George Pirie, Ontario's new minister of Mines, comes from a Northern Ontario family that has been part of the Porcupine mining camp for more than 100 years.
Although Pirie is a newbie at Queen's Park as the newly elected MPP for Timmins, and a man with more than 35 years experience in the mining industry, he said he spent the past month learning the ropes of his ministry since his cabinet appointment on June 24.
"I guess the learning curve has been like drinking from a firehose," Pirie joked. "We'll get there."
Pirie was born and raised in South Porcupine. He grew up in a mining family where his dad was employed at the Dome gold mine for more than 47 years. Talk around the kitchen table was always about mining and things like whether enough skips had been hoisted to meet bonus for the miners.
Pirie said he remembered skating at the outdoor rink at the Dome property, which was close enough to the main shaft they could hear the hoist bringing the skips to surface.
"It would be all afternoon shift. That's when they hoisted the ore," Pirie recalled.
He is now believed to be Ontario's first-ever cabinet minister dedicated specifically to a standalone Ministry of Mines portfolio.
In an interview with Sudbury.Com on Tuesday, Pirie said he couldn't be certain, but said the last time Ontario might have had a dedicated mining ministry, it would have been related to the discovery of silver in Cobalt (1904) or gold in Kirkland Lake (1906) or gold in Porcupine and Timmins (1909).
Over the years, mining has always been attached in some way to other ministries such as Lands and Forests, Natural Resources, Northern Affairs and even Energy.
Records at Queen's Park show there was a Department of Lands and Mines in 1905, a Department of Lands and Forests and Mines in 1906 and then a Department of Mines, later in 1906. Ministers attached to the portfolio were often referred to as the minister of mines, despite it being a multi-faceted portfolio.
"From the time I was a kid, it was always the Ministry of Mines and something else," he said.
Pirie said he intends to raise the status of the mining portfolio.
"So I think the fact that it's a dedicated ministry, I think it speaks to how important mining is from the perspective that if we're going to be green, we've got to be mining," Pirie said.
He was referring to Ontario's critical minerals strategy which is focused on mining more deposits of nickel, lithium, cobalt and platinum, among other minerals, to support the new push toward battery electric vehicles and other environmentally supportive technology.
"You know, if we're going to be an economy that's driven by the batteries and electric vehicles, somebody's got to buy that. Somebody's got to mine the lithium. Somebody's got to mine the cobalt and the other critical minerals that are required to to produce these things," Pirie said.
Most recently, before running in the June 2 provincial election, Pirie was the mayor of Timmins. For several years before that he was a well-known and respected member of the Canadian and international mining industry.
After graduating from Laurentian University, Pirie's mining career began with Noranda's Pamour Porcupine Mines in Timmins. After that he joined Placer Dome Canada. Over the years, Pirie took on several senior positions which included chief financial officer with Placer Dome North America and Placer Dome Canada.
Pirie eventually became president and CEO of Placer Dome Canada, as well as Executive Vice-President of Placer Dome Inc., responsible for Canadian operations which included Red Lake, Timmins and Musselwhite.
Despite his corporate background, Pirie said he does not anticipate any conflict happening between his new role to look after the best interests of the province and his old status as a corporate mining executive.
"I think Canadians are the best miners in the world. I think we know how to mine and we know how to do it properly," Pirie said.
He said if he ever had to intervene as the minister of mines, that would be because somebody did something that was not right. "But I have all the confidence in the mining industry," Pirie added.
He also said he still remembers learning that not everyone appreciates mining.
"I'm old enough that I remember and being naive enough especially growing up in a mining mining community, I was raised in an environment that mining is good, mining is beneficial and as my career progressed, I found I was stunned to find out that we're not viewed that way."
Pirie said mining needs to do more to promote itself, especially as a "green" industry.
He said he also wants the mining industry in Ontario to move closer to meeting all the consultation and environmental requirements for developing the Ring of Fire mining prospect in the far north.
Pirie said more needs to be done to meet the needs of Indigenous communities and especially the young people in areas where mining can contribute to what he called "economic reconciliation".
Pirie said his hope now is to get all players, the Ontario government, the federal government and First Nations communities to have consultations to reach agreements in environmental terms and in economic terms to move the Ring of Fire ahead.
Len Gillis covers mining and health care for Sudbury.com.