to get involved in the social and environmental acceptability process early on, during the exploration stage. Several major mining projects, such as Raglan, have chosen this option in the last few years.

QMN –What general conclusion can you draw from your research?

MV – The mining industry is heavily globalized. Gigantic, multi-sector companies (Xstrata, Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton, Vale, Arcelor-Mittal and several others) have seized control of major segments of the industry and manage mineral resources in all the countries where they are active in a coordinated way, from exploration to extraction and primary processing. The growing scarcity of resources acts to support this approach, which is leading to a globalization of the environmental and social conditions connected with mining. A growing number of countries and local populations are getting organized to control mining activities in their respective territories, and Québec is no exception to this new trend, which the industry giants now have to take into account.

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