From 1906 until early this morning, the process for staking a mineral-rights claim in Ontario was the same: Starting at the northeast corner of your intended parcel, drive a 10-centimetre-thick wooden stake into the ground, then trudge 400 metres south and do the same. Continue to move clockwise, heading west to drive the next stake, then north, then east again to complete the square. Record your co-ordinates and report your claim to the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines within 30 days. For the next two years, you enjoyed exclusive mineral rights to a 16-hectare piece of Ontario.
But at 12:01 a.m. on January 9, the old way of calling dibs on Ontario’s mineral deposits became history, as the province took the next step in a long-planned transition to digital claim-staking. After a brief moratorium on all claims, a new online portal will be up and running on April 10. Once it’s in place, anyone with a computer and knowledge of the rules will be able to register a claim by clicking on a digital map.
“Frankly, it’s the way to go. It’s bringing Ontario into the 21st century in land acquisition,” says Roy Denomme, modernization project lead for the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines. By establishing a digital system, he says, “Ontario is to some extent catching up to other jurisdictions,” including every other province except Manitoba.
Small-scale operators, though, worry that the new order will hurt them. They’re accustomed to occupying a niche spot in the industry, trekking out into the bush to stake claims that haven’t yet attracted the attention of larger companies.
“Their whole model is to put together a property package and sell it to a junior [mining] company to do the work on that package,” says Jessica Bjorkman, vice-president of the Northwestern Ontario Prospectors Association and a prospector herself.
Critics complain that whereas the traditional claim-staking method rewarded local expertise and sweat equity, the digital system will make it possible for someone sitting in a room in Toronto or Ottawa to sweep up large numbers of claims, or “cells” in the new parlance. Independent prospectors worry that the bigger players will simply use their computers and deeper pockets to amass large numbers of claims from afar, snatching them from under the noses of local companies in places like Thunder Bay.
Denomme argues that the change won’t simply benefit larger operations. “It puts everybody in the province on a level playing field … I can be sitting in Kirkland Lake as a small prospector, and I can stake a claim in the far north.”
Garry Clark, executive director of the Ontario Prospectors Association, says his organization’s 900 or so members are divided roughly into thirds: a third believe the switch to digital is a positive development, a third oppose it, and the remainder tell the association they will accept any system as long as it’s fair and straightforward. (The Prospectors Association’s members run the gamut from junior mining companies to “weekenders,” people who prospect as a sort of hobby. Ontario prospecting licences cost just $25.50 per year, and anyone over 18 can take the online course to qualify.)
Clark says the new system “does have some advantages” for prospectors. Without the requirement to physically stake a claim, his members will be able to reach parts of the province that had been cost-prohibitive because they could be reached only by renting a helicopter or float plane.
However, since prospectors will no longer have to expend resources to physically send people into the bush, the province will be increasing the registration fees. The government announced in 2008 that it planned to modernize the Mining Act, yet the updated cost of registering a claim still hasn’t been revealed. With the new system coming online in a few months, prospectors are frustrated that they still don’t know what they will have to pay per cell.
Denomme says “internal processes” have held up the finalization of fees for claim recording. While he declines to say when the rates will be announced, he promises the figures will be “competitive with other jurisdictions.”
Registering a mineral-rights claim is merely one early step in the process of developing mineral deposits. Prospectors choose parcels of land based on auspicious geological clues, in the hopes of gathering ore samples that suggest the presence of valuable minerals beneath the surface. In northwestern Ontario, prospectors have traditionally been on the hunt for deposits of gold, copper, nickel, lithium, and amethyst. More recently, Bjorkman says, demand has risen for palladium (used in catalytic converters and fuel cells) and cobalt (which is necessary for lithium-ion batteries).
Independent prospectors lack the resources to fully develop claims themselves, so they typically sell the rights to promising ones to junior mining companies (who in turn often sell them to even larger companies, and so on).
According to the Ontario Mining Association, one claim in a thousand shows enough promise to merit advanced exploration involving heavy equipment. Clark says one claim in 10,000 has a chance of becoming a mineralized zone (that is, an area with deposits that are worth evaluating for commercialization), and he reckons that just one claim in 100,000 will eventually evolve into a full-fledged mine. In other words, prospecting is a game of longshots. “We’re gamblers for sure,” he says.
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Clark and Bjorkman agree that the biggest advantage of the new system is that it has the potential to divert resources away from staking claims and toward meaningfully exploring and developing them. “It should be cheaper, slightly, to stake [ground] on the computer, and then you can use those [savings] to go out and do that exploration … to see if you found something worthwhile,” Clark says. “That’s the fullest, most optimistic way of looking at it.”
What impact the change will have on local jobs remains unclear. Clark, for instance, has traditionally hired people to head into the bush and stake claims for his company, Clark Exploration. In future, he expects he will just have them sit in his Thunder Bay offices and use computers for the same task. Time will tell which method produces more employment.
What is certain is that a romantic way of making a living is no more. Bjorkman says it is time to accept the digital future and move forward, but she will miss the competitive aspect of staking claims, which at times took on the atmosphere of a reality game show. “Say someone finds a really cool gold discovery or some new thing. All of a sudden, that area becomes hot, and everyone is in there staking it,” she says. “There are famous stories of staking rushes where crazy things happened. They’d hire track runners from the high-school track team, and helicopters, and just crazy stuff … Because the first one who runs around the claim gets that claim.
“It was the end of a really cool era where we were out with axes and out on the land. It was one of the toughest jobs.”
Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.
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