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Candid chat with Matt Stewart about Reid Brook: ‘There is a purpose beyond building an asset’

July 21, 2021
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If you were one of the almost 300 Vale employees who logged into the June 9 virtual milestone celebration of reaching first ore at Reid Brook Mine in Voisey’s Bay, NL, you would have seen Matt Stewart, area manager, Underground Mine, on 345 level (approximately 200 metres below surface). Spotlighted by the headlights of a jeep, Matt stood in full personal protective equipment (PPE) literally surrounded by ore. “It was all around us: ceiling, floor and walls  – I hadn’t seen anything quite like it in Voisey’s Bay,” he said during a call with Vale News, a couple of weeks after the event.

Behind Matt stood colleagues Ian Coles, Will Menheere, Sam Elder, Harold Heath, Brad King, Jeff Burton and Leslie Critch. These individuals represent the Project team and the future Operations team; combined, they illustrate the living lifecycle of the mine: what is, and what will soon be. 

Mark Travers was at the virtual celebration, too, and you could say he represented, to a certain extent, what was. Three years ago, Mark, executive director, Base Metals, attended the media conference in St. John’s where our company officially announced the Voisey’s Bay Mine Expansion Project (VBME). (Vale News wrote about it and you can take a walk down memory lane reading the story here.)  

“The energy in that room three years ago was amazing!” Mark recalled. “(Former) Premier Ball was there and others. I still remember it clearly,” Mark added, smiling, “and look at the site today – I’m incredibly proud.” 

Gary Annett’s duck analogy 

Here’s to reaching first ore at Reid Brook! Photo: Vale Archive

Other leaders at the virtual celebration included Dino Otranto, Joao Zanon, Patrick Boitumelo, Pieter Loock, Alexandre Pereira and Gary Annett, and each said a few words in turn. Gary, who was head of Voisey’s Bay from June 2019 to May 2021, used a duck analogy to describe what it’s been like getting to this point: “The duck looks smooth on the water, but underneath its legs are kicking wildly,” he said with a wry smile. 

Matt, who has been working on the project since Day One and has been with Vale for 18 years, based in Sudbury and now Newfoundland and Labrador, knows all about the wild kicking. “I’ve had several ‘remember when’ conversations with the team: ‘remember when the project was delayed in 2016 and then put on hold in 2017 (due to a depressed nickel market); remember when the pandemic hit in March 2020 and how much we’ve learned since then; remember when we went into care and maintenance that year to protect employees and the surrounding Innu and Inuit communities.’” 

He said it’s a good exercise for the team members to reflect on how hard it was at times, so that they can see how resilient they are, and how far they’ve come thanks to their collective determination and ingenuity. “Then the conversation pivots to how we mapped out the obstacles that we needed to overcome, and the goals we set and aimed for.” 

Inequities exposed 

With COVID-19 and all the safety measures and protocols, came another learning curve: “We learned a lot, very quickly, about the history of our impact on the Innu and Inuit Peoples, specifically about previous outbreaks,” said Matt, who was referring to the devastating effects of the Spanish Flu in the 20th Century. According to Heritage Newfoundland and Labrador, the Spanish Flu of 1918 tragically killed nearly one-third of the Inuit population and even forced some communities out of existence. 

Then, as now, Indigenous Peoples around the world are at increased risk of catching, transmitting, and dying of viruses because of social and economic inequalities such as: lack of clean water (for drinking, handwashing, etc.), overcrowding (difficult to social distance), insufficient community buildings in which to isolate and recover, and pre-existing health conditions due to the effects of colonialism and lack of nutritious, from-the-land food sources. The government of Canada’s Public Health Agency published a paper titled, What we heard: Indigenous Peoples and COVID-19: Public Health Agency of Canada’s companion report, which found “the inequalities that First Nations people face every day are amplified in an emergency, which could lead to a higher risk of the number of cases and deaths due to the pandemic.”

Last spring, as people started to realize the real threat that COVID-19 presented, Vale took steps to make sure everyone was safe, both on site and in the surrounding Innu and Inuit communities. “By going into care and maintenance we followed the values that our company put in place to guide our decision making. This was both a business decision and a greater good decision.” 

COVID was the first blow. The next, just over a year later and mere days before our virtual milestone celebration, came the news that 215 unmarked graves at a Kelowna, BC, residential school had been discovered. 

Matt went ‘off script’ – and on point  

In his opening remarks at the virtual event, Matt said: “I’m going to go off-script for a moment.” Then: “It’s been a struggle on how to celebrate our milestone at Reid Brook because of this challenging time… Our site is in pain right now. For the team I offer this: You have achieved this goal with more than 6.9 million hours worked with no LTIs (lost time injuries). That can only happen with people who genuinely care for each other, and that care also comes in the form of actively listening to our friends and colleagues. I am grateful for the courageous leadership of people like Sheila Freake (Aboriginal Affairs advisor with VBME teams) who have shared their stories. As Sheila stated, ‘To fully understand Aboriginal Peoples’ experiences is essential for reconciliation to occur.’”  

While we talk about technology and our training program – which Matt noted are points of great pride – now, he added, is also a good time to talk about the future, including having some difficult conversations. 

‘A stepping stone opportunity’ 

“This is a stepping stone opportunity, particularly at Voisey’s Bay where this issue is very close to the core of what it means to be on this land.” 

By “stepping stone” Matt means using this $2.5 billion VBME project, the first underground mines in Labrador, to cement a bright future for our company, and for all stakeholders. “We know this is just the beginning, and that we have a long future ahead, so let’s also have a long-term commitment to collaborate with our Indigenous partners.

“There is a purpose beyond building an asset,” he continued. “What we do here affects people now, and for years to come. Let’s make sure everyone benefits.” 

Indeed, our purpose statements is: Vale exists to improve life and transform the future. Together. And as Matt said, “There is real meaning and purpose to what we are doing here.”

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