Mining the Northwest: Thunder Bay stakes its claim as a mining supply hub

Mining the Northwest: Thunder Bay stakes its claim as a mining supply hub

Labour and skill gaps, suitable land availability are challenges listed in city’s latest mining readiness strategy

Thunder Bay is out to build its brand as a mining supply hub.

Four years after tabling its first Mining Readiness Strategy, the Thunder Bay Community Economic Development Commission (CEDC) revealed the findings from an updated version last month, informed by a survey of industry stakeholders last year.

Northwestern Ontario has always been a precious and base minerals grocery store to the world. Much of the activity surrounding that sector has always flowed, many times sight unseen, through Thunder Bay.

Following the crash of the region’s forestry economy in the mid-2000s, local industrial suppliers and service companies retooled and transferred their skill-set over to the mining and exploration companies.

Seeing the opportunity to diversify the local economy, the CEDC jumped on the bandwagon in opening lines of communication between procurement managers at the mines and the Thunder Bay business community. 

Today, the CEDC remains intent on maximizing and expanding those spinoff benefits by promoting local and Indigenous vendors with the launch of a new mining service and supply directory, listing more than 400 companies along with targeted marketing campaigns, like Join the Boom, promoting Thunder Bay as a regional supply hub.

Jamie Taylor, the commission’s CEO, said her staff has done plenty of outreach and networking to encourage industrial suppliers in Sudbury, Timmins and beyond to consider opening a branch shop in northwestern Ontario.

If a conveyor belt tears at a mining operation, the CEDC gladly points out it’ll take less time to order and hustle a replacement up to the site from a fabricator in Thunder Bay than it is to knit a new one in Sudbury. 

“We’re really trying to stress that,” said Taylor. “A lot of companies need servicing or maintenance quickly. If you’re based out of Thunder Bay, versus being based out of Sudbury, you can do that.

“That’s a really important thing to highlight because it comes down to the response time that a company is able to provide to the mines itself.”

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While some things in the new strategy have changed since 2020, others remain the same.

Sourcing skilled labour remains a chronic issue as is a shortage of temporary and permanent homes in the city, making it challenging for companies to attract that workforce.

What’s changed over four years is the lack of available land in Thunder Bay to place expanding homegrown companies and place incoming firms arriving from outside the region.

Northwestern Ontario has a booming exploration scene and there are number of advanced projects in the mine development pipeline. The pace of activity shows no sign of slowing down.

Taylor said they’re keeping tabs on some major projects on the horizon, such as Kinross Gold’s Great Bear project outside Red Lake and Generation Mining’s palladium-copper project north of Marathon. 

That translates to future construction and mining jobs, not to mention a wide spectrum of support jobs.

Based on industry feedback, the CEDC forecasts a dramatic increase in jobs beginning in 2026 and topping out at more than 7,000 jobs across the region in 2027 and 2028.

It’ll be a challenge to fill those jobs, but Taylor expects reinforcements will come by ramping up Indigenous training opportunities to tap into the growing First Nation population and reaching out to newcomers to Canada through the new federal Northern and Rural Immigration program.

Taylor said they’re already in discussions with the mining companies to identify future job opportunities and arrange an attractions campaign to target immigrants.

And there’s always a certain segment of transient skilled workers in the mining industry that, Taylor hopes, will put down permanent roots in Thunder Bay.

On the housing side, Taylor said Thunder Bay recently pocketed more than $20 million through the federal housing accelerator fund. With plenty of housing plans and activity underway in the city, “hopefully, we’ll be in a good position in the coming years.”

Their survey findings revealed there are local gaps to be filled in Thunder Bay’s supply chain ecosystem, especially in electrical equipment supply and services, maintenance, bulk handling equipment, training, mobile mining equipment, and parts and components.

It’s at conferences and tradeshows like the annual PDAC mining show in Toronto where they showcase Thunder Bay and fill those gaps.

But to accommodate new companies, the CEDC has to overcome the challenge of limited land in the city.

On the map, Thunder Bay appears to have plenty of industrial and commercial lots available. But their actual readiness for development is another matter, said Taylor.

For example, Innova Park was established in the 2000s as a commercial and light industrial park to attract high-tech companies to the city. It’s a big parcel of land next to a major expressway, but there are criteria and constraints for what can go in there.

Some lots are not the right size for companies, don’t have the visibility, and are not approximate to highways and rail links.

For instance, Taylor said they’re struggling to find the right spot, at the right price for an expanding heavy equipment company.

Taylor said there’s more to be done to identify and bolster their land inventory by reaching out to the private sector to gauge interest in selling or leasing properties.

The city’s waterfront brownfield sites have attracted interest from the lithium players in northwestern Ontario. Two former forestry mill sites are sites selected by Avalon Advanced Materials and Green Technology Metals, both aiming to establish lithium conversion refineries.

But much has to happen on the financing, design and permit approvals side before those plants come to fruition.

Taylor said the CEDC is conducting a labour market analysis on the workforce requirements to run those lithium plants. The study will be out in a few months.

No doubt, Taylor said, Thunder Bay wants to benefit from value-added manufacturing to boost the local economy and cement the city’s place in the electrical vehicle supply chain.

“I strongly believe that’s the role Thunder Bay can play in the processing piece.”

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