I entered the Metro Toronto Convention Centre’s front entrance not really knowing what to expect.
I started my work with the Artisanal Gold Council in mid-January 2023 and was told that we would have a booth at PDAC 2023, referred to as “the largest mining conference in the world that welcomes 30,000 people a year.”
For reference, I grew up in the North Okanagan town of Vernon British Columbia, a small city of about 30,000 people. I couldn’t really fathom a city of Vernon’s size coming to Toronto for a conference, nor could I picture a venue big enough to manage this volume.
What I did know is that this convention was really being billed, internally at least, as the “stepping up” of the Artisanal Gold Council’s presence in the mining industry.
Formed in 2008, the organization internally referred to as “AGC” has been supporting Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Miners all over the world for nearly fifteen years. The focus of AGC has always been on environmental improvements (mercury reduction) and increased socioeconomic performance for the communities that mine gold to reduce their poverty.
Since joining the organization in January, I’ve been constantly trying to catch up. There are several mountains worth of reports, technical knowledge, international agreements and declarations, and history that I needed to absorb and internalize so that I didn’t sound like a complete neophyte when I stood in a room with 30,000 other people whom all know significantly more than I did.
I wanted to avoid, as much as possible looking, like a novice tennis player going up against Serena Williams.
I have planned and organized conference appearances before for various non-profit organizations, but none with the stakes that this one had. Our whole team, from our executive director to our national project managers was going to be at the PDAC meeting with high-level government, mining, and international NGO officials. We were making a huge push to take 15 years of work and start cheerleading with it.
I had heard that in previous years our booth was relatively well attended, but that many visited with what could reasonably be called a passing interest. We rarely experienced significant engagement from large-scale mining operators or governments.
This year couldn’t have been more different.
From day one, we had representatives from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mongolia, Colombia, Mauritania, Guyana, Peru, Brazil, and many more countries visit our booth and talk to us about how we can cooperate to help regulate, formalize, and professionalize the ASGM sector in their countries.
What was even more encouraging was the number of large-scale miners who came to our booth to engage on how they could develop a co-existence or collaboration model with ASGM miners that were mining on or near their operations. They weren’t looking to push them off or move them to subsistence agricultural practices (and away from the small-scale gold mining as many have done for decades). These large-scale miners were eager to learn about how they can, utilizing Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) metrics as guiding principles, develop models that are mutually beneficial for the small and large-scale miners. Although this approach has been discussed in the past, it seemed a tipping point had occurred, and this caught many of us off guard.
In a good way!
For three days, barely 15 minutes went by when we didn’t have four or more people from different organizations, companies, or countries engage with us on the future of mining, ASGM, and socioeconomic performance. The engagement was beyond encouraging; we felt like our message was being heartily adopted and incorporated.
It was exciting and as we left, exhausted and with feet sore from standing and walking for three full days, we were lifted by what really felt like a sea change and the exciting potential for the future of our industry.
AGC Goes to Ottawa
Joined by Deputy Executive Director Roger Tissot and Project Manager for South America and the Caribbean Tegan Holmes, we hopped on the Via Rail from Toronto to Ottawa to introduce, and reintroduce, ourselves to MPs and government officials in the nation’s capital.
The train ride was fantastic with amazing views of Southern Ontario.
We were beyond grateful that over two days we were able to pack in so many meetings.
We first met with MP and Conservative Party Shadow Minister of International Development Garnett Genuis. MP Genuis was first elected in 2015 in the riding of Sherwood Park – Fort Saskatchewan in the province of Alberta. As the Shadow Minister for International Development, MP Genuis has been very engaged in Human Rights and democratic advocacy. We spoke with MP Genuis about the importance of the ASGM sector for communities in the developing world and the rural poor, as it represents one of the greatest opportunities to transfer wealth from the rich to the poor and support greater economic freedom. It certainly played a similar role in Canadian history.
We shared with MP Genuis our specific concerns about the Sahel region (a biogeographic region of Africa that stretches from the Atlantic to the Red Sea and includes Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia). We explained to MP Genuis that formalizing and professionalizing ASGM in this area represents a significant opportunity to support areas of conflict in Africa where opportunities for economic advancement are scarce and people can find themselves having to engage in conflicting activities for economic empowerment.
MP Genuis was engaged, and thoughtful asked good questions and encouraged us to stay in touch with him in the event this issue comes to the foreign affairs and international development committee, at which point we might want to consider speaking at the committee so our expertise can be provided to parliament. We committed to MP Genuis that we would stay in touch and follow up should the opportunity arise.
We also met with MP and Conservative Party Shadow Minister for Status of Women and Gender Equity Karen Vecchio. An MP since 2015 from Elgin – Middlesex – London in Ontario, MP Vecchio was a small business owner and a political staffer before coming elected.
Our meeting with MP Vecchio was equally exciting, as she showed a great deal of curiosity and excitement about our work, especially discussing the differing roles women take in ASGM in different countries. She was impressed with the work we have been doing and the attention we are drawing to how ASGM professionalization can be empowering for women and can provide security and safety for their communities. She was equally encouraged when we discussed our social enterprise model that develops on-the-ground expertise, which remains after we have completed our project, ensuring that the development of this sector outlasts our project work. Developing entrepreneurs and small businesses, supporting the economic opportunities that artisanal and small-scale gold offered communities, and how areas of conflict can be supported through our work.
We deeply appreciated the enthusiasm of both MP Genuis and Vecchio, both of whom went over our 30-minute meeting time to learn more and get more informed about our work.
In addition, we met for just under 15 minutes with the parliamentary staff of MP and NDP Critic for Women and Gender Equity Leah Gazan. Staff apologized for MP Gazan not being available, as she was otherwise engaged in another meeting. We shared our work with MP Gazan’s staff, and they listened intently to what we had to share. Staff asked about our gender workshops and work supporting women miners. We were grateful for the time that MP Gazan’s staff were able to give to us and their interest in our work.
Apart from MPs, we met with senior government officials in various ministerial offices: Minister of Innovation, Science, Industry Honourable Franois-Philippe Champagne, Minister of the Environment Honourable Steven Guilbeault, Global Affairs Canada, and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, Infrastructure, and Community Honourable Dominic LeBlanc.
Staff were very interested in our work, its Canadian origins (both in terms of Canadian history and also that we are a Canadian institution) and in helping us connect our work to key priorities of the Canadian government (we highlighted key linkages and themes being the environment, gender, and security issues). Staff asked thoughtful, relevant questions and in some cases offered support to help us connect with other staff and ministers. We also discussed the federal budget process and how organizations submit items for consideration to the federal budget.
These meetings were extremely helpful in letting us see that the federal government takes the issues of ASGM mining in developing countries as integral to protecting the environment, supporting communities in developing countries, helping women gain economic independence, and turning an eye to the issue of national and global security. We were encouraged by the indications of follow-up and the desire to continue building on our relationships.
All in all, our trip to Ottawa was a huge success. What we took away was that all parties understand the importance of our work being grounded in reducing environmental contamination, supporting human health, and building socioeconomic prosperity in the developing world.
We plan to journey back to Ottawa in the fall and look forward to future conversations with MPs and senior officials.