Growing up on the shores of Lake Ontario, a world away from the province’s mining heartland, Bob Middleton could never have imagined the long and winding path that lay before him. Honoured in December at the Ontario Prospectors Association’s (OPA) annual geoscience symposium, Middleton looks back with pride to a 40-year career in the mineral exploration industry, but at the same time, looks ahead with more than a little concern.
Having devoted most of his life to developing Ontario’s mineral wealth, Middleton is "horrified" by the provincial government’s recently announced intention to turn half of the province’s Far North into parkland. The recipient of the OPA’s Ontario Prospector Award is happy to reminisce about the past, but he keeps coming back to the future.
Two themes meander through those 40 years: the role of exploration technology and geoscience surveys, and the importance of land use planning that takes into consideration the wealth generated by the province’s mineral resources.
Middleton’s entry into the mining industry was a fluke.
"I became friends with two young lads from Northern Ontario in my Scout troop," he recalled. "Their father had died and their mother moved to Burlington. After high school, they applied to the Haileybury School of Mines, so I joined them."
At the time, the Haileybury School of Mines had an arrangement with Michigan Tech that gave students a year’s credit toward a Bachelor’s degree. "It made economic sense because tuition was only $250 a year," said Middleton.
He completed a BSc in Geophysics in 1968, earned a Master’s degree a year later and was immediately snapped up by the Ontario Department of Mines, where he started the Ontario gravity program and worked on the development of satellite imaging.
>Representing Ontario on a Canadian government committee studying the potential use of satellite technology, Middleton and his colleagues had access to CF100 jets in North Bay and American U2 spy planes to simulate photography from outer space. "I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but as I look back, I realize that I was on the cutting edge of satellite imaging technology."
>Middleton also worked on the development of airborne technology to assist in the discovery of gravel reserves during his stint with the government. Wealthy property owners north of Toronto had lobbied to shut down the gravel pits in the region and there was a desperate need to find new reserves.
>"Toronto needed it because everything was going to come to a halt if you didn’t have gravel to make cement. The library at the University of Toronto is a solid cement building. Then there’s the CN Tower and the 401 Highway. People wanted to stop gravel mining because the odd gravel truck threw up a stone that broke the windshield on someone’s Cadillac. It was a huge conflict.
>"I was dispatched to find a method to map gravel, so we could do land use planning," said Middleton. "That resulted in the discovery of airborne resistivity. I knew that gravel could be mapped with resistivity on the ground, but it was the first time it had ever been done from the air. It ended up being used all over the world."
>The gravel controversy and the subject of land use planning bring him back to the current debate over the government’s plan to set aside 225,000 square kilometres in an interconnected network of conservation lands encompassing more than half of the province’s Far North.
>"You can’t just start turning the province into a park," complained Middleton. "You have to select the areas that have economic potential because, otherwise, the population of Ontario loses."
>He is also reminded of Texasgulf’s discovery of the Kidd Creek copper-zinc deposit, which triggered a change in the Mining Act in 1966. "Everything went to lease, not to patent anymore because they didn’t want the land tied up privately where no one would have access to it to explore. There was a big hullabaloo because the banks wanted certainty of ownership."
Once again, land use planning and mining-friendly legislation contributed to the development of an orebody that is still creating jobs and wealth 40 years later.
"In the Far North, you just can’t withdraw all the Greenstone belts because you’re withdrawing half the potential of the province. That area is as big as France. It’s huge."
The provincial government, he complained, is blindly pursuing green votes and being influenced by lobbyists pursuing a green agenda.
"I was horrified because there’s no one sitting down and thinking out the consequences. You would basically be killing mining exploration in Ontario because there would be no certainty that you could go in to explore and develop a mine."
People living in Toronto and other urban centres in Ontario don’t have a clue about the contribution mining has made to the development of the province’s economy, said Middleton.
The government "has to get going this coming summer to gather up the drill core from all of the camps and start putting together the geological maps in the Far North. That’s what needs to be done. They also have to do airborne geophysics. If they’re going to withdraw land, they better start putting up the money to assess it."
>Middleton’s contributions to developing Ontario’s mineral wealth are not insignificant. In 1979, he led the Rosario Resources team that discovered the Bell Creek Mine in Timmins and, 1982, he played a role in drilling the discovery hole at the Goliath Mine in Hemlo. He is also credited with discovering the Cross Lake zinc deposit near Timmins in 1997 and conducted exploration in the Nipigon Plate that led to the discovery of the Seagull PGE deposits.
>He worked for a series of mining companies from 1974 to 1983, operated his own geophysics and geological consulting company in Timmins between 1983 and 1990 and moved to Thunder Bay in 1998.
>Middleton took over East West Resource Corporation in 1992 and currently serves as the company’s consulting geophysicist.
>"I used to be president of five different mining companies, but I slowly extricated myself out of all the directorship roles so I could focus on the geology," he said. "There’s so much paperwork in public companies and I don’t have the interest or the patience for that now.
>"Over the years, I have raised millions of dollars from England, Vancouver and the U.S. for exploration in Ontario. That’s why I’m so concerned about what’s happening with this Far North initiative. It makes me look stupid. We spend millions of dollars in Ontario and they’re going to shut it down? I was in disbelief when I heard that. I thought they were pulling my leg."
>Middleton is concerned that if the Far North initiative goes ahead, mining exploration in the province will be severely impacted and mining companies will focus instead on other jurisdictions. The worst thing to do during an economic downturn is to cut off the incentive to invest."
>If new resources aren’t found to replace mined out ore reserves, the province also runs the risk of seeing smelters mothballed, he warns.