July 2014    Print this article

Interview with
Minister Luc Blanchette

Jancimon Reid, Ministère de l'Énergie et des Ressources naturelles

Luc Blanchette was elected MNA for Rouyn-Noranda-Témiscamingue in the April 7 election, and was subsequently appointed Minister for Mines. The Québec Mines Newsletter team asked him some questions, to help readers get to know him better.

You’re new to politics, and our readers would like to know more about you and the path that brought you to this point. What can you tell us?

I have a Bachelor’s degree in economics from Sherbrooke University and a Master’s degree in project management from the Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue.

Until just before the elections, I’d worked for Service Canada as a regional economist for the previous 14 years, with responsibility for the Abitibi-Témiscamingue, Northern Québec and North Shore regions. I’ve always worked in regional economics, first in the Eastern Townships, then in Abitibi-Témiscamingue. I worked for the Abitibi-Témiscamingue Vocational Training Commission, and for the Office de planification et de développement du Québec (OPDQ), which is the ancestor of MAMROT. I was also self-employed for five years, working mainly for industrial commissariats, CLDs, SADCs, the Association des prospecteurs du Québec (ancestor of the AEMQ) and some federal and provincial government departments, and I taught economics from 1998 to 2014, at the Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue.

You’ve clearly had a flourishing career. Have you also had opportunities to become involved in your community?

I’ve always been involved. I was the Economics Department representative at Sherbrooke University before becoming President of the university’s student association. When I first arrived in Abitibi-Témiscamingue, I was President of the UQAM guest lecturers’ union. I was also my union’s representative on the Québec Teachers’ Federation and the CSN for five years.

In addition, I was President of the Rouyn-Noranda Family Centre, and chair of the Rouyn-Noranda health and social services commission board for ten years, and I was also treasurer of Québec’s association of health and social services institutions (AQESSS). That’s how I become known at the provincial level, and how I was approached to enter politics.

Which of your past experience will be most useful to you in your new position as Minister for Mines?

My detailed knowledge of the mine production sector will certainly be useful. Throughout my career, and in particular during my time as a regional economist, I had to produce reports on mining activities. So it’s a sector I know well, not only in terms of investments, wage bill or employment but also in terms of the professional structures of open-cast and underground mines. I’ve also worked at the provincial level on Aboriginal profiles. Finally, with the whole notion of social acceptability becoming so important, I had to estimate mine projects spinoffs.

I’ve always been a field economist and have forged good relationships with sector professionals from the MERN and from mining associations, including the Association de l’exploration minière du Québec and the sector-based labour committees.

Anyone who lives in Abitibi is obviously going to have more opportunities to visit mines, and will inevitably have friends who are geologists! I’m no exception to that.

How important do you think mines are, globally speaking, in 2014? What’s your vision of the sector?

Mine exploration is a global activity. Competition is everywhere, and Québec is just one of many mining areas. So even in Abitibi-Témiscamingue, the mining community has no option but to look at what’s happening elsewhere in the world, and how things are changing. All mine exploration and operational activities depend on this.

What’s your diagnosis of the mining sector in Québec?

I like to use valid data to support what I say. According to the last Fraser Institute report, we went from first place to fifth, then to eleventh, and just recently we’ve plummeted to 21st in the list of preferred mining territories for worldwide investors. We’re ranked sixth from the standpoint of geoscientific information and eleventh or twelfth in terms of workforce quality. We should be in first place! We have good geological and geoscientific expertise and good tools available to us.

The diagnosis is even more severe if we look at other aspects. For example, we’re ranked 55th for our regulatory framework. That’s really not very good! And for territorial access, we’ve dropped to 72nd. In other words, we have some challenges ahead and work to do, among other things to clarify our territorial access rules and simplify all our bureaucracy and regulations. We can make things easier without changing the law – and we won’t change the law because we want a stable mining industry.

It’s the same for royalties: they’re 16%, and will remain at that level, but we’re going to try to simplify the calculation method.

Briefly, my diagnosis is this: the mining industry has been through some difficult times in recent years, due among other things to legislative uncertainty. We need to restore the industry’s image and work on reviving the trust of investors.

Is there anything else you’d like to do during your term to restore stability to the mining sector?

We want to consult people from the industry, for example on how to simplify the regulatory framework. We’re going to resuscitate the advisory committee, composed of representatives from the mining industry, environmental groups, sector-based associations, universities and research centres. We also want to consult the Aboriginal communities and the municipalities, to make sure the rules are clearer and that mine development is respectful of the environment. My first task is to increase mining investments within a context of social acceptability, for both Aboriginal and local communities. And, of course, this has to be done with due respect for sustainable development and the environment.

Our Government has proposed to give some royalties back to the communities that host mining projects. Most of the royalties from mining will go into the Generations Fund to pay the future debt, but a certain percentage – we don’t know exactly how much as yet – will be given back to the host regions, to help prepare for or guard against deposit closures, which are inevitable. The money will be used for vocational training, economic diversification and tourism development among other things.

We’re also resuscitating the Plan Nord. We need to make sure the necessary road, rail and air infrastructures are in place and integrated with the maritime strategy. We have concentrates and primary processing products that we can ship throughout the world. The maritime strategy and the Plan Nord will serve as spearheads for the entire mining industry.

Social acceptability is now part of the Act. What does it mean to you?

Often, legislation is inspired by reality. In the past, companies as well as individuals acted in ways that now seem negligent and that are no longer acceptable Times have changed! People are much more environmentally aware. What we need now is to work with the very definition of sustainable development, on the social, economic and environmental aspects. It is not a mere choice, it is an obligation. Society demands it, and the Government is going to demand it. We need to make sure we have a win-win-win relationship: for companies, for the Government and for the host society. Now that’s an interesting challenge and goal!

In both Québec and the rest of Canada, there are projects that are very socially acceptable, on which everyone – Aboriginal communities, environmentalists, the industry workforce and the host society – agrees. Goldcorp’s Eleonore project in Northern Québec, with Crees of Weminji, and Royal Nickel project in Abitibi-Témiscamingue, with the Amos community, are good examples of this. We really need to start working upstream of projects. We need to meet with the people, understand their conditions, work on mitigation measures, and so on. That’s how we’ll achieve our win-win-win relationship!

As Minister responsible for Abitibi-Témiscamingue and Northern Québec, what do you think these two regions need the most?

The mining industry is concentrated in Abitibi-Témiscamingue, Northern Québec and the North Shore. I’m not responsible for the North Shore region, and I know there are some projects in other regions too, but in terms of mine development, these three regions are of particular concern to me. The industry demands a highly specialized workforce, so we need to make sure vocational training is available.

Another of my concerns relates to induced activities: stores, hotels, residences, etc. They’re really important too! It’s not up to the Government to build these kinds of facilities, but we need to make sure there’s a workforce available, and proper training, so they can be built. Growth-related problems are always a concern and must be addressed.

I’m also concerned about funding for exploration projects. We know it’s a high-risk sector, so we need to make sure investors have a positive perception, and we also need to create a certain amount of stability in Québec’s mine development sector. In addition, we need to look at what can be done to simplify processes and encourage investors, and we need to negotiate territorial access with municipalities and identify incompatible areas. These are all elements in a set of tasks that must be completed to revive economic activity. In other words, there are plenty of challenges. When I’ve done all this, I’ll have accomplished a large portion of my task.

The annual Québec Mines Congress, organized by the MERN, will be held again this year in November. As Minister for Mines, what do you expect of the event?
                                                            
I think the ultimate goal is to share expertise and geoscientific information. We’re a Government department; we aren’t the ones who develop mines. We can provide mineralogical indicators, but basically it’s the companies that need to show interest and take the initiative in developing projects. This year, I’d really like to see some good examples of social acceptability. I also think it would be interesting to promote the contextual aspect of mine development. Québec Mines offers a perfect opportunity not only to exchange knowledge, but also, at the same time, to gain information and assess good practices within the industry. I strongly believe the event is a golden opportunity to show that Québec is a great place for mine development investments.

In closing, if you had one message to convey to Québecers and mine sector stakeholders, what would it be?

If I were to talk directly to the general public, I’d reiterate the importance of the win-win-win concept. Basically, the public must be properly informed about mine projects, at both the implementation and the development stages. The industry knows it still has work to do to become known and provide better information for citizens. In addition, mining companies have a duty to do things well, and better. I've visited several mine development projects. There are some really good and really nice projects. I like the mining sector. Also, research, especially in mines and environment, is another area in which Québec stands out for the quality of its international research teams at UQAT and at Polytechnique.

My primary concern as Minister for Mines is that there should be investments, as well as good, environmentally respectful projects, a high level of social acceptability for host communities and local communities, and above all, involvement of Aboriginal communities from the start of the process. It’s in this way that mines will come to be regarded as a plus for the communities.

Lastly, there’s also a significant technological challenge, and mining companies must compete globally. We need to work on social acceptability and adopt better practices. The companies have reached this stage; they, too, want to become good corporate citizens. As Minister for Mines, my job will be to make sure people know more about the industry: there are definitely some misconceptions and a certain amount of misinformation as well. I’m going to make sure I give accurate, true and valid information, and set the record straight.

 

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