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Lakehead University’s mineral exploration research centre is up and running. President Brian Stevenson announced at an alumni breakfast at the Prospectors and Developers show in Toronto, March 4, that the Thunder Bay institution is staking its claim in the mining game in northwestern Ontario.
After a year of planning and laying the administrative groundwork, the Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Mining and Exploration is now officially open. The centre will be focused on mineral exploration, the environment, and First Nations engagement.
“The key word is sustainable,” said geology professor Peter Hollings, who was named the centre’s director. “It’s not just about mining and exploration, it’s about doing it in a manner with minimal impact.”
Intended to be a truly interdisciplinary institute, it will utilize all the available faculty expertise from across campus in engineering, natural resources management, chemistry, anthropology, First Nation studies, and other groups. “What excites me about this centre is that it goes beyond the geology department,” said Hollings.
There will be no direct employment hiring for the centre, but the majority of the university’s posted tenure positions for various departments have a distinct mining focus, said Hollings.
The university is also looking to fill a Canada Research chair’s position with a focus on gold, nickel, copper and platinum group elements.
What will separate Lakehead from other university-based mining centres is the whole concept of engagement with First Nation and Métis communities.
Hollings said the centre will tackle the challenges and hopes to bridge the information gap and misperceptions between First Nations and industry.
“Looking around at the people I have interested in working on this, I think we can actually make a difference. I’m optimistic.”
Hollings said they’ll stay out of the mineral extraction side of the industry.
“We’re not in competition with (Laurentian University in) Sudbury. We think our niche is something different. As a geology department, we’ve been more involved in the exploration side of things with the junior mining companies.”
Hollings said the intention of the centre is to produce culturally-aware geologists, mining engineers and other graduates, who when faced with the challenge of setting up an exploration drill program, can easily converse with Aboriginal communities and are familiar with the political structure.
On the flip side, they also want to provide First Nation folks with a better understanding of the mining industry.
“One of the challenges on all sides is that gulf in understanding between what the mining companies and the First Nations think is going to happen. Neither side fully appreciates the other’s point of view.”
According to Lakehead’s 2011-’12 Benchmark Report, self-declared Aboriginal students number 1,140.
“We want to become that honest broker between those two sides and bridge those gaps,” said Hollings.
Someday he hopes they can eventually showcase some highly-trained Aboriginal engineers, chemists and geologists as aspirational role models in First Nation communities.
The centre won’t function like a traditional mining school.
“We’re looking to solve research questions,” said Hollings. “We’re not planning to directly enroll people as an undergraduate degree. We’re going to have graduate students coming in who are working with researchers with centre-based goals, and the centre will be providing funding for those.”
The centre will be modeled after some highly successful mining institutes from Down Under such as the Centre of Exploration Targeting at the University of Western Australia, and the CODES Centre of Excellence in Ore Deposits at the University of Tasmania, where Hollings was a postdoctoral fellow.
“Both are very good models for how to do industry-funded research.
“We’ve got to go out and raise the money but we’re confident we can do that. I’m hoping we’ll see centre-focused graduate students coming in by September.”
One of the things the centre will do is organize cultural-awareness workshops and training sessions for mining and forestry companies about topics such as how band governance works, the protocol of who to talk to during First Nation consultation, and what an elder actually is.
“It’s about that sustainability aspect and making the development of the North acceptable to everyone,” said Hollings.
With final approval for the centre granted by the university senate in February, and input from the university’s Aboriginal governance council, Hollings said faculty can now get into the “fun stuff” in moving forward with research projects and “reaching to the people we want to work with.
“What’s exciting is the administration is firmly behind this. That sends a strong message to the mining community that we’re serious about making a difference.”
In terms of getting industry buy-in, future endowments and contributions, Hollings said they are talking to all of the major mining players in Thunder Bay and to successful alumni for financial support and guidance.
“We’re starting slow with small projects. They may be supporting honour students in the geology department or some are supporting master’s research. It’s all about building relationships.”
Hollings expects no immediate government funding announcements, but it was expected that Northern Development and Mines Minister and Thunder Bay-Superior North MPP Michael Gravelle would attend the breakfast.
He said one of the next steps is the creation of a board of directors.
“We’re looking for some high-profile individuals who can come in and give us that credibility.”