The story of the Sisson Mine development starts dramatically. As it unfolds it includes promises of riches and jobs, the backstory of a longstanding myth, demonstrations of government incompetence and lax regulatory oversight, and fierce resistance by Indigenous and settler community allies. The story ending is not yet complete but promises to be spectacular: a possible shakedown by mining corporations for hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars.
In the beginning: promises, promises
The tungsten-molybdenum goliath, better known as the Sisson Brook Open-Pit Mine, burst onto the New Brunswick scene in 2008. In that year, Geodex Minerals tabled a detailed proposal for a massive open-pit mine at Sisson Brook on the headwaters of the Upper Nashwaak Watershed, 100 km northwest of Fredericton. Rights to the Sisson Property were subsequently sold to Northcliff Resources in 2010.
Geodex Minerals and Northcliff Resources are exploratory mining companies. For 12 years and counting, the Sisson proposal has monopolized the energy and resources of the province of New Brunswick. Over that time, successive governments have displayed not only a lack of economic understanding, but also a lack of appreciation of the murky world of mining exploration.
From the start, it was apparent that much maneuvering had gone on behind the scenes. Geodex suddenly emerged with extensive but incomplete environmental studies. Their economic pre-feasibility study appeared to show that in light of a once-in-a-lifetime spike in metal prices, an open-pit molybdenum and tungsten mine at Sisson Brook could be marginally profitable for at least a short time.
Geodex promised that, with enough tungsten, thinly distributed in a massive deposit of Paleozoic rock, one of the largest deposits of tungsten in the world lay waiting for New Brunswickers to start digging and piling on a scale that would be visible from space. If all went smoothly, and if all the obstacles evaporated, New Brunswick could one-day be a prime mover and shaker in the rare metals market for years to come. The Geodex promises included 800 jobs during two years of construction, accompanied by $569 million in investment flowing through the New Brunswick economy. Their study also forecast 300 to 500 long-term mining jobs for 27 years as the crowning enticement for government buy-in.
However, the devil was in the details, and no provincial or federal government department had either the will or expertise to critically examine the Geodex proposal. Quite the opposite: mining engineers in the province’s Department of Natural Resources and Energy embraced the concept enthusiastically; the province had not had a significant successful mine startup in many years.
The backstory: the myth of a mine that will save New Brunswick
What can explain the lack of critical analysis of the Sisson Mine proposal? The answer is in a longstanding myth that a major mine could save the New Brunswick economy. The myth can be traced historically to the early days of the Frank McKenna government, which governed New Brunswick from 1987 to 1997. Video essayist Charles Thériault has maintained in his documentary “Who Wrote the Roadmap to NB’s Future” (1), that the idea of a large mine as an economic engine for central and rural New Brunswick originated with McKenna’s economic adviser Francis McGuire, who is now the president of ACOA, the federal government’s Atlantic regional development agency.
As the story goes, in the mid 1980s, lending agencies convinced McKenna and McGuire that the province should have three primary urban hubs, Fredericton, Saint John and Moncton, and the rest of the province should be more or less rural, with forestry and major mines in the central and northern highlands as the primary economic engines. While no mine ever materialized during McKenna’s tenure, McGuire’s vision was perpetuated through successive Liberal and Conservative governments leading up to the economic chaos of 2007-2008.
The perpetuation of the myth of a mine that would be an economic saviour was facilitated by a struggling forest industry, marked by shutdown after shutdown of major pulp mills and sawmills amidst a dwindling forest base. In 2003, during hearings before the province’s Select Committee on Wood Supply, the public soundly rejected a proposal for a large-scale increase in industrialization of the province’s Crown Forest that included concomitant decreases in forest conservation areas. The province was desperate for an economic savior. Enter Geodex.
The reality check: opposition to the Sisson Mine
Geodex and the government likely predicted an easy ride for their proposed Sisson mine through the waters of desperation of New Brunswickers, eager for a quick-fix to their economic woes. Buoyed by the Harper government’s relaxation of protections of freshwater, Geodex laid out a map showing their proposed mine and a mining waste storage facility burying pristine lakes within 500 metres of the much-cherished Nashwaak River. Other more expensive but less environmentally damaging options were possible, but the company chose the cheap route, thus exposing its lack of respect for the sensibilities of the public, whose support they had taken for granted. The company also sadly neglected to appreciate the spiritual depth of Indigenous ties to the affected land, water and wildlife.
The blowback to their Sisson mine proposal was immediate and intense. Indigenous governments immediately took the offensive, accusing the New Brunswick government of violating historical rights, and Peace and Friendship Treaties. They accused the provincial government of abusing lands for which joint management had been agreed without ceding away Indigenous title and ownership.
Around 2010, Wolastoqiyik grandmothers decided to protect their unceded territory in the Upper Nashwaak from the predations of the mining companies and the settler government. It took several years, and continued federal and provincial government abuse of the environmental assessment process for the Grandmother movement to fully crystalize but by 2015, Grandmothers had actively opposed shale gas exploration (see below) and were putting themselves on the line to protect the lands of the Upper Nashwaak.
Settler community organizations from up and down the Nashwaak Valley also took the offensive, documenting the government’s violation of their rights guaranteed under the Water Classification Regulation of the Clean Water Act. This regulation, and the government’s lack of enforcement of it constitute key parts of the Sisson Mine story.
The familiar story: lax regulatory oversight
The provincial government of 1999-2004, seeing the need to protect the relatively pristine waters of the province, had passed legislation empowering watersheds to supply the developmental vision and protections for their waters. Millions of dollars, and hundreds of hours of volunteer labour had gone into the scientific baseline studies to implement the legislation.
However, somewhere along the line, the government perceived that empowering the citizenry on this scale was a threat to the government’s power to implement its own industrial development agenda. For 15 years and counting, governmental foot dragging on implementation of the legislation has ensued. Lack of enforcement of water regulation allowed Geodex, and subsequent mine owner Northcliff Resources, the freedom to advance the mine proposal through all environmental regulatory assessments without ever having to show a true economic justification of the environmental damage their mine would cause.
During this time of lax regulatory enforcement, in 2010, large swaths of New Brunswick were opened to exploration by shale gas developers. The scale with which the government was proposing to industrialize the New Brunswick landscape, with 2.1 million hectares of land under mineral claims and oil and gas leases, dwarfed the currently developed tar sands devastation of Alberta (less than 0.5 million hectares). If reaction to the Sisson Mine was fierce, the reaction to shale gas was an order of magnitude greater, eventually in 2013 bringing the province to the brink of civil disturbance and questionable police reprisals. The ferocity of resistance to shale gas only heightened awareness of the need to protect water, and resistance to Sisson stiffened.
Also noteworthy with respect to shale gas, the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health (CMOH) issued a report (2) in 2012 on the protocols required to ensure that environmental and human health were safeguarded under industrial proposals, including developments other than shale gas. The CMOH report was considered another threat to the government’s agenda, and has since been systematically ignored.
Nashwaak settler communities took the initiative to challenge the government on Water Classification. The communities’ goal was to force the new proponent of Sisson, Northcliff Resources, to bring forth a business plan that would justify lowering the quality standards of the Nashwaak to accommodate the Sisson mine. What ensued next was a circus of government double-talk about the illegality and unenforceability of the water classification legislation. All the government foot dragging was eventually challenged in 2014 by the provincial Ombud (3), but like the citizenry, the Ombud was ignored, and the legislation remains unenforced to this day; no proponent of the Sisson Mine has ever had to face the citizenry of the Nashwaak with a business plan that objectively documents the costs versus benefits of their proposal.
Despite this lack of regulatory enforcement, coupled with a lack of economic viability, the province has approved the project’s Environmental Impact Assessment. The federal government has also given Environmental Assessment approval and amended the Metal and Diamond Mine Effluent Regulation of the Fisheries Act to allow Northcliff the freedom to destroy several important fish bearing streams in the Nashwaak watershed.
A likely ending: the shakedown
All of this turmoil and exertion of time, money and energy has been expended for the Sisson Mine, a project whose lack of feasibility was evident from the start. Over the years, that lack of feasibility has been further evidenced by metal prices that have plummeted from their inflated values of 2007-2008, and by Geodex stock that dropped from $0.30 at startup in 2008, to less than 1 cent a share in 2010 when Geodex sold its interest in the Sisson Mine to Northcliff Resources. Northcliff shares have similarly plummeted from $1.10 at startup to 7 cents per share currently.
The most emphatic proof of the inevitable financial futility of Sisson is provided by the Drakelands open-pit tungsten mine at Hemerdon, Plymouth, UK. Partially owned by Sisson shareholder Todd Minerals of New Zealand, and blessed with tungsten almost three times the richness of Sisson, the mine opened in 2014 and lost CDN$166 million in three years before closing in 2018 (4).
At this point in time, whether or not the provincial government still believes in the feasibility and wisdom of the Sisson mine is moot. Author Joan Kuyek, one of the founders of MiningWatch Canada has documented (5) how Hunter-Dickinson (HDI) the parent company of Northcliff Resources makes a profitable business out of unprofitable mine propositions, including a history of suing governments and opposition when the company does not get its way. The New Brunswick government has committed itself so deeply to the Sisson Mine project that any change of direction on the part of the government would likely trigger a lawsuit by Northcliff Resources for damages in the hundreds of millions of dollars for lost profits. When and if this happens, the Sisson Mine will transform from a myth that will save New Brunswick into a shakedown that will cost New Brunswick taxpayers dearly.
It would appear that the province is stuck with an albatross, and Indigenous and settler “protectors” of land, water and wildlife will be forced into eternal vigilance to ensure the same kind of lack of attention that allowed Geodex to get its foot in the door does not happen again. Meanwhile, the province’s water continues to be unprotected, and mine proposals continue to skate through EIA without economic scrutiny and without due process with respect to water protection and Indigenous rights.
Lawrence Wuest is an ecologist living in the Upper Nashwaak on unceded territory of the Wəlastəkwiyik, Mi’kmaq, and Peskotomuhkati.
(1) Thériault, Charles. 2018. Who wrote the Roadmap to NB’s Future?” https://vimeo.com/256837981
(2) Office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health. 2012. Chief Medical Officer of Health’s Recommendations Concerning Shale Gas Development in New Brunswick. Province of New Brunswick. Report to the NB Legislature. ISBN 978-1-55471-717-0 8935
(3) Office of the Ombudsman. 2014. Report of the Ombudsman into the Department of Environment’s Management of the Provincial Water Classification Program. Report by the provincial Ombud to the New Brunswick Legislature.
(4) Tetford, William. 2018. How Hemerdon mine lost £100m in just three years. Plymouth Herald. 12 Oct., 2018. https://www.plymouthherald.co.uk/news/business/how-hemerdon-mine-lost-100m-2099262
(5) Kuyek, Joan. 2018. Behind the Pebble Mine: Hunter Dickinson Inc. The Canadian Mining Company You’ve Never Heard Of. Report prepared for and published by MiningWatch Canada.