Manitoba

Flin Flon must change 'who we are' to survive without mining, mayor says

A northern Manitoba city historically linked with mining must reimagine what Flin Flon will look like, after its mining operation shutters in three years.

Northern Manitoba city strives to redefine itself as a service hub to the region

Hundreds of jobs at Hudbay's Flin Flon mining and milling operation are at risk now that the company has formally announced its intentions to pull up stakes by 2021 due to a lack of ore. (Hudbay Minerals)

A northern Manitoba city historically linked with mining must reimagine what it will look like, once its mining operation is shuttered in three years.

Flin Flon Mayor Cal Huntley insisted his city, founded in the 1920s to exploit the mineral resources beneath the ground, won't be aimless as it looks beyond the business that defined it.

"To a certain degree, we've already started to change who we are," he said Thursday. "We're not solely a mining community. We're extremely well known for our arts. We're heavily engaged in the tourism industry.

"Flin Flon is going to maintain its image, but part of its image will be to support industry and mining in the North, and that will continue. We're very supportive of that."

This week, 800 Hudbay workers learned the mining company did not strike a new deposit to replace the 777 mine, which is nearing the end of its lifespan because it is running out of ore.

The employees also found out the company would close its mill and most likely cease operations at its zinc plant, all in Flin Flon, 630 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, by 2021.

Job losses unavoidable

The closures will inevitably cost people their jobs, although the company intends to transfer an unknown number of employees to the Stall mill, Lalor mine and a refurbished New Brit Gold mill, which it owns near Snow Lake, more than 200 kilometres east of Flin Flon.

Huntley declined to estimate the number of job losses, but said it will be a big blow to the city. 

"Between redundancies, retirements, displacement of contractors and actually dealing with our own people, hopefully that will mitigate, to some degree, the ultimate job loss," he said.

The population of the city of 5,200 would likely slump. People who retain mining work may move to Snow Lake, while retirees may flee the community altogether, he said. The company said more than 300 people are soon eligible for retirement. 

Operations at Hudbay's zinc plant in Flin Flon are also set to wind down by 2021. (Hudbay Minerals)

The scenario doesn't come as a surprise to residents, since there is only so much ore to unearth, Huntley said.

Still, residents are disappointed a replacement to the 777 mine wasn't found in time, and the lifespan of the zinc refinery is unlikely to last longer than 2021, if at all.

"Obviously, there's some upset and concern in the community," he said. "We were just hopeful that this wouldn't be the ultimate scenario. Unfortunately it is, so we need to move past that."

We're optimistic that Flin Flon is going to maintain its identity and its presence within the province of Manitoba- Flin Flon Mayor  Cal Huntley

That process began a number of years ago with the formation of a regional economic development committee, and a vision of Flin Flon as a service centre with a skilled workforce that can continue to work in the mining sector. 

The city must diversify, Huntley said.

Mining city branching out

"We have some interesting things that may or may not happen, but you have to approach 10 [ideas] to get one," said Huntley, who wouldn't elaborate how his city intends to do that. "We're optimistic that Flin Flon is going to maintain its identity and its presence within the province of Manitoba.

"But there's no doubt we're going to go through some difficult times."

To prepare for the transition, Hudbay instituted a three-pillar plan to mitigate the loss to employees and neighbouring communities.

The strategy focuses on ramping up production at the Lalor mine and Stall mill, which has happened. But the third pillar — maintaining operation of the zinc plant — does not seem feasible, the company said in an internal memo.

Huntley said he spoke with Blaine Pedersen, minister of growth, enterprise and trade, who agreed there must be a push to find untapped minerals in the ground.

Hudbay alone spent $19 million on exploration this year, but that isn't enough, Huntley said.

Flin Flon's mayor, who has worked for Hudbay for 40 years, said exploration decreased in recent years due to a lengthy permit process and troubles with consultations.

Mining has been there for 90 years and Flin Flon's going to be there for another 100 years- Flin Flon Mayor  Cal Huntley

"They need to make very clear the permitting process so that people aren't waiting for a year or two years to go in," he said. "The smaller groups don't have the luxury to wait around for that. They'll go to places where that opportunity is there."

Huntley said he's asked the province for access to the mineral reserve fund to help the community move on from mining.

Area MLA Tom Lindsey, who represents the New Democrats, said the government has a role to play immediately.

"One would have to hope that the government has actually been talking to the mining companies, talking to the communities, helping them prepare for a future with maybe a smaller mine, encouraging other people to do exploration."

Huntley has no doubt some company will find deposits, but it will take years to get any new mines up and running, even if they strike a new resource tomorrow, he said.

The rich terrain has produced some 30 mines in the last century, and he's convinced it will again.

"Mining has been there for 90 years and Flin Flon's going to be there for another 100 years," Huntley said. "Exactly what that will look like, that's what we have to determine."

About the Author

Ian Froese

Reporter

Ian Froese is a reporter with CBC Manitoba. He has previously worked for newspapers in Brandon and Steinbach. Story idea? Email: ian.froese@cbc.ca.

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