In conversation with PDAC’s 37th President, Felix Lee

PDAC’s new President shares his vision for our association and the minerals sector, the importance of stakeholder engagement, and how the sector can adapt—and thrive—in these uncertain times.

  1. When the PDAC 2019 Convention ended, your two-year term as President of the association commenced. How are you feeling as you start your presidency?

    I’m looking forward to this role and am excited about what PDAC has accomplished recently as a result of its advocacy efforts, and what we can accomplish going forward. The five-year renewal of the Mineral Exploration Tax Credit (METC)—the first multi-year renewal since its inception in 2000—along with a commitment by government to invest in Canada’s Arctic and northern regions, skills development, training and apprenticeship opportunities for Indigenous Peoples, are all areas that PDAC continues to focus on.

    There is also considerable work being done in numerous other areas, and the implementation of our latest strategic plan will advance the sector in four main areas—competitiveness, influence, engagement and leadership—over the next five year and beyond.

  2. You’re no stranger to PDAC. Tell us about your various roles with the association and how you got started.

    I have attended the PDAC Convention for 32 consecutive years since my university days. PDAC has been a significant presence throughout my career. When I joined the PDAC Board of Directors in 2007 I wanted to give back to the organization and to the industry that had given me so much—though I didn’t have any idea as to how or in what way I could contribute. Soon after joining the Board I was invited to Co-chair the Human Resources Development (HRD) Committee, then known as the Student Affairs Committee, and to help further develop the association’s annual Student-Industry Mineral Exploration Workshop (S-IMEW), as well as expand the Student & Early Career Program.

    The volunteers and staff of the HRD Committee have done a tremendous job, and S-IMEW is now into its 14th year with over 360 students having completed the workshop. Many S-IMEW alumni are now working in the industry or are pursuing graduate degrees. Moreover, the Student & Early Career Program continues to grow with the introduction of new student-focused events and initiatives every year. Student attendance at the convention has steadily grown as well. In 2007 student attendance was around 300. Now, some 1,300 students at convention and come from as far as Europe. I’ve also had the privilege to serve on PDAC’s Membership, Governance and Nominating, Executive, and, most recently, Awards Committees.

  3. What are some of your specific goals for the association and industry as a whole that you wish to achieve as PDAC President?

    In addition to ensuring the PDAC’s five-year strategic plan and underlying programs are fully supported, I will look to strengthen the ties that exist between PDAC and its sister, provincial and territorial prospector and mining associations. While PDAC’s mandate is national in scope, ensuring similarly robust and effective advocacy at the provincial and territorial levels is critical to strengthening its own advocacy efforts in Ottawa. If we are to ensure a vibrant and competitive minerals sector, one where Canada is a top destination for exploration and mining, it is incumbent on us all to ensure effective advocacy at all levels of government.

  4. You’re a geologist by background. How has geology changed since you first started working in the sector?

    The fundamentals haven’t really changed. Exploration still involves going into the field, looking at rocks, and applying sound geological thinking. That said, there are considerably more tools available to aid the exploration process nowadays, and some of these tools require quite a high level of knowledge or specialization.

    Driven by the need to make every exploration dollar count, to improve the efficiency of the exploration and development process and the chances for success, we are seeing technologies such as machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI), data management and analytics, blockchain, robotics and automation and the Internet of Things (IoT), increasingly making their way into the industry. With it comes the need for sufficiently-trained people to use the technologies. Arguably the exploration and development process is becoming much more multi-disciplinary or multi-specialist in nature and at an ever increasing rate.

    From the human resource development perspective, this change, and the pace of this change, has often led me to wonder if we are sufficiently educating and training the next generation of geologists and engineers to meet the needs of our industry going forward 10 or 15 years.

  5. Over the course of your career, what major developments do you feel have played a pivotal role in making Canada’s mineral exploration and mining sector a global powerhouse?

    The significant watershed moment in the evolution of the Canadian mineral exploration industry occurred during the early 1990s when, as a result of unfavourable policy and regulatory regimes, there was an exodus of junior explorers overseas. I remember that time well. It was exciting for geologists who were eager to travel and work abroad.

    An eventual return to more favourable policy and regulatory regimes brought some of those juniors back home to explore, but the sudden exodus and export of expertise served to put Canada on the map, and eventually led to our emergence as a global leader in the mineral exploration and mining space. Many of us saw this change of status reflected in the PDAC Convention’s transformation from a relatively small, predominantly domestic conference within the Royal York Hotel, to the enormous international conference that we see today at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre—Toronto’s  largest event space.

    The 1990s were heady times. I learned just how quickly policy, legislative and regulatory changes can impact our industry—for better or for worse. Simply put, we cannot take things for granted and must continue to work hard to maintain Canada’s leadership role and ensure a vibrant and competitive mineral exploration and mining sector.

  6. How can juniors, and even mid-tier to large companies, succeed in today’s volatile economic climate?

    Our industry is going through difficult times right now, particularly the junior sector. Unfortunately volatility in metal prices and capital markets is a fact of life for us, and often the result of things that are beyond the immediate control of any one company. Focusing on things that can be controlled, such as finding quality projects, hiring quality people, employing industry best practices, and being innovative are key to weathering and succeeding in volatile climates. Of course, that is easier said than done. But ultimately it’s the quality projects, quality management, and innovative exploration and development practices that attract and retain investors.

    Every year, the PDAC Awards celebrate the best in our industry. When it comes to leading practices and innovation in exploration and development, finance, corporate social responsibility, and health and safety, there is something to learn from these companies and individuals. I encourage our members to visit the PDAC website to view and be inspired by the videos of their stories.

  7. What is something you feel could be done to improve Canada’s mineral exploration and mining industry?

    Most critical is striving to ensure the responsible and sustainable development of mineral resources wherever Canadian companies operate. This means building environmental safeguards and socio-economic benefits for the communities where we work, being transparent, and having a vision for collaboration and shared value. What were expectations are now demands by Canadians for our industry. Getting a job right and doing it well ultimately paves the way toward broader community acceptance of mineral projects. This in turn helps attract investment and skilled people, strengthening Canada’s reputation.

  8. If you could choose one place to explore in Canada where would it be? Why?

    I’ve always had a soft spot for the Territories, particularly NWT and Nunavut, where I worked my first two jobs out of university. My first summer was spent as an assistant with the Geological Survey of Canada mapping along the east arm of Great Slave Lake. This was followed by work with a junior exploration company just southwest of Rankin Inlet. That was over 30 years ago, and unfortunately I’ve not had the opportunity to work in the Territories since.

    I find it astonishing that the Territories remain relatively underexplored compared to other parts of Canada. That untapped potential is exciting to the exploration geologist in me. There’s also something to be said for working in beautiful places. The vast scale of the landscape, the Inuit and Dene people and their cultures, as well as the rich history of our country that is tied to the north is a compelling reason to return to the Territories to explore some day.  

  9. The industry’s skills shortage comes up every now and again. Are you concerned about new talent coming through the system? How can graduates be encouraged to go into mining?

    It’s certainly been a preoccupation of mine during my 12 years at PDAC. Current estimates show that the Canadian mineral exploration and mining sector is facing a shortfall of around 100,000 people over the next 10 years. This shortfall includes not only geologists and engineers, but technicians, miners, drillers, heavy equipment operators, and many other occupations and skills that are relied upon. Finding a long-term, sustainable solution to the skills shortage depends heavily on education and improving overall awareness of our industry amongst Canadians, as well as tapping into demographics that are currently under-represented or could be better represented in our industry, such as women, Indigenous Peoples and new Canadians.

  10. In looking back on your career, what is your fondest moment?
    Perhaps my fondest—and proudest—moment was when I received the first kind words of appreciation and requests to stay in touch from the students I had met during S-IMEW. It was then that I realized the impact my words and actions could have on the lives and careers of students and young graduates. It was a very humbling experience and one I could also relate to, given that my own career was very much the result of kind and generous individuals. My own mentors helped me greatly during the course of my career. Their willingness to freely share knowledge and experience left a lasting impression, and instilled in me the importance of contributing and giving back to the industry. So appreciation from students was very much a ‘coming full circle’ moment for me.

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