center view of panelists speaking at 2022 PDAC in Toronto
After going virtual for the previous two years, the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) Convention, one of the mining industry’s largest annual conferences, returned in person this year, with thousands of executives, suppliers, investors and government officials attending the three-day event. Photo: Mehanaz Yakub

As the world moves toward electrification and electric vehicles, many discussions at PDAC, the annual international mining conference in Toronto, centred around Canada’s opportunity to leverage its unique resource base and policy environment to supply the critical minerals that will drive the revolution forward

After going virtual for the previous two years, the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) Convention, one of the mining industry’s largest annual conferences, returned in person this year, with thousands of executives, suppliers, investors and government officials attending the three-day event.

With stakeholders flooding to the conference from around the world, PDAC 2022 offered the first real in-person opportunity to marry the mining industry and the electric vehicle transition with Canada at the centre of the conversation. The key themes that emerged from the talks revolved around the country’s opportunity to accelerate the exploration of critical minerals and develop a sustainable and robust electric vehicle supply chain.

“As the world grapples with the existential threat that is climate change and strives to meet its net-zero commitments in a manner that enables prosperity and energy security, Canada has the opportunity to become an indispensable global player,” said Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson during a Canada Day session hosted by Invest in Canada.

“We have the good fortune here in Canada to have abundant critical mineral resources. In fact, we possess all 31 of the minerals listed on Canada’s critical minerals list and significant deposits of those minerals that will be in greatest demand.”

The Canadian government has already stated its commitment to developing the country’s critical minerals supply chain. To start, a $3.8-billion investment over eight years has been pledged. The money will go towards implementing a critical mineral strategy and launching a discussion paper and consultation period to inform the strategy — the latter of which Wilkinson kicked off at PDAC.

Wilkinson added at the conference that the government’s ultimate goal is to develop an end-to-end supply chain encompassing “upstream exploration and mining to midstream refining and processing to downstream manufacturing and recycling.”

“Given the number of deposits and the untapped mineral potential for key resources needed to produce lithium-ion batteries, not to mention our world-class manufacturing sector, Canada is extremely well-positioned to develop a globally competitive value chain,” said Wilkinson.

Seizing opportunity

At the conference, many executives from mineral companies with existing projects in Canada spoke about investing more in the right tools and mechanisms to meet the mineral demands for EV battery manufacturing.

“The challenge today is to recognize that while we are experiencing, probably, the greatest industrial revolutions since the railroad, we need to play catch up now,” said Philip Gross, CEO of Snow Lake Lithium during a discussion panel entitled: “The Minerals Powering the EV Battery Revolution.” 

“North America, with their 300,000 million cars, is in a race now to electrify them, the OEMs are [manufacturing] the cars, the gigafactories are being built and the things that are missing are the raw materials. Canada, with 100-plus years of mining legacy and understanding and expertise, is perfectly situated from a geographical perspective.” 

Lithium is one of the central components needed to make most electric vehicle batteries. But currently, there are no lithium mines in North America. For its part, Manitoba-based Snow Lake Lithium is aiming to start mining and producing lithium by 2025, at the latest.

“Our plan right now is that we are giving ourselves a 25-year mine life, we are conducting the metallurgy and we are getting the feasibilities out of the way and doing the environmental work and hopefully see ourselves through production,” said Gross. 

Deshnee Naidoo, executive vice-president of Base Metals Vale, also told the panel that Vale has been working on expanding its operations in Canada. The company already produces 50 per cent of Canada’s nickel at 100,000 tonnes a year and currently has 16 active projects that are at different stages of concept, pre-feasibility and execution. 

To maintain its level of nickel production, Vale is investing $3.5 billion to extend its Voisey Bay project in Newfoundland and Labrador by converting its single open-pit operation into two separate underground mine deposits. In Sudbury, Vale has recently completed an $835-million expansion project for the Copper Cliff South Mine, which will boost nickel production by bringing mine infrastructure closer to the ore body. Also in Sudbury, the company is considering deepening its Creighton mine.

In addition, Vale upped its investments in Manitoba by $200 million last year to keep existing operations running, while it just finished a pre-feasibility study for a nickel sulphate facility in Bécancour in Quebec, added Naidoo.

The Bécancour Industrial Park will also be home to two new cathode active material plants built by General Motors and Posco Chemicals, as well as Germany-based global chemical company BASF.

“So very simply put, I love the [Canadian] geography because the more you invest, the more you do get, and we are actively putting our money where our mouth is right now,” said Naidoo. 

Lessons from Quebec

While it is clear that Canada has the resources in the ground to become a leader in critical mineral extraction, the next step is to actually build the batteries for EVs in-country. Of all the provinces, Quebec is the furthest ahead in creating a complete supply chain and the rest of Canada could stand to benefit from looking at the province’s playbook.

“The way we did it in Quebec with the Ministry of Natural Resources is crafted a strong, focused and tailored mineral strategy. This strategy focuses on some precise element work [because] it’s really basic — we will not do everything, we do not have the capacity to do everything,” said Jean Francois Beland, vice-president of Investissement Quebec during a panel at PDAC called: “A Battery File Push to Net-Zero Industry, Call to Action!”

The province, said Beland, is exclusively focused on developing mining and cell manufacturing at its battery campus in Bécancour, while Investissement Quebec is working on the industrial policy and financing the growth and construction of the industry, through collaboration with companies, utilities and other government departments.

“The biggest challenge we have [in Canada] is shifting our attitude from resting on our laurels,” explained Merran Smith, founder and chief innovation officer at Clean Energy Canada, a climate and clean energy think tank within the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue at Simon Fraser University.

“When we are talking about standing up battery plants, we’ve got to come to the table with the passion and determination that we are going to land these here in Canada. That means getting our act together,” said Smith, in terms of showing off the services, community support, Indigenous partnerships, electrical capacity and portfolio of areas where these plants can be built.

Greater ESG responsibility

Canada is prioritizing environmental, social and governance (ESG) principles when extracting and developing minerals, giving it the competitive edge, said panelists during a discussion session entitled: “ESG in Canada’s DNA.” 

In 2004, the Mining Association of Canada launched a Towards Sustainable Mining (TSM) standard, a global sustainability initiative that supports mining companies in managing critical environmental and social risks. The standard has been adopted around the world in countries including Finland, Norway, Spain, Botswana, Philippines, Argentina, Brazil, Australia and Columbia.

“TSM has been a journey for us,” said Chantal Lavoie, Rio Tinto’s chief operating officer for the Iron Ore Company of Canada. “We make this commitment of net zero by 2050, reducing [emissions] by 50 per cent by 2030, so when people ask us, beyond this commitment, what are you actually doing as a producer…it is through TSM we can talk about how we can aspire to get there, what are the protocols, through what types of engagement with First Nations or other stakeholders, provincial and federal, and we can talk about a plan and show them that it’s a journey and it doesn’t happen overnight.”

The Mining Association of Canada’s CEO, Pierre Gratton, also spoke at the panel on how investors and consumers are now expecting greater ESG standards from mineral companies as well.

“What’s happening is what we call a responsible sourcing movement, where the customers, whether it’s Apple or BMW or Ford or GM know that those that use our products want to know that the products they are buying have been produced in a responsible way,” said Gratton.

“[There is] both the investor pressure and the customer pressure and the fact that the industry itself wants to attract good people today who want to work for a responsible company. Young people especially don’t want to work for a company that does not seem to be working towards net zero. So if you want to attract the best people who work in the industry, you’re going to want to demonstrate that you are committed to ESG.”