Having spent the week promoting critical minerals as the next big mining development in the NWT, the territorial government acknowledged they can’t alone replace diamonds’ economic impact.
The NWT’s three active diamond mines are each expected to close soon: Diavik in 2025, Gahcho Kué in 2030, and Ekati at some point in the 2030s, depending on its plan to mine underwater.
Critical minerals, meanwhile, are seen as a rising star in the territory’s economic armoury.
Minerals like zinc, cobalt, bismuth, copper and rare earth elements – all currently or likely to soon be mined in the territory – are on the national critical minerals list, meaning they’re considered vital to Canada’s future economy and would preferably be mined here rather than imported from elsewhere.
But NWT industry minister Caroline Wawzonek made clear at a Wednesday news conference that the territory is not attempting to bill critical minerals as a like-for-like replacement for diamond mining.
“That’s not the goal,” Wawzonek said.
“The good news in the mineral resource industry right now, in the Northwest Territories, is the breadth and the variety of opportunities that we have.”
Wawzonek pointed to gold exploration happening outside Yellowknife and similar projects in Tłı̨chǫ communities as examples of other types of resource extraction she considers important to the territory’s economic future. She added that two of the three existing diamond mines are still exploring for more opportunities that could prolong their lives.
“It’s not only about the critical minerals that we have to offer. We can’t access them without the infrastructure,” said Premier Caroline Cochrane at the same news conference. She is seeking investment that she argues will build the infrastructure needed to support more mining while supporting economic development through construction.
“There is not going to be a magic-button replacement for the diamond mines,” Wawzonek said, adding there “doesn’t need to be if we can advance all these things.”
The 2022 federal budget promised significant contributions to develop the critical mineral industry, including $3.8 billion to enhance exploration and a critical mineral growth fund intended to attract private investment.
The federal government has listed 31 minerals and metals that it believes will position Canada as a leading supplier in the critical mineral boom. Twenty-three of these can be found in the Northwest Territories, in deposits considered strong enough to merit exploration.
The first in a wave of new NWT critical minerals projects, Nechalacho, entered production just over a year ago. It is also the first rare earths mine in Canada.
Most recently, the GNWT agreed to sell Mactung, a tungsten deposit in the Mackenzie Mountains, to a private company for a fee that could rise to $15 million if a mine is built.
Wawzonek said she can see no reason why a mine won’t now enter operation at Mactung, calling it “one of the highest-grade and largest deposits of tungsten, outside of China, in the world.”
Social and environmental leadership
The conference, billed as the largest mineral industry networking event in the world, attracts some 2,000 investors to meet with governments, companies and organizations.
The NWT spent PDAC telling prospective investors the territory is the place to invest in socially and environmentally responsible mining.
“Investors and shareholders as well as the public are demanding stronger ESG returns and better corporate citizens,” Wawzonek said on Wednesday, using a common industry term for environmental, social and governance approaches.
The territory says its own version of ESG is “ESG-I,” adding an I to represent “an Indigenous lens.”
Wawzonek said the NWT used to be known for an “overly complex” or “burdensome” regulatory system, but she believes investors are changing the way they view the territory’s policies.
“Our regulatory regime is very unique. There are things that can make it appear difficult from the outside, because people may be less familiar with it when they first come to the North,” the minister said.
“When you come through that at the other end, you have a project that demonstrates ESG principles already, so you don’t have to come do a secondary assessment of that.”