TIMMINS -- Mining is an industry that's the heart of northern Ontario's economy, and one the Mining Association of Canada says will be key to helping the national economy rebound.

Brendan Marshall, the association's vice-president of economic and northern affairs, spoke at a State of Mining presentation hosted by the Timmins Chamber of Commerce on Monday. Marshall said the best example of the industry's importance during the pandemic is all the support mining companies have given over the last year.

"MAC members donated over $40 million in Canada," he said. "I'm quite proud to say the industry stood up to fill growing and tenuous gaps at a moment of tremendous uncertainty."

Helping with PPE supply, food bank shortages and remote community healthcare were key contributions in the early days of the pandemic, Marshall said.

Rebounding industry

The mining industry joined the country in the initial economic hit, he said, but now companies are adjusting well to the new dynamic and are back to pre-pandemic levels of production.

The metal and mineral market has been at an all-time high, he added.

"We're looking at, in some cases, triple-digit ... and a near universal uptick across a host of commodities," Marshall said.

Prices for many critical minerals and metals have exceeded or are approaching pre-pandemic levels, he said, based on numbers collected from April 2020 to January 2021.

Iron ore went from $86.65/ton to $169.52/ton, up 108 per cent. Gold is still up 18 per cent from last year, after hitting an all-time $2,000/oz high on Aug. 3, 2020. Zinc, copper and nickel went to $2,637/tonne (up 40 per cent), $7,971/tonne (up 72 per cent) and $18,197/tonne (up 53 per cent) respectively.

Reinvesting in the community

With the rebounding of the market, Marshall said the industry also has a responsibility to help boost local economies.

That's something Timmins chamber president Melanie Verreault said her organization has been advocating for with its member mining companies.

Newmont and Kirkland Gold, for example, have been making a series of donations to local businesses, charities and non-profit organizations.

"Throughout the pandemic, as we know, they have come to our aid to support small businesses ... to get over these challenging times that they've experienced," said Verreault.

Continued push for sustainable mining

Marshall said investors recognize the mining industry is critical to rebounding the national economy, as well as in tackling climate change.

There has been an industry-wide push in Canada to have sustainable mining operations, he said. However, Marshall noted there are still a large number of off-grid sites that rely on diesel fuel.

This is particularly concerning, he said, when it comes to the federal government's carbon tax hike in December — and the extra cost that will put on these sites.

Marshall said the association has been asking Ottawa to help transition them to lower-emission operations, which he said will be especially important for sites that produce raw materials for electric vehicles.

"We're seeing ... over half of Canadian nickel and cobalt, extracted and shipped in Canada, coming from off-grid mines," Marshall said.

Huge potential in EV sector

Nickel and cobalt mines have major potential in the electric vehicle sector, he said, and Ottawa recognizes the stake that the country's operations — including Canada Nickel's project in Timmins — can have in the world-wide market.

Marshall said the MAC will be working with policymakers to make sure these mines have the best chance of being key players in that sector.

He said that's especially important right now as EV manufacturers decide where they will be sourcing there materials — and that he wants to make sure Canada's mines can live up to the demand.

"The GMs, the Fords, the Teslas of the world — they just can't justify setting up their operations, if they don't have a long-term, viable supply of the raw materials needed to manufacture their products," Marshall said.