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Opinion: Ring of Fire on the horizon, but labour is needed

Consultant says incentives needed for skilled tradespeople to move where jobs need to be filled

The stars are finally aligning for the Ring of Fire to be developed. But one thing is still missing: labour.

Announced at the Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) Convention in June 2022, the U.S., Canada, the European Commission, and several other allies have established the Minerals Security Partnership to secure the supply of critical minerals needed to fuel the transition to net zero. Many of those minerals are found in the Ring of Fire.

The impetus for this international coordination may well have been Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the wide-reaching economic effects of sanctions against Russia, including shortages in the supply of natural gas to Europe. Governments around the world are waking up to the need to secure critical minerals from reliable, allied nations like Canada or risk Russia hoarding them next.

With pressure mounting on Canada to begin mining critical minerals in the Ring of Fire, it was a welcome move by Premier Doug Ford to not only make mining a standalone ministry, but to appoint a veteran of the industry to the helm. Mines Minister George Pirie successfully ran a Canadian mining company for many years with over a dozen operating mines across several countries. The former mayor of Timmins also has a special mandate to get the Ring of Fire developed. To do that, he won’t just need to get moving on road construction, he’s going to need innovative solutions for Ontario’s major shortage in skilled labourers.

In 2019, Ontario’s mining operations employed over 48,600 people full-time directly, indirectly, and through induced channels. This is projected to grow to approximately 52,000 jobs by 2025. But for the past three years, Ontario’s mining industry hasn’t been able to fill jobs, with more than two-thirds of mining companies reporting significant difficulty hiring skilled labour.

The mining industry is competing with Ontario’s manufacturing and construction industries for skilled labourers. And both those sectors aren’t getting the workers they need either. In Q4 of 2021, over 348,000 Ontario jobs remained vacant according to Statistics Canada. More than 20,000 were in construction and more than 30,000 in manufacturing.

The reality is, Canada has a lot of the skilled workers trained up and ready to meet the growing demands, they just aren’t in the right places. In 2019, more than 12,000 skilled workers lost their jobs in Alberta, but these workers were not connected to work opportunities in Ontario that matched their unique abilities. To build the Ring of Fire, we are going to need all those hands on-deck.

This kind of labour mobility – or super-commuting – is nothing new. Canada’s mining industry, in particular, is very familiar with the process of bringing in skilled labourers from another region for several weeks at a time on rotation. Super-commuting may not be for everyone, but our research shows that as many as 32 per cent of unemployed Canadians are willing to super-commute or move to another province for work.

Ultimately, to get people to super commute, the conditions must be right. They need housing and transportation, and to be able to see themselves as part of the community. To get the Ring of Fire built, we need to do more to incentivize Canadians to move within the country to fill labour shortages. In the meantime, organizations like Blue Branch are filling in the gaps, helping to match skilled workers to jobs where labour shortages prevent growth.

The federal government recently opened the consultation period on Canada’s critical minerals discussion paper, with the final strategy to be published in Fall 2022. Their critical minerals strategy also featured prominently in this year’s budget. The federal government also recognized the need to move skilled trades across regions, introducing a new labour mobility deduction for tradespersons and apprentices up to $4,000 a year in eligible travel and temporary relocation expenses.

As governments make historic investments into critical mineral development in Ontario, now is the time for innovative labour mobility solutions that match workers from Canadian regions experiencing high unemployment and underemployment to jobs in the areas with labour shortages.

The stars are aligning to get the Ring of Fire built. Now we just need the builders.

- Todd Clyde is the CEO of BlueBranch, a labour mobility organization that has partnered with the Government of Ontario.