Timmins was a company town founded in 1912 around the Porcupine gold camp, home to Goldcorp’s Dome and Hoyle Pond underground mines and the Hollinger open pit located in the centre of town.
Hollinger is slated to close in 2019. The plan is to flood the pit to form a lake that will be turned over to the city for use as a recreational area. Meanwhile, 107-year-old Dome, which was supposed to close last year, recently got an indefinite but dwindling lifeline because of improved gold prices.
For five generations, men — and the crew is still overwhelmingly men — have been operating the old-fashioned way at the Dome underground mine.
At the end of every shift, crew members connect the ends of electrical wiring hanging from a box on the rock wall, readying an explosive that is detonated once everyone underground is accounted for at the surface and before the next shift starts.
Employees on the next shift dig out the broken rock using scooper trucks, then transfer the ore to carts on underground rail tracks. Others use handheld jackleg drills to prime the rock for the next blast.
“You don’t see a lot of that any more,” said mine general manager Marc Lauzier.
As Dome’s labour force ages alongside the mine, one of Lauzier’s biggest challenges is finding employees with skills that might be considered outdated at another operation.
“That type of mining is becoming, for lack of a better word, dinosaur mining,” he said.
Raised in Timmins, Lauzier looks laid back in plaid and work boots; he is used to being the centre of attention in a town where his profile is as high as the mayor he meets on a weekly basis.
“If you had of asked me when I was younger, I never would have thought I’d be one of the most recognizable people in this town,” he said.
In the old days, he adds, the mine manager was also the mayor. “Man, am I glad that’s not the case.”
Lauzier is pained when he thinks he could potentially be Dome’s last mine manager.
In a town where one mining job creates five spinoff jobs, he said, everyone is affected by the impending sense that the end of an era looms.
“Mining’s the only game in town really, and people know that,” Lauzier said. “We all grew up here and everybody knows if we don’t find something new, then we’re getting close to the end and we certainly don’t want that.”
Talk of the future has a brighter tone at Goldcorp’s newest Canadian operation, the Éléonore mine in northern Quebec, a two-hour flight northeast of Timmins.
Discovered at the turn of the 21st century, this fly-in site in the middle of the James Bay muskeg is an operation that could not have even been imagined a century ago. Éléonore’s operation is built on a starkly different vision of a mining community.
Workers fly in on Air Creebec, a partner company owned by the company’s First Nations neighbours, to the remote camp’s airport and work two weeks of 12-hour shifts before flying home. They spend a total of five months a year at this home away from home.
Éléonore mine general manager Guy Belleau is proud that the site has become “a community of its own,” since he took the operational reins in 2009, overseeing its transformation from clearing trees to picking out furniture for the residences to the mine’s first production in 2014.
Last Christmas, the company flew in the spouses of employees working over the holidays. The company also provides perks such as appearances from comedians, satellite TV in the hotel-like rooms and a round-the-clock buffet that puts the Mandarin to shame.
The perks are all part of the company’s efforts to attract and retain the best employees, even if it means being apart from their families for half of each month.
The workers may not have the kind of institutional knowledge inherent at an older mining camp such as Porcupine, but the crews are more representative of the community the industry hopes to build. The men are younger and there are more women and indigenous employees.
“At the interview 30-40 years ago, you would pick the biggest guy, but today it doesn’t matter, you pick the best brain,” Belleau said.
The most glaring contrast at Éléonore, however, is the level of technology involved in every aspect of the operation, including underground Wi-Fi and RFID technology to track workers and equipment, and an on-demand ventilation system that operates only when workers enter a specific area.
“That allows us to improve safety, efficiency, productivity and cost,” Belleau said. “This is the mine of the future.”
In the above-ground control room, a scoop operator sits in a remote control chair and operates a joystick with one hand, manoeuvring the truck underground. On the screen, he drops rocks down a chute as if it were an arcade game.
Automation might be an experiment currently limited to just a handful of remote operators per shift at Éléonore, but it also represents the beginning of a technological revolution that could disrupt the more dangerous and dirtier traditions of resource extraction.
Belleau is so inspired by automation’s potential, he believes miners one day soon will be operating equipment from offices in the south. When that day comes, he feels his work will be done and he can comfortably pass the torch.
Automation will improve the industry’s environmental footprint by reducing the number of on-site people so that 200 years after the end of a mine’s life, “no one would know it was there,” Belleau said.
It could even help solve one of the industry’s most pressing challenges: attracting a new, diverse generation of talent. In the future, it might be possible for a woman to drop her son off at daycare, then start her shift as an equipment operator from a teleremote chair 1,000 kilometres away from the mine.
Mining is one of the industries ripest for automation. A 2015 McKinsey & Co. study suggests 63 per cent of resource extraction work currently done by humans has the potential to be taken over by machines — the second-highest percentage of any industry.
But even though robots could replace some of the most hands-on jobs, humans can step into offsite mining-related jobs spun off from a mine’s development, Belleau believes.
Instead of a mining-dependent town built around Éléonore, the site’s spillover effects are dispersed among communities hundreds of kilometers away: some provide ancillary services such as laundry or catering, while others indirectly benefit from the workers spending their average salaries of $89,000 at home.
Such economic dispersal, Belleau said, helps communities absorb the impact of the industry’s notorious boom-and-bust cycles.
“When the mining is gone,” he said, “you’re not going to see a town dying beside us.”