Canadian Mining Journal's “Seven Questions” series features informal interviews with accomplished leaders in the mining industry.
This time, we spoke to Kendra Johnston, president and CEO of the Association for Mineral Exploration, based in British Columbia. Following public health guidance and working closely with the Vancouver Convention Centre (VCC), AME is hosting its annual Roundup conference both in-person and online this week (Jan. 31-Feb. 3) – bucking the trend of other events that have decided to postpone in-person events to spring or summer.
Johnston, a geologist with more than 15 years of experience in the mineral exploration sector and two-and-a-half years at the helm of AME, discussed the upcoming conference, the state of B.C.’s exploration sector, what it’s been like to lead AME through the Covid-19 pandemic, and her past as a rollerblading mascot.
Canadian Mining Journal: What first got you interested in mineral exploration and mining?
Kendra Johnston: For me, it's always been about mineral exploration and discovery. I've always loved a good jigsaw puzzle or brain teaser, so for me it's the curiosity, putting the pieces together and the potential for discovery. The understanding of science and how all the layers of information add to each other to vector you in a direction of where a discovery might be found. It’s always been the challenge of the puzzle to find a new deposit and why it's there.
I had a high school teacher who took us rock hounding in physical geography class in grade 11. It was a lot of fun and part of it was that initial camp experience of going on a field trip with a bunch of friends, and understanding what's below your feet and how the land around you formed. Understanding that big picture story of earth, geology and the cycles that happen - it was really intriguing to me.
CMJ: You were appointed president and CEO of AME in June 2019, and about nine months later Covid hit. What has that been like for you leading the organization through this time?
KJ: It's been really interesting! I was chair of the board before stepping into this role, so I was familiar with the operations and the staff. I came in with a strong agenda and I had a lot of things planned and ready to go before Covid hit.
Thinking back to that time, things have changed drastically. If you look at some of the large societal conversations that have risen during the last two years and are now commonplace in our daily conversations – whether that’s equity, diversity and inclusion or Black Lives Matter - many large conversations have shifted, including health and safety, including how we work, economic recovery and climate change. I think we've moved the needle quite drastically on some of these large societal level conversations that needed to be brought into industry and business. We’re in a time when we can advance these conversations in a space that is ripe and ready for change.
Health and safety is core to everything we do and I think the pandemic put a major spotlight on our mental health. We had to ensure that we were engaging with one another and checking in. Technology has been great for this, it's strengthened our partnerships from a business context because we do have to talk things through and find common understanding without being able to in the same room. It’s given use all the opportunity to connect differently and perhaps more deeply than before.
CMJ: AME Roundup 2022 is going to look a little bit different this year with both in-person and online elements. What new opportunities for your organization have opened up by the disruption caused by the pandemic?
KJ: The virtual component of Roundup is a great example of how we can use technology to better communicate and engage. Attendees receive all the same information and they still have the opportunity to engage and connect with other attendees. We really wanted to make sure that we were catering to the needs of the industry and what people were really looking for at this time. Following public health guidance and working closely with the Vancouver Convention Centre (VCC), we’ve implemented layers of protection that meet and go beyond the current health recommendations. Having the in-person element of the conference this year was an opportunity to provide a conference that was available to everybody at whatever level of comfort they have. Our attendees, sponsors and exhibitors, are excited to come and engage with one another. And that's really what keeps this community together, that engagement and partnership-building.
The other example that really shines through on the technology front is we collectively represent those working right across the province. All of our committee meetings and board meetings have always been in person based in Vancouver, utilizing conference calls for the folks who aren’t in town. Having everybody on Zoom has really levelled that playing field. It means everybody has the same voice, everybody has the same presence. Everybody has the same feeling that they're taking part, so from an organizational perspective, that inclusion of being able to put everybody on the same platform has been a remarkable change for us.
CMJ: How has B.C.’s mineral exploration sector fared during the challenges of the last two years and not just COVID-19, but also severe weather in the form of extreme rainfall and flooding or extreme heat and wildfires?
KJ: It's been quite the two years. B.C.'s obviously had a lot of challenges. Interestingly, though, when we look at the mineral exploration sector, it has done quite well. Mineral exploration has been able to step up, adapt and increase the amount of work we do close to home.
In 2020, $422 million was spent in B.C. on mineral exploration. The 2021 number will be coming out at Roundup. I believe it will beat out our past high which was in 2012. Drill metres in 2020 were 991,000. We're still waiting for a few to report, but we're already at 1.26 million metres for 2021, which is a new record - so two very active busy years in B.C.
Explorers have had a two busy and successful years and I think there's a couple of reasons for it. One is that British Columbia is a centre of excellence when it comes to mineral exploration. A lot of people who live in B.C. but had projects outside of B.C. turned their eyes to something local, that increased the amount of work that was happening in the province.
Our work by nature is physically distanced. These are small companies with a handful of people working in remote places. The field environment, out taking samples, or sitting on a drill rig was a safe environment to be in. Certainly, there were challenges travelling in and out of communities, but again, being small companies, the ability to pivot, the ability to handle situations with small groups of people was very manageable.
The other thing that played a part was the nature of health and safety in our industry and how it is so ingrained in everything we do. Adding another layer of safety by way of masking, or distancing or cleaning and sanitizing, was something that everybody could add in to their daily routine.
CMJ: B.C. has huge potential for battery minerals. What do you see as the top challenge for B.C. explorers and developers that want to advance these deposits?
KJ: I actually think that the biggest challenge is the impact on the commodity markets that a new project in these spaces will have, understanding the supply and demand and how that translates to financing field work.
The financial sector is obviously aware of critical minerals, rare earths, and their role in climate change, the need to switch from carbon-producing energies to renewables and battery minerals, and so they're interested in investing. But the retail investor sector doesn’t understand the way these commodity markets work, in the same way they understand markets for copper or gold. So, telling that story about supply and demand, the amount of ore that a new discovery would make available and how that's going to impact the supply and demand for those minerals is a challenge. And communicating how to evaluate a good investment and a good project is still a challenge.
The other piece is from a technical perspective, and specific to British Columbia. We have a lot of expertise across this province in copper and gold projects as well as other minerals and metals, but battery minerals is still a bit of a niche market. There are folks out looking, but not in the same capacity as they are looking for copper and gold. We still need to transition, and encourage the geologists and the junior companies to get out and look for those minerals and metals so that they become more common place, we build our expertise and we can advance some of these opportunities.
CMJ: There was an interesting example of Indigenous ownership in mineral exploration projects last year when the Tahltan First Nation invested in Skeena Resources for an equity stake in the company. How else is B.C. leading the way in terms of engagement with Indigenous communities and going beyond engagement to some form of ownership?
KJ: The Tahltan are quite familiar with mining - they've been mining for hundreds and hundreds of years and they understand the business. They have service and supply companies that work in the mining industry and they have great partnerships, not only with Skeena, but with a variety of other companies working in that territory.
When you look at Skeena and the way that they view engagement with the local First Nation and the partnership with the Tahltan, both parties are forward-thinking in how they can build trust and partnerships. It's a phenomenal example for our industry and one that people are noticing, talking about and starting to model after.
Our continued message is to engage early and often. Engagement at the early level is what leads to those partnership deals, so we need to make sure that we're having these conversations throughout the entire life of a project.
We were the first province to implement revenue sharing a number of years ago. We were also the first to implement DRIPA - the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People Act - in November 2019. People are starting to talk about what is really means to be a partner and are have these difficult conversations that changing the way we work.
At AME, we’re also looking at some of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations and starting to build some corporate training for our members.
CMJ: Just one last question. As the president and CEO of AME you’re quite well known in the industry. But what's one surprising thing about you that that not many people know?
KJ: One of my greatest, and most fun jobs that I had during university was as a mascot. I was a giant rollerblading apple for a product called Bibo Fruit Punch. Myself and my fellow fruit friends travelled with all over Quebec and Ontario in a in a 28-foot RV, going to summer festivals and entertaining crowds. It was honestly one of the most fun jobs I’ve had, and had many similarities to camp life!