Address to convocation

by Dr. Albert Chislett


(Oct. 31, 1996, Gazette)

I remember looking for gold in 1989 for weeks on end without any luck. Then, on this particular day, I stopped and took some soil from the side of a small pond, and I panned it down -- and the bottom of the pan was full of gold. Can you imagine how I felt?

I remember reading a report written by ASARCO in the 1950s describing the presence of high grade zinc-gold-silver boulders in the Mary March River. I must have travelled that river at least 15 times, cracking open every dark brown, rusty boulder I saw, but I still couldn't find what I was looking for. One day I was crawling on the side of a riverbank, practically on my hands and knees, when suddenly I had an inspiration: I broke open one of white boulders on the side of the river and there it was: the high grade ore I had been looking for. Can you imagine how I felt?

I remember collecting lake bottom samples in the middle of winter, travelling over the open barrens on my Ski-Doo, moving from pond to pond, burrowing a hole in the middle of the ice, shooting a torpedo down to collect a mud sample to send to the lab for analysis.

All of these experiences are the experiences of a prospector. And if I had known then that these experiences would have contributed to my being here today, I think I would have enjoyed them even more. I want you to know that I am honored, deeply grateful, and I thank you.

Newfoundland and Labrador is made up of a large land mass and seas, with abundant resources: oil and gas, hydroelectric power, fisheries, minerals, forestry -- and unlimited potential. However, the most important resource in Newfoundland and Labrador today is its people. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have survived here for 500 years because of their character, their determination, their willingness to work hard and their ability to survive in the face of adversity. The character of our ancestors is deeply rooted in all of us.

I remember my own journey to Halifax and Toronto in 1969. When I arrived in Toronto, I found a job as an accountant with Swift Premium. I also had two other jobs: I worked at a gas station and with a transport company, loading and unloading trucks. At the same time, I was studying business administration at Ryerson. And I had friends and cousins and uncles, all Newfoundlanders, who were doing similar things: who were doing whatever it took for them to survive. That is the character of the Newfoundland people.

I returned to Newfoundland in 1974 and started my own construction company. Then, in the late 1980s, I formed a mineral exploration company known as Vinland Resources. Vinland went on to make numerous gold and base metal discoveries and made deals with other mining companies from all over the world. As I was doing this, my future partner, Chris Verbiski, was pursuing his own career in exploration.

In 1993 we decided to become partners and we formed a company known as Archean Resources. Soon after, we made a deal with Diamond Fields Resources to manage a summer sampling program in Labrador in 1993, where we would search for diamonds and base and precious metals. We arrived in Labrador in July 1993, and we started surveying an area of 25,000 square kilometres. We collected 560 bulk river samples and we prospected hundreds of rusty gossan zones, as well as all known government showings.

Towards the end of the season, Chris and I were working south of Nain. One day, after a hard day's work, we were heading back to Nain, looking forward to a hot meal, when we noticed another rusty zone to the side of the helicopter. We marked it on our maps and two days later, we returned to that rusty zone and landed on the hill. We started breaking rock. The outside layer of rock was extremely weathered with no minerals left in it. So we kept working until we got down to fresh bedrock. When we did, we found a lot of copper and sulphides. This is what everyone is talking about today, the ore at Voisey's Bay.

I quickly started to pace out the zone. I walked across the zone: it was 40 metres. I walked down the zone: it was 400 metres. And all this time, Chris was calculating how many tonnes we had on his calculator. We figured there were 18 million tonnes of about two per cent copper. Now that's an ore body. This is the dream of every prospector. All of those years of training had come down to this moment.

There must have been hundreds of planes and helicopters that have flown over that outcrop on their way from Nain to Goose Bay, from Goose Bay to Nain, and northward. During the past 40 years of exploration in Labrador, there must have been dozens of mining companies that passed over this outcrop. And who knows how many may have actually landed on the outcrop and missed what we saw.

In February 1994 we staked the ground and notified Diamond Fields as to what we thought we had. We then started to prepare a ground geophysics and four-hole drill program for the 1994 season. In October 1994 we hit 33 metres of world-class nickel and copper with the second drill hole. We contacted Diamond Fields, who issued a press release, and the excitement spread from St. John's to Vancouver to Bangkok. Companies from all over the world started to take notice.

I remember receiving a visit from Watt, Griffiths and McQuat, a Toronto-based firm that specializes in managing large exploration projects. They wanted to manage the Voisey's Bay deposit. We said, "No." We said, "We're going to manage Voisey's Bay ourselves." And there were people within government who felt that Chris and I didn't have enough expertise to manage such a large exploration program. We insisted that we did.

Negotiations started with Diamond Fields on a management agreement in January 1995. Simultaneously we began moving equipment and drills to establish a camp in northern Labrador. We hired 20 to 30 Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. By the time we had completed negotiations on the management agreement, we had drilled off $10 billion worth of ore, so there was no cause for complaint by anyone. Mining companies from all over the world came to visit the site and marvelled at the amount of wealth our staff had drilled off in such a short period of time.

Today, we have 185 people on our staff, all Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. And Archean awarded millions of dollars worth of contracts to Newfoundland and Labrador companies and suppliers. Together, we proved to the world that Newfoundland and Labrador has what it takes to manage a project of the scale and magnitude of Voisey's Bay.

Yet, despite our resources and our many success stories, we are facing a major dilemma in this province today: the out-migration of our most important resource, our people. We talk about the giveaway at Churchill Falls, yet each year we give away thousands of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to other parts of Canada and the world, often our brightest and most educated. People leave this province by the thousands each year because they can't find work, because they can't find jobs that will let them use their skills and talents. In a province that is as rich with resources as Newfoundland and Labrador, this is unacceptable. It has got to stop.

Recently, I had a conversation with an employee from Voisey's Bay Nickel Company/Inco. I said to him, "There's a rumor that when the smelter and refinery are being designed and built, Newfoundland content is going to drop from 100 per cent to 20 per cent. In other words, 80 per cent of the work will be done by companies from outside the province. You know, in a few weeks time I'm going to be addressing the graduates of Memorial University at their convocation. What do I tell them? Do I tell them that they're not capable of designing and building the smelter and refineries at Voisey's Bay? Do I tell them that only people from outside the province are capable of that?" And he looked at me and he couldn't answer the question.

Shortly after that, I got an opportunity to meet the top managers responsible for designing and building the Hibernia platform. There were six of them, all from Norway. To my amazement they were all very young, in their 30s. I told them the story of Voisey's Bay and how Newfoundlanders had delineated billions of dollars worth of ore in such a short period of time. They couldn't believe what they were hearing. And I could see by the expression on their faces that they were thinking, "What in the hell are we doing here if you are so capable of managing resources projects yourselves?"

Newfoundlanders and Labradorians can no longer let people from outside this province control and manage and develop our resources. We have to start believing that we are perfectly capable of doing it ourselves. If we can build the skyscrapers of New York and Boston, surely we can build and manage smelters and refineries in this province.

As I said before, Newfoundland and Labrador's most important resource is its people. Right now, Voisey's Bay is its greatest hope. When you start your work search and go looking for a management job or an engineering job or an office job with the Voisey's Bay project, don't ask for that job. Demand that job. It is your right. We can do it better than anyone else. The 185 people at Archean Resources are proof of that.

We sit here today with some important new tools: a high powered university education. With these tools, we have the responsibility of leading Newfoundland and Labrador into the 21st century. We need to start believing that we can build our careers and our dreams right here in this province. So let's go out together and use our education and our resources and our Newfoundland character -- our ingenuity, our savvy, our inward strength and determination -- to transform Newfoundland and Labrador into the proud, prosperous place it has the potential to be. Thank you.