For as long as she has lived in New Ross, Nova Scotia, Ruth Veinotte has seen different prospectors come and go.
What they seek has changed through time, says the woman who has lived in the Lunenburg County community for 67 years. From manganese, which was exploited until the 1930s, the region later drew exploration for tin, uranium and other minerals.
Veinotte looks across the rural landscape that has drawn such interest as she finishes refuelling her pickup truck on the community’s quiet main road.
It was no surprise to her, she says, that a company purchased claims covering nearly 114,000 hectares of land in and around New Ross in 2022. An informal network of neighbours spread the word: “They’re looking for lithium!”
That company, Montreal-based Brunswick Exploration, is among the corporations and individuals that have generated a strong increase in the sale of mineral claims in Nova Scotia in 2022.
Purchasing a claim is among the first steps in the process toward creating a mine. They are ministerial authorizations giving companies exclusive rights to explore of a piece of land — regardless of who owns it — after gaining permission.
According to publicly available data from the Nova Scotia government, the province sold 27,000 claims last year, which is a jump from the past five years. Claims cover specific geographic area and up to 80 can be included in each exploration licence.
Of these 27,000 claims, at least half are held by companies looking for lithium.
The biggest buyers are two companies which acquired nearly 7,000 claims each.
Brunswick Exploration is simultaneously conducting several exploration projects in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick, in addition to Nova Scotia. Australia-based Continental Lithium also bought licences, but another Australian company, Manhattan Corporation Ltd., is conducting its exploration.
Lithium is among the 31 minerals that Canada lists as critical because they are essential ingredients in making carbon-neutral technologies, such as electric car batteries.
According to data from the World Economic Forum, by 2021, Australia, Chile and China together produced 90 per cent of the world’s lithium.
But because of growing demand, exploration for these minerals is increasing across North America, says John MacNeil, registrar of mineral and petroleum titles for the Nova Scotia Department of Natural and Renewable Resources.
“Certain parts of the country have these minerals; it has been known for quite some time,” MacNeil says. And the province is no exception.
“The potential is very high, due to Nova Scotia’s diverse geological endowment.”
‘A very exciting time for the whole industry’
Paul Smith, Manhattan Corporation’s general manager, agrees.
A retired geologist and former gold prospector in Nova Scotia, Smith has recently started working with this company.
In February, Manhattan announced its intention to buy the Chebogue Lithium Project, which will involve work over 1,200 square kilometres of land that begins in the Annapolis valley and stretches along the South Shore.
“You’ve heard of the gold rush. But literally, this is a lithium rush,” he says.
For that project, Smith also bought additional licences, beating other companies to the punch.
“If it would have been a week later when I staked the ground, I would have been talking a different story. We wouldn’t have been there,” Smith says.
Prospecting will resume this summer. But a mine won’t appear there anytime soon.
Once exploration work proves the potential of a property, it would likely take a decade to move to the mining stage because of a heavy regulatory process, Smith says.
For the moment, he’s optimistic.
“I think we made a very good choice by staking the ground in southern Nova Scotia. If anybody has the right ground to make a discovery in Nova Scotia, it’s us,” Smith says.
Brunswick Exploration declined to be interviewed. “Nova Scotia will not be a major component of our work in 2023,” a manager wrote in an email to CBC.
In late 2022, Brunswick reported on its website that crews had discovered several promising prospects in central Nova Scotia. The company said it plans to conduct further prospecting in the first half of 2023.
First mine in 3 years?
Another project that is further along in the process may come on stream sooner.
Champlain Mineral Ventures has owned exploration permits since 1997 at Brazil Lake, some 20 kilometres northeast of Yarmouth.
The presence of lithium there is already well known and attracted the interest of a Chinese company in 2016. That deal fell through, but interest soon returned. In April 2022, Champlain was swamped with calls and emails after it released an update on the potential of the Brazil Lake Project.
“Other companies from Europe, Asia, Australia, Canada and the U.S. have been phoning me up, wanting to make a deal on acquiring this property,” says John Wightman, president and CEO of Champlain.
A contract has finally been concluded with an Australian company to further explore the property. Wightman says he hopes deposits might start being exploited in three years time.
MiningWatch Canada calls for more transparency
It’s unclear how the uptick in mining claims might affect people living nearby.
A number of environmental groups and municipal councillors declined interviews, saying they didn’t know enough about what is going on in the area.
Rodrigue Turgeon, a lawyer and the national program co-lead at MiningWatch Canada, says this is a cause for concern.
“Markets are pushing exploration companies to quickly and massively acquire claims, but this is done in silence, in total opacity. Once people learn about it, they face people who are there for their own interests,” he says.
Turgeon, who is responsible for Quebec and the Maritimes at MiningWatch Canada, is calling on Nova Scotia to change its laws in order to consult local populations and to include them in decision processes before claims are sold.
“Being consulted and being part of the solution is a desire from the population. When precedence to the mining industry is granted, it’s like coming to tell people, ‘Forget all the dreams you had for the future of the place you cherish. We arrive with a project that involves multinationals,’ and local people are left out of this planning,” he says.
Veinotte hopes land owners know their rights.
“In rural areas like this, a lot of the people are older or maybe don’t have a high education level or exposure outside the community…. I’ve tried to educate myself to know what I have to allow and what I don’t have to allow, but I would say the majority of people have no idea.”