By Mark Cardwell

When Jack Watt took over as operations manager at the Quebec Port Terminals (QPT) terminal in Bécancour in 2008, the loading and unloading of ships bound for a fledgling open-pit gold mine in Canada’s Low Arctic was a small but promising part of the facility’s business. That is set to change, however, as Agnico Eagle begins to invest more than US$1.2 billion into opening two new mines in the same region.

“This year the Arctic will become a big part of our business,” Watt said in a recent phone interview from Bécancour, an industrial town on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, directly opposite his hometown of Trois-Rivières. “Everything will double this year.”

In mid-February, Agnico Eagle announced that after a decade of exploiting its Meadowbank mine in Kivalliq, a part of Nunavut that comprises the northwestern mainland and islands of Hudson Bay, the company will proceed with the construction of two satellite mines in the region. The senior Canadian miner will spend some US$900 million over the next three years to bring the Meliadine mine into commercial production, and another $330 million to develop the Amaruq site.

Both mines are expected to begin commercializing gold in the third quarter of 2019, complementing the flow from the Meadowbank mine, which is nearing the end of its production mine life. “That’s a significant investment that speaks to the confidence we have in our abilities and our willingness to do business in Nunavut,” Agnico Eagle CEO Sean Boyd told Nunatsiaq News after the news was announced. “We also look at Nunavut as a place where we can build a platform for as long as we built a platform in Quebec, which is multiple decades,” said Boyd, referring to the company’s Malarctic Canada and La Ronde mines in Quebec’s Abitibi-Témiscamingue region.  “We’re happy to be in Nunavut, we’re happy to be contributing.”

So is QPT and Watt, who for the past decade has overseen the growth and development of stevedoring services at the Bécancour terminal in support of Agnico Eagle’s Arctic ventures. The terminal got its first taste of Arctic mining supply a few years earlier, when it was tasked with moving the equipment used to build the massive Voisey’s Bay nickel mine.

Once the mine was built, however, resupply services via Fednav’s two ice-strengthened bulk carriers – the euphemistically-named Arctic and Umiak – were shifted to Quebec Stevedoring’s terminal in Quebec City. It wasn’t long after, however, that Agnico Eagle came calling thanks to Dominique Caron, a former manager with Raglan Mines who had joined Agnico Eagle. “Mining is big business but it’s a small industry,” said Watt. “Everybody knows and talks to each other.”

Ten years ago, Agnico Eagle began shipping through Bécancour the myriad of equipment and supplies it needed to build, maintain and sustain a modern mine and workforce in the rugged and remote Kivalliq region – everything from machinery, chemicals and equipment to jet fuel and frozen and dry food.

Discharged from trucks on pallets, they were put into reefer containers and reloaded onto barges the first few years, then onto ships owned by Quebec City fleet owner Desgagnés, which also hauls goods bound for Canadian Arctic communities from QPT’s terminal at Côte Sainte-Catherine near Montreal.

According to Watt, Agnico Eagle’s stevedoring needs remained a small part of the Bécancour terminal’s activities during the development phase of the Meadowbank mine.

The terminal’s 20 staff and some 100 longshoremen handle between 120 and 130 vessels a year on its five docks and berths with rail capacity and ro/ro ramp, with an outdoor storage capacity of 100,000 square metres and three domes with nearly 20,000 square feet of indoor space for bulk storage and rain-sensitive cargo.

In recent years, however, as the Meadowbank mine began hitting annual gold production targets of around 300,000 ounces, both the amount of supplies and the manner in which they are handled and shipped to Agnico Eagle has continued to grow and develop. In 2016, for example, the terminal handled some 57,000 tonnes of the miner’s cargo, loaded 5.5 vessels, unloaded and/or loaded 3,100 trucks, 116 rolling machines (including bulldozers, lifters, payloaders, trucks – even ambulances), and stuffed and loaded 2,200 containers.

This year, thanks to the announced construction of the two new mines, Watt said the terminal is preparing to handle more than 100,000 metric tonnes of Agnico Eagle cargo, 11 vessels, 6,500 trucks, 250 vehicles, and 4,500 containers. Every box and piece of Agnico Eagle cargo is equipped with barcode stickers that are scanned and segmented into containers at Bécancour, so the mining company’s clerks can track and control incoming inventory.

“It’s just like in a grocery store,” said Jean-François Paquin, a logistics and health and safety specialist who heads up the dozen-member team of supervisors and clerks in Bécancour who are dedicated exclusively to the Agnico Eagle account. “The customer knows exactly where his cargo is as soon as we put a barcode on it and scan it.”

According to Paquin, the company’s information technology experts at headquarters in Quebec City have continued to work with Agnico Eagle over the past several years in an effort to fine-tune the barcoding system to the point of perfection. This summer, the system will for the first time be on real time with the customer. “With the technology we had before, the client had to wait until the end of the day for updates,” said Paquin. “Now it will be like life with UPS. In fact, it will be better than UPS.”

For his part, Watt said the jump in Arctic business this year has increased the need for staff training during the winter months in preparation for sailing season, which starts in June and ends in October or early November, weather and ice conditions permitting.

“It’s been a lot of work, but when the summer comes, we’ll be ready,” said Watt.