Demand for lithium expected to put a charge in Manitoba's beleaguered mining sector
Discovery of mineral used in batteries has drills turning around Snow Lake
It may not offset the hundreds of mining jobs that northern Manitoba is losing, but exploration companies are bullish on the potential for lithium.
One of the hubs of activity for a mineral vital in the world's drive to electrification is around Snow Lake, 200 kilometres east of Flin Flon.
"If we get three or four mines going up there again, we could probably get 500 directly employed people," said geologist Dale Schultz, who is collaborating with a new mining company called Snow Lake Resources.
It's a lofty goal, but then lithium, used in batteries, is a hot commodity in the expected electrification of our society, including vehicles. And jurisdictions are taking notice: only months ago the B.C. government promised it would take steps to ensure all new cars and trucks sold in the province are emission-free by 2040.
That means the resource will become more valuable as time goes on, Schultz says.
"That's the common wisdom right now."
Betting on lithium
In and around Snow Lake, drills are turning for lithium.
Snow Lake Resources has dibs on a 6.3-million-tonne resource estimate, while Far Resources is digging into an initial resource of 1.1 million tonnes.
The exploration comes amid a downturn in the province's mining industry.
The sector faced a body blow last year when Hudbay announced its intentions to pull up stakes in Flin Flon by 2021 due to a lack of ore in the ground. In another setback, Vale laid off 169 employees last year at its Thompson mine.
To save even some of those Hudbay positions, Snow Lake is being held up as a saving grace. The miner expects to transfer employees to the Stall mill, Lalor mine and a refurbished New Brit Gold mill, all near Snow Lake.
It will lessen the blow, but it won't save all 800 Hudbay jobs at risk in Flin Flon.
That's where further exploration may come into play.
In addition to the play for lithium, Rockcliff Metals, a Toronto-based miner, is after a gold deposit in the region.
Toby Mayo, president and CEO of Far Resources, says there's no denying the demand for lithium can lift the fortunes of Snow Lake.
"There's no reason why a huge number of additional discoveries can't be made that will really put Snow Lake on the map — again."
Hope during a downturn
Snow Lake has a storied mining history, but is subject to the whims of the industry's cyclical nature.
Mayor Peter Roberts acknowledges his northern community may be approaching a time when a stream of Flin Flon residents come to their community to work, instead of a flow of citizens travelling in the opposite direction.
He's encouraged by any sign of drilling, but said he cannot hang his hopes on firms which haven't started mining yet. In the meantime, he's hopeful that Hudbay, still exploring in the region, can strike riches.
"As long as there is exploration, there's always hope for a longer future," he said.
In Manitoba, senior mining companies intended to spend $41.3 million toward exploration in 2018, while junior miners invested $6.3 million toward the same task, according to Natural Resources Canada figures.
Ken Klyne, president of the Manitoba Prospectors and Developers Association, said provincial exploration can rise again by simplifying the permitting process and reducing the need for onerous consultations.
"It's a huge problem created and we're not going to turn it around overnight."