Mining a political career

How Steven Black’s engineering roots and his deep passion for a northern Ontario community led him to become mayor of Timmins, Ontario

When Steven Black, P.Eng., came to Timmins, Ontario, on a university co-operative assignment to round out the final year of his mining engineering degree at Queen’s University, he couldn’t have known he’d be mayor one day. But by the time Black completed his 12-month internship at Kidd Creek Mine in 2005, he’d accepted a full-time position at Kidd Operations and his love affair with the city had begun.

Pursuing engineering studies was a natural fit for the Oshawa, ON, native, who excelled in math and science in high school and sought a prudent career path. “An engineering career seemed like one with a lot of opportunity,” Black says. Unsure of which area to specialize in, he entered a general first year in engineering at Queen’s and soon settled on mining as his area of focus. At Kidd, Black eventually became a superintendent of production engineering, but his passion for the local community soon led him to join Timmins city council in 2010—when he was only 28 years old—and ultimately to become mayor in 2014.

As an engineer with a background in mining, Black has a unique perspective to offer at the bargaining table. “It makes discussions with some of our community employers and partners—as well as with government, for policy issues affecting our region—easier to understand and take an active role in,” Black explains. “When we go down to conferences with industry partners around the region, it’s helped to be able to relate to the discussion and let them know that as a mining engineer you know what you’re talking about.”

Timmins is one of two northern Ontario cities (the other is Sault Ste. Marie) currently shortlisted to win Noront Resources’ much-coveted $1-billion ferrochrome smelter. Noront, a Canadian-based mining company with a vision to work in partnership with northern Ontario communities, boasts the largest land position in the Ring of Fire—an emerging multi-metals camp in the James Bay Lowlands of northern Ontario—and either ownership or a controlling interest in all major discoveries to date in the region. Four northern Ontario cities submitted bids for the project, and Black has been an active member on the proposal from the beginning. “It’s a project that definitely has a lot of interest in our community,” Black says. He and his team have worked tirelessly to convince Noront that Timmins is the right place and that it not only has the support of the community but has the infrastructure and site required. “I think it’s a fantastic opportunity for Timmins,” he says. “When you look at the project they’re proposing and the resources they’re talking about in terms of longevity—considering a deposit that could be around for a hundred years—and you’re talking hundreds of jobs, that’s a significant impact for any community, and Timmins is no different. The backbone of our economy has always been the natural resources industry—forestry and mining—and having that next generation of operations that will sustain us through the next hundred years is a key aspect of our future, especially as some older operations wind down.”

Black’s love for Timmins and the people within it is clear. He has his finger on the pulse of the city and what it needs to meet the challenges many northern Ontario communities face. Jobs and the economy are important for any community, and Black outlines how the city is working to attract new industry and business to support residents and ensure there’s gainful employment in the area. He’s mindful of the challenges surrounding the lack of services and infrastructure that face many communities in the north. “When you look at infrastructure in the north—whether it be broadband (see p. 41), natural gas, highways and roads—when you get into smaller rural communities, there’s definitely an issue with services. When you look up the coast into the indigenous communities (see p. 35), there’s an even bigger issue with access to those services,” he explains.

Black offers the example of a $120-million highway reconstruction project in Timmins—a provincial highway that was subsequently downloaded to the municipality—that has yet to be completed. “That’s one of our significant challenges: trying to work with the government to get some funding to complete that—because there’s no way the municipality can fund the reconstruction on its own,” he says. “Infrastructure in the north is a challenge, and when you have declining populations, it’s hard to make progress in those areas, unless you have willing provincial and federal partners.”

Also of concern are some serious social issues that afflict the region surrounding addiction and mental health. “It’s not just a northern Ontario issue, but one affecting all of Ontario and our country,” Black says. “We need to see some serious action plans and partnerships with the upper levels of government to address these issues in all our communities. It’s a sad topic to discuss, and I don’t think many people fully appreciate how large the issue is across the province. But it’s going to be a growing concern going forward.”

Fully cognizant of the issues, Black says the city’s answer has been to focus on quality of life—something Timmins is uniquely positioned to offer: “Population decline is one of the most challenging things facing almost all of northern Ontario. In southern Ontario, you have the reverse, where some cities are growing so fast they can’t keep up with service demands. In northern Ontario it’s a little different, so we’re trying to look at unique ways to make the community more attractive and focus on recreational infrastructure, festivals and events to retain and attract people to our community. We’ve really tried to put an emphasis on quality of life and the enjoyment of the community for residents, as well as continuing to focus on bringing in new jobs and diversifying the economy.”

Black’s passion for showcasing all Timmins has to offer is clear. A sportsman himself, he expounds the virtues of the city’s easy access to a wide array of outdoor recreational activities. Taking that a step further, the city has devised a strategic plan for the community, which led to a feasibility schedule for a new recreation centre. “We’ve completed geotechnical studies and we’ve just finished the detailed engineering design for it,” Black says. He’s enthusiastic about what it would mean for the community to have such a facility, which would include a new aquatic centre, various indoor sporting courts and a track. He’s optimistic that between the provincial and federal government there will soon be funding opportunities to allow the project to go forward.

To that end, and with an eye towards attracting new blood, the city has also put a big emphasis on festivals and events. “We just finished celebrating the 10th anniversary of our great Canadian Kayak Festival, which is a completely free festival,” Black says. “We also have Rock on the River Festival, which is organized by a local non-profit group. We have snow-cross races in winter. And then we have our big summer festival, Stars and Thunder, an eight-day international music and fireworks competition. So, we’ve really tried to provide the region with a lot of unique opportunities to come out and enjoy themselves and bring new people to the area…There’s a lot of opportunity in northern Ontario. And we think the more we bring people to the region through some of these events, the more exposure we’ll get and that will attract some new people to the region. It’s been a pleasure and honour to serve the people of Timmins on the municipal council over the last eight years, and I’m optimistic and looking forward to continuing some of the great work we’ve started.”