Atlantic Gold, NOPE open new fronts in battle for public opinion

By Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative reporter    
April 1 2020

SHERBROOKE – With salvos of slick new media shot deep into Nova Scotia’s rural heart, the hot war of words between opponents and proponents of a proposed gold mine in St. Mary's just became hotter and wordier.

Last week, the St. Mary’s River Association launched a new website, thegoldmineconversation.com, to counteract what it says is “corporate propaganda” from Atlantic Gold Corp., which wants to dig an open-pit mine at Cochrane Hill, northwest of Sherbrooke.

SMRA's move comes amid a recent public relations campaign by the Halifax-based subsidiary of Australian mining giant St. Barbara – involving flyers for households, editorials for newspaper publication, and at least one YouTube video – to extol the economic benefits and environmental safety of its project.

“I think it’s stepping up its game,” said Scott Beaver, St. Mary’s River Association president and an organizer of the No Open Pit Excavation (NOPE) campaign. “If you look at [the PR material] quickly, you’d think it’s a charity rather than a business.”

In one example of what appears to be a recently distributed householder, the firm explains, “As a St. Barbara Limited company, Atlantic Gold works with communities to reduce our environmental impact while creating responsible and sustainable economic opportunity from our mining activity.”

Meanwhile, thegoldmineconversation.com features a video capture of Atlantic salmon, accompanied by the commentary, “The purpose of this website is to engage and educate citizens. Shown here, rare footage of spawning in McKeen Brook, future effluent discharge point for the Cochrane Hill gold mine project.”

Beaver said that while the new website has been under development “since Christmas,” SMRA and its NOPE campaign decided to make it live last week because they were concerned about what they see as increasingly aggressive PR tactics by Atlantic Gold.

“Yes, it’s a reaction for us to release this at this time,” Beaver said. In a news release, he added, “Atlantic Gold is running a campaign to influence the public and downplay the environmental risks. We’re meeting this challenge with a user-friendly way for people to access information and engage with decision makers.”

In an emailed statement, Atlantic Gold Communications Manager Dustin O’Leary downplayed the company’s recent public outreach activities, saying that it “has always engaged with the communities around our operations and worked to inform them about our current operations and proposed projects. Anyone wishing to learn more about our business can visit our website at atlanticgold.ca.”

When asked whether the company has, in fact, intensified public relations activities around the Cochrane Hill project because it’s concerned it might not be getting its message across as effectively as possible, he replied, “Narrative Research completed an extensive public opinion poll on gold mining projects in and around the St. Mary’s District and Nova Scotia in general...It demonstrated that the vast majority of people support gold mine projects moving forward in an environmentally responsible way. It is also clear that a small percentage of respondents opposed the industry and within that minority are a group of vocal anti-mining activists.”

He added, “But within that opposition are individuals who want to be made more aware and provided more information on modern, environmentally responsible mining practices to better inform their opinion. We are providing an opportunity for a broad spectrum of Nova Scotians to directly hear from Atlantic Gold.”

In February – a month after Nova Scotia Environment announced it might deny Atlantic Gold’s proposed use of nearby Archibald Lake as source of fresh water for Cochrane Hill mineral extraction – the Saint Mary’s River Association, the Nova Scotia Salmon Association and the Atlantic Salmon Federation joined forces at a news conference in Halifax to coordinate their ongoing opposition to the gold mine.

Last month, St. Barbara’s “Americas” President Maryse Belanger vigorously defended the company’s plans for the area, stating in an op-ed for the Guysborough Journal, “We respect the communities and the environment where we work and live…while creating sustainable economic opportunity…we work with the government and communities.”

The Cochrane Hill mine project is currently under review by the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada.