Canada’s Northwest Territories is positioned to capitalize on the coming critical minerals supply crunch, says the territory’s Industry, Tourism and Investment minister Caroline Wawzonek.
The territory, perhaps best known for its initial gold rush of the 1800s and subsequent rich diamond-bearing kimberlite discoveries, is once again welcoming mineral explorers and miners with renewed vigour, Wawzonek told The Northern Miner in late January.
“We’re welcoming everybody to the table. A lot of what is at the advanced stages now are projects explored and staked 20, 30, 40, and even 50 years ago. I was just talking with some folks doing some lithium work now, and they’re on a claim that was staked 30 years ago,” the minister says.
“It’s only now that the markets, the demand and the technology are such that they can actually go and explore it. So, what I think is great for us is that timing is coming together.”
She said the territory was excited about the progress Australia-based Vital Metals (ASX: V.M.L.; US-OTC: VTMXF) has made at its demonstration mining-stage Nechalacho rare earths deposit. As the territory prepares for an influx of exploration interest, the minister urges a change to the prevailing narrative about the North being far away and expensive. That was a story 20 years ago.
The minister suggests that thinking ignores the realities of the industry, where there is now more attention being paid to critical minerals and metals, for instance, and a lot more innovation for exploration and new technology available for extraction.
“For example, artificial intelligence is being utilized now on old claims to reanalyze the data and make new hits, often for new mineral resources that weren’t what was being looked for originally,” the minister says.
“There’s this whole new opposite set of opportunities that are erupting. And it’s making what might have been 25 years ago, an expensive project or prospect into something now marketable.”
Couple that with the modern resource industry’s high ESG standards and respect for Indigenous rights, which Wawzonek underlines are the way business is conducted in the North, “and we think we’re in a really exciting place to be taking advantage of all of this.”
Since the territory’s devolution in 2014, responsibility for lands and natural resources was transferred from the federal government to the territory.
However, up until the present, the old federal mineral rules remain in use. For this reason, the N.W.T. government started in 2017 with its own process to arrive at its own ‘Made in the North Act.’
It will be comprehensive and cover online map staking, impact benefit agreements, mineral tenure, among other points. The critical piece to this is that the new regulations have been developed in collaboration with Indigenous governments in the N.W.T.
“It’s an entirely new way of approaching governance. We expect to start drafting the legislation this spring and have a final written product by the end of the summer. And then some final formal consultation processes occur before we hopefully have a brand new piece of legislation fully enacted and enabled by 2024,” the minister says.
While permitting delays has been a thorn in many Canada-focused project proponent’s sides for quite a while, Wawzonek cannot confirm whether the new rules would speed up the process, save to say, “it will certainly provide more clarity.”
According to the minister, more regulatory clarity leads to more stakeholder opportunities. “To the extent that it’s providing clarity and certainty, frankly, they will help speed things up because everyone knows the playbook they’re operating from,” Wawzonek says.
On the ground, the government is actively working to connect explorers with local communities fostering effective communications. It has teams available to assist companies in navigating the regulatory process, from claims staking, and permitting to project development.
Wawzonek adds the N.W.T. Geological Survey has been benefitting from annually expanding budgets, and the federal government, as part of the Critical Minerals Strategy commitments, is talking about increasing spending to support geological information.
The province also offers a mining incentive program, providing some funding for exploration activities. “And we’ve continued to increase associated budgets over the last few years. We also have new monies coming in that we’re providing to Indigenous governments for capacity building,” the minister says.
Wawzonek stressed that the N.W.T. Indigenous folks are modern treaty holders who want to be part of what’s happening.
Meanwhile, shrinking the vast expanses of the North will require substantial infrastructure investment. “We do always look to the federal government to remind them of what an economic engine the North is, which is why they, too, need to be looking at how to provide strategic infrastructure and spending in the North in a way that is of a nation-building mindset,” says Wawzonek. “And not just helping our government, but really thinking of it as a national opportunity.”