It can sometimes seem like a completely different age, thanks to everything that’s happened since then, but it’s actually been less than five years since Vale permanently shut down its Manitoba Operations smelter and refinery in Thompson approximately midway through 2018.
Since then, following the departure of Mark Scott from the company once the shutdown was complete, the top job for the company in Thompson has been filled by a cast of characters that might sound a little bit like the setup to a bad joke — a Zimbabwean, an Australian, a guy from Sudbury and a guy from Sudbury who used to live in Thompson. Are we forgetting anyone? Probably, since the average amount of time any of these people spent in the role works out to about a year. And that’s even with the soon-to-end reign of Gary Annett having stretched to almost two years. The role of Manitoba Operations head has seen more turnover than, well, a bakery at which turnovers are one of the most popular menu items. Or, if you prefer, a game between (insert bad hockey team name here) and (insert name of much better hockey team here). Who’s in charge has been more unstable than the temperament of a certain very stable genius who spent several years as president of the United States with access to nuclear launch codes. There have been so many people in that job that it seems like the company has interpreted “the only constant is change” not as simply the wise words of some wise person but an actual management strategy. By this point, you either get the picture or you’ve already stopped reading.
Less than a week after this editorial appears in print, Vale will have a new head of operations, Stacy Kennedy, who’s been there before, albeit only on an interim basis.
In a press release, Kennedy said that the mining industry is undergoing a shift towards more diversity and inclusion, and her appointment is a very faint reflection of that. For the first time since Thompson got put on the map, quite literally, the mining operations of Vale and its predecessor Inco won’t be under the supervision of a white man. OK, sure, it’s a white woman, but still. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
As significant as it is that Kennedy, who last year became the first president of the Mining Association of Manitoba, is now Vale’s top manager in Thompson, it might be less because of the fact that she’s a woman and more because of the fact that she’s a long-time Thompsonite. The fact that she came here by way of Newfoundland only makes her more relatable to many people in the city.
As mentioned above, in the past five years, the task of overseeing Manitoba Operations has mostly been given to people who, at worst, might have had trouble picking Thompson out on a map before being transferred here, and, at best, weren’t very familiar with the city. Kennedy’s predecessor, Gary Annett, was from Sudbury, to where he will soon return, though he had spent some time in Thompson on an interim basis before being appointed to the top spot. His predecessor, Franco Cazzola, in turn, had spent time in Thompson, working for Inco and then Vale in the city from 2005 to 2008. Kennedy, by contrast, a Thompson resident since 2007, has far more experience of just being in the city and in the company’s local operations, than the rest of the heads in the last five years combined. That should translate into better insight into the Thompson operations and a better understanding of how the mining company fits into and relates to the city and region as a whole. Given that Thomson has often seemed like an afterthought to the massive company that owns the mines here, that sort of knowledge is valuable, though it remains to be seen whether it will translate into any better news from the company regarding its local activities.
With the company generally close-lipped about what its long-term plans are for Thompson, it’s difficult to know how much to read into the appointment of Kennedy to the top job here in Thompson (although a betting man might not put money on her being in the same job after 2025, given the game of musical chairs that’s been played in that office since 2018). The company’s exploration in the area continues, but whether that will translate into increased production depends a lot on when and whether an expected shift from petroleum-powered to electrically powered vehicles really takes off, as this is expected to result in higher prices for nickel on the world market. Vale does have a long-term deal in place with electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla, but company heads have been touting the coming nickel boom since the smelter and refinery left and, so far, the company remains where it’s been since the smelter and refinery closed down: fewer than 600 hourly workers, less than half of what it had prior to 2018 and a mere fraction of the number of mining jobs available in Thompson as the height of Inco’s nickel mining heyday. Everyone’s still waiting for the nickel demand explosion. At least now there’s someone with actual Thompson roots at the head of local operations, though perhaps this is just a minor league training ground for those the company envisions playing bigger roles elsewhere sometime in the future. Or, as in the case of several who have headed the Manitoba Operations in recent years, no role with the company at all.