‘The Thompson Project’ of 1961: Heart of the city – (Thompson Citizen Editorial – April 20, 2011)

This article was originally published in the Thompson Citizen which was established in June 1960. The Citizen covers the City of Thompson and Nickel Belt Region of Northern Manitoba. The city has a population of about 13,500 residents while the regional population is more than 40,000.  news@thompsoncitizen.net

“Vale may have bought Inco but the resource is ours. They have no right to treat our
community and our province this way. … Since the 1950s, we’ve had an integrated
operation. Read the 1956 agreement – it talks about setting up a mining, milling, smelting
and refining operation. This was part of the social contract that set up this community.”
(Thompson, Manitoba MLA Steve Ashton)

Two days after Vale announced last November they were closing their Thompson smelter and nickel refinery in 2015, wiping out 500 jobs and $65 million in payroll directly, Thompson NDP MLA and cabinet minister Steve Ashton’s regular “MLA Report” column appeared in the Nickel Belt News. Normally, Ashton’s column is week-after-week pretty tame fare and likely to offend – well, no one. This column was different.

Because of our deadlines, the column actually arrived two days before publication and just hours after Vale made the announcement in Toronto. We picked up a few paragraphs from it for a day one news story online, characterizing it as “blistering.”

“Vale’s announcement that they are eliminating the surface operation here in Thompson is unacceptable,” Ashton wrote. “Since the 1950’s Thompson has had a fully integrated mining operation. The development of the refinery and smelter were integral parts of the 1956 agreement that established Thompson.

“In good times and in bad times our community and our province have always been there to work with Inco, now Vale. In the process we have developed one of the best mining, smelting and refining operations in the world.

Thompson RefineryWhile the first home was built on Poplar Crescent in the fall of 1958 and the 32-bed Thompson Hospital opened in October 1960, it wasn’t until March 25, 1961 Manitoba Progressive Conservative Premier Duff Roblin “cut the nickel ribbon to officially open the town” of 3,800 residents.”Vale’s announced shut down of the surface operations in Thompson came without any discussion about solutions with key stakeholders or the provincial government. I have never seen a more arrogant and insensitive move.”

Ashton went onto write, “Vale may have bought Inco but the resource is ours. They have no right to treat our community and our province this way.”

Two days later on Nov. 21, 2010, at a public forum in the Letkemann Theatre, Ashton was still fuming: “To describe this as the week from hell for Thompson is an understatement,” began Steve Ashton. “… [t]he way Vale has treated this community is not acceptable, ripping the refinery and the smelting out of Thompson is not acceptable, and we are going to fight back.

“This decision goes against everything this community is all about,” he continued. “Since the 1950s, we’ve had an integrated operation. Read the 1956 agreement – it talks about setting up a mining, milling, smelting and refining operation. This was part of the social contract that set up this community.”

Thompson Smelter”The establishment of this new, major industry is another step in the developing economic might of the nation,” said Manitoba Progressive Conservative Premier Duff Roblin standing at the Inco refinery and smelter site here March 25, 1961. “Indeed, through its products it will contribute to the advancement of the free world. With the need to create new international markets to sustain our economic growth, the export of a finished product –electrolytic nickel – has important ramifications.”Here’s the thing. Ashton was absolutely right. Forget for a minute talk of mining exploration possibilities with the 1-D Project and Pipe-Kipper Project. Maybe they come to fruition in a few years, maybe not. Let’s hope they do. But the smelter and refinery is the heart of the matter; everything else is window dressing and consolation prizes, which is why Ashton and Dave Chomiak Manitoba’s innovation, energy and mining minister, talk a lot about “value-added jobs.”

There were several key dates in Thompson’s early history: Borehole 11962 – the so-called “Discovery Hole” at Cook Lake, a diamond drill exploration hole – was collared Feb. 5, 1956 and assayed positive for nickel. There’s also the Dec. 3, 1956 signing of the founding 33-page typewritten double-spaced agreement creating Thompson between the Province of Manitoba’s F.C. Bell, minister of mines and natural resources, and International Nickel Company of Canada Limited’s Ralph Parker, vice-president and general manager, and secretary William F. Kennedy. And there was Manitoba Liberal-Progressive Premier Douglas Campbell driving the last spike in the Canadian National Railway (CNR) 30-mile branch line from Sipiwesk to Thompson Oct. 20, 1957.

Thompson, originally a townsite within the newly-created 975-square-mile Local Government District (LGD) of Mystery Lake, within the Dauphin Judicial District, from 1956 to 1966, became a town on Jan. 3, 1967 and a city just 3½ years later on July 7, 1970.

But the key date in Thompson’s history? That would be March 25, 1961, when Progressive Conservative Premier Duff Roblin “cut the nickel ribbon to officially open the town” of 3,800 residents Nickel Belt News founding publisher and owner Grant Wright wrote a few days later on March 29, 1961 in only the second edition of our sister paper.

The Nickel Belt News came into existence on March 24, 1961 – one day before Roblin and a who’s who of government and mining crème de la crèmes – opened the $185-million smelter and refinery, the world’s first fully integrated nickel operation and second in size in the “free world” only to Inco’s Sudbury operations. Coincidence? Hardly. Without the smelter and refinery and its 1,800 employees on that long ago day in 1961, there would likely never have been a Nickel Belt News – ditto for a lot of other businesses that would arrive in Thompson in the years to follow.

“The establishment of this new, major industry is another step in the developing economic might of the nation,” said Roblin standing at the Inco refinery and smelter site here March 25, 1961. “Indeed, through its products it will contribute to the advancement of the free world. With the need to create new international markets to sustain our economic growth, the export of a finished product –electrolytic nickel – has important ramifications.”

When Steve Ashton said, “Vale may have bought Inco but the resource is ours,” he was articulating an important but unfortunately not always self-evident truth to some.

Vale’s Thompson operations, landholdings or mining rights, consist of 2,947 order-in-council (OIC) leases, mineral leases and mining claims “negotiated as part of an agreement entered into in 1956 between Vale Inco and the Province of Manitoba covering the development of the Thompson nickel deposits.” All of those leases will expire by 2024 and in 2004 and 2008 filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Inco and then Vale noted, “A mining claim does not, however, entitle the holder to extract minerals from the land covered by the claim. In order to extract minerals from the land covered by a mining claim, the holder must obtain a mineral lease from the Province of Manitoba.”

The next time Tito Martins, president and chief executive officer of Vale Canada and executive director of base metals for the Brazilian international parent company says there isn’t a business case for keeping the Thompson refinery and smelter open past 2015, Thompsonites should have a two-word reply: Voisey’s Bay.

When Inco bought the Voisey’s Bay property in 1996 in northern Labrador for $4.3 billion it promised to build a smelter in Newfoundland to process the ore, but later tried to back away from the commitment. Former Liberal premiers Brian Tobin, Beaton Tulk and Roger Grimes, along with former Progressive Conservative Premier Danny Williams, however, stood their ground, and as a result Vale is building $2.8 billion- state-of-the-art processing facilities in Long Harbour in southeast Newfoundland on Placentia Bay. It is scheduled for completion in the first quarter of 2013.

The Long Harbour plant is Vale’s first processing facility in Canada located on tidewater. It will process nickel concentrate produced at Voisey’s Bay, which has been processed in Thompson, the company says

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