Opinion: Kinew deftly draws line in Manitoba’s shifting silica sands

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Opinion

At the start of the year, it seemed like Manitoba’s NDP government was destined to approve two major sand-mining operations. Six weeks later, one is approved and the other is, for all intents and purposes, dead.

What, you may ask, changed over the last six weeks?

Welcome to the constantly shifting world of Manitoba silica politics. A world that took some wild turns over the course of this week.


JURA MCILRAITH / THE CARILLON FILES The Sio Silica proposal is all but dead, a hard line Premier Wab Kinew drew in the sand.

JURA MCILRAITH / THE CARILLON FILES The Sio Silica proposal is all but dead, a hard line Premier Wab Kinew drew in the sand.

Premier Wab Kinew announced Friday that his government would not issue a licence for the Sio Silica mining project in southeastern Manitoba. The project, and its largely untested method of pumping high-quality silica sand from pockets beneath two critical aquifers, triggered both environmental and political controversies.

Kinew said Sio Silica was unable to prove that irreparable damage would not be done to the aquifers. As a result, there was no way forward to a licence, he added.

His declaration resonated positively with a small audience gathered in a community centre in Anola, a community in the Rural Municipality of Springfield east of Winnipeg that is ground zero in the region Sio Silica wanted to mine. Each time he said a license would not be issued, there was hearty applause from relieved activists and local residents in attendance.

However, Kinew also repeatedly noted the refusal to issue a license for Sio Silica does not mean the new NDP government was opposed to the mining of precious minerals such as silica. As evidence, Kinew pointed to another decision announced earlier in the week to license the Canadian Premium Sands mine on the Hollow Water First Nation.

Local residents still have some concerns about the CPS project, located 200 kilometres north on the eastern shores of Lake Winnipeg. However, as a more conventional open-pit operation, it does not present the same environmental or geological concerns. It also includes a processing plant in Selkirk to make solar panel glass.

“We are prepared to develop mining opportunities when it’s done right,” Kinew said several times.

Exploiting the contrast between the decision to approve CPS but deny Sio Silica is a deft bit of political wrangling on Kinew’s part.

Companies involved in extracting Manitoba minerals and other natural resources were, no doubt, watching carefully to see if the NDP government was going to err on the side of opponents. Rejecting both projects would have fuelled concerns the NDP were overcompensating to curry favour with the environmental lobby.

In that context, engineering two announcements in the same week — one project approved, another denied — helps Kinew maintain some measure of credibility with the business community.

The more important question to ask at this point is, when did Kinew and his political strategists realized that approving the first would insulate them from criticism for rejecting the second?

It did not always seem as if it would be thus.

In December, the news broke that following last fall’s provincial election, a former Tory cabinet minister, Jeff Wharton, tried to get some of his cabinet colleagues to approve a licence for Sio Silica before the NDP government officially took power. Influencing outgoing members of cabinet to make a big decision like that during the transition is considered very poor form.

Kinew clearly loved the scandal that Wharton had authored, but was careful to say that it would not impact his government’s decision on Sio Silica’s licence. In fact, Kinew made it sound as if the Sio Silica proposal was not a matter of if, but when.

And then, Environment Minister Tracy Schmidt strongly implied her government was going to issue a licence despite the concerns expressed by the Clean Environment Commission.

The CEC strongly recommended additional planning and long-term impact assessments before a licence was issued. Schmidt, rather remarkably, implied those concerns could be addressed after a licence was issued.

“There are eight recommendations in the CEC report,” Schmidt told the Free Press. “One of them was for a legal opinion, that work is done. One is that the minister set up… a monitoring committee. We’re certainly committed to doing that should the licence be issued. But the remaining six recommendations are all ones that we would envision, should the licence be issued, those would be baked into the environmental licence.”

Schmidt’s comments sparked significant concern among environmentalists and community activists opposing Sio Silica’s proposal.

At some point — and it’s not clear exactly when — someone had the political smarts to realize the CPS-Hollow Water project was the NDP government’s “get out jail free card” on Sio Silica. Or, maybe the government just got lucky.