Doug Ford unveils strategy for 'critical minerals,' worth $3.5B to Ontario economy

Premier Doug Ford unveiled plans Thursday for Ontario to capitalize on the growing global demand for minerals that are crucial to such technologies as electric vehicle batteries, smartphones and laptops.

EV batteries, smartphones and laptops drive growing demand for nickel, cobalt, lithium, platinum

With Russia and China currently the source of much of the world's critical minerals needed for new technologies, the Ontario government is aiming to position the province as a key supplier. (Adam Lach/Sandvik)

Premier Doug Ford unveiled plans Thursday for Ontario to capitalize on the growing global demand for minerals that are crucial to technologies such as electric vehicle batteries, smartphones and laptops.

The government provided CBC News with an advance copy of its "critical minerals" strategy, publicly released by Ford Thursday morning at a mine north of Thunder Bay. 

Critical minerals — including nickel, cobalt, lithium, and platinum — are already a $3.5 billion-a-year industry in Ontario. They're classed as critical because of their essential role in the production of specialized technologies. Their supply is also typically at higher risk than the rest of the mining sector because of geopolitics and market demand.

China, Russia and the Democratic Republic of Congo are currently among the biggest global sources of various critical minerals. Russia's war in Ukraine and the sanctions slapped on the country's economy, make Ontario's announcement particularly timely. 

The Ford government wants to position Ontario as a reliable supplier of critical minerals and calls its 53-page strategy "a comprehensive, five-year roadmap" to do that. 

"Global conflict has exacerbated these supply vulnerabilities and Ontario must step up to meet the soaring demand for critical minerals," said Greg Rickford, the Minister of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry, in his introduction to the document. 

Premier Doug Ford, right, along with Minister of Northern Development Greg Rickford, unveiled Ontario's critical minerals strategy Thursday morning at a mine north of Thunder Bay. (Erik White/CBC )

The strategy lays out six areas of action for the government, including providing new financial incentives for critical minerals exploration, investing in research and development and "improving" the province's mining regulations. 

Ford and Rickford announced $29 million in new government funding devoted to the strategy, mostly earmarked to support junior exploration companies and creating a critical minerals innovation fund. 

"This is an extraordinary opportunity and no question, a challenge," Rickford said in an interview Wednesday. "We believe that Ontario serves up the best supply chain the world over, from what's in the earth to what is powering automobiles in the future." 

The critical minerals strategy is linked to the Ford government's recently launched auto sector strategy, dubbed Driving Prosperity. That plan envisions auto makers in Ontario to be building 400,000 electric and hybrid vehicles annually by 2030, powered by batteries made in the province, using minerals extracted and processed in Ontario. 

Top-level U.S. trade officials are interested in Ontario's ability to supply and process critical minerals, Rickford said. 

He and Ford met last week with European Union representatives and discussed what Rickford called "a strategic alliance" on supplying critical minerals for the automotive sector, national defence and technology. 

The expected boom in the electric vehicle industry, and the need for batteries to power them, is driving the growing demand for such critical minerals as nickel and lithium. (Sam Nar/CBC)

The province's $10.7 billion mining industry is not just an economic driver in northern Ontario. Toronto's TSX and TSXV exchanges are home to more than 40 per cent of the world's publicly traded mining companies. There are also mineral processing or refining operations in such places as Brampton, Ottawa, and Port Hope. 

"Ontario's vast mineral wealth in the north is perfectly complemented by a world-class manufacturing sector in the south," said Rickford in the strategy document.

"We believe we have an incredible opportunity to connect and vertically integrate our northern and southern economies to build a made-in-Ontario supply chain for innovative technologies like electric vehicles and battery storage," he added. 

Regulatory changes promised in the document aim to "reduce burden and realize cost savings for the mineral development sector" and "reduce the time an application takes in government processing." 

Asked about the environmental concerns over mining expansion, Rickford countered with the potential environmental benefits.

"Without mining there is no such thing as a green economy, he said. "Without those critical minerals, you will not be able to drive a clean, green automobile of the future." 

This map shows the locations of early exploration projects currently underway in Ontario for critical minerals. It appears in the provincial government's new strategy document for the sector. (Government of Ontario)

While much of Ontario's supply of critical minerals lies in areas being actively mined, some of it is in the currently less accessible Ring of Fire, some 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay. The provincial government is in the midst of environmental assessments for building all-weather roads to the area. 

Some northern Ontario First Nations are actively supportive of mining in the Ring of Fire, while others have declared a moratorium on mining development in their traditional territory and have launched court challenges against the provincial government. 

The Ontario Mining Association is welcoming the government's push on critical minerals. 

Political stability, the rule of law and the province's clean electricity supply all give Ontario an advantage in attracting mining businesses over many other jurisdictions where critical minerals are found, said Chris Hodgson, president of the association.     

"The world needs what we've got," said Hodgson in an interview Wednesday.

"As you move to electrification instead of fossil fuels, you need these critical minerals," he said. "Ontario produces those products with less carbon input than any other place in the world, primarily because our grid's pretty well carbon free."


Mike Crawley

Senior reporter

Mike Crawley covers provincial affairs in Ontario for CBC News. He began his career as a newspaper reporter in B.C., filed stories from 19 countries in Africa as a freelance journalist, then joined the CBC in 2005. Mike was born and raised in Saint John, N.B.