John Detorakis almost missed the notice in the mail in December telling him a mining company was surveying his farm near St. George.
It came with a pile of Christmas flyers he would normally just throw out.
“It just happened that I actually read it,” said Detorakis.
It stunned him.
A Montreal company had made a mineral claim that included his farm, and his land was now eligible for prospecting and exploration.
Detorakis learned that in October 2020, the province leased the mineral rights to 230,000 hectares, including his property, to Brunswick Explorations Ltd., a company looking for gold.
“I thought there must be a mistake,” he said.
After all, he had registered his property in the provincial farmland identification program, known as FLIP, designed to protect and preserve farmland.
Detorakis is convinced the government’s decision to lease the mineral rights has put the farm in jeopardy.
Thirty-five-years ago, Detorakis, then working as a nuclear engineer with the federal government, set out with his wife, Nafsika Krasanak, to fulfil a lifelong dream of farming their own land.
They own and operate the Canada Green Nursery and Garden Centre, growing vegetables, herbs and flowers nearly year-round with the help of several large greenhouses.
As the farm began to succeed, the family registered it with FLIP, created to “encourage the preservation of real property for agricultural use,” according to the FLIP website.
Taxes deferred if farming continues
In return for the voluntary registration, the province defers property taxes on the land and farm buildings for as long as the land is used for agriculture. If the property is no longer farmed and is de-registered, up to 15 years of deferred taxes come due.
“Registration is a long-term commitment to maintain land in agricultural use,” the government writes.
In light of this commitment, which Detorakis believed, news that his land was open to potential mining came as a shock.
In New Brunswick, landowners may own property, but the Crown owns the minerals on or under that property.
The province leases the rights to those minerals, often to mining companies. The New Brunswick Mining Act requires that a landowner be notified before any work is done and says the landowner must allow access.
Sometimes this means curious prospectors walk around looking for interesting rock formations. Sometimes it means drilling.
Detorakis knows he does not own the mineral rights under his property, but he has filed a complaint with the province’s mining commissioner.
The way he sees it, the government has made a commitment to protecting agricultural lands with one hand and risked their demise with the other.
Cabinet ministers won’t talk
CBC News made multiple requests for interviews with Natural Resources Minister Mike Holland and Agriculture Minister Margaret Johnson about the allegation of a conflict between government efforts to protect farmland and its leasing of rights that could threaten farmland. All requests were turned down.
Montreal-based Brunswick Exploration says on its website that it is involved in the “Fundy Gold Project” and is exploring a massive claim stretching from St. George along the Fundy coast to Prince of Wales near Saint John.
It’s already found gold, but company president Killian Charles won’t say if it’s enough to prompt an investment in digging it up.
“An interesting amount,” he told CBC News, saying the company could announce at least some of its findings in a few days.
But Charles was adamant the company has no intention of mining in areas already developed, whether agricultural or residential.
“I’m not keen on doing any work on farmland,” he said, pointing to forested and “undeveloped” areas instead.
Charles said the company claimed the substantial portion of land to give prospectors a large area to narrow down potential gold deposits.
The areas of interest are more than 40 kilometres from Canada Green. Leasing such a large territory keeps away competitors.
Charles expects the claim will shrink in the next year or two now that Brunswick Exploration has pinpointed where it wants to test further.
“We have results forthcoming in an area that we have worked in that is nowhere near farmland,” Charles said.
Even if the company found a massive gold deposit tomorrow, a mine would not open for at least a decade.
“To say that it would take 10 years would be considered rapid in our industry,” he said. Fifteen years would be more in line with the industry average.
Detorakis said he knows Brunswick Exploration is just in the early stages of scouting, but he doesn’t have to go far to find farmers unhappy with how they are treated by mining companies.
Thirty kilometres away in Rollingdam, Toronto-based Galway Metals has already struck gold and started drilling.
Swaths of trees have been levelled, and several muddy roads have recently been carved into the forest leading to bright-yellow drilling machines towering above the tree line.
According to its website, Galway has found five pockets of gold there since 2000. The company calls its Clarence Stream Project a “new and rapidly expanding high-grade gold property.”
The farmer who owns the land calls it a pain.
The project is on 225 acres owned by Millen Nixon, land handed down from his grandfather decades ago. Nixon cultivates blueberries in four large fields on a part of the property.
In November, he signed a contract that gave Galway access to a contained part of the property for one year to drill test wells. Nixon already regrets it.
“I wish they were gone, plain English,” he said. “But I don’t know how to get rid of them now.”
A risk of expropriation
Landowners can sign contracts restricting mining companies access to certain portions of their land or limiting drilling to certain times. But a landowner who protests digging of any kind or denies access may invite more trouble.
“What can sometimes happen is that the private company would have to ask the government to expropriate the land,” said Jason MacLean, an assistant law professor at the University of New Brunswick who teaches property law. “It does come as a surprise to a lot of private owners.”
Heavy equipment tore up parts of Nixon’s property so much that he couldn’t access it with his pickup truck. Some of his blueberry fields suffered damage. He’s had pleasant dealings, however, with the site workers who come from Quebec and Nova Scotia every two weeks.
Galway Metals did not reply to requests for an interview.
According to its website, it has found gold deposits around and under Craig Lake in Rollingdam and two locations to the northwest.
“They’re outlining a very interesting deposit,” Charles said of Galway. “I’d say they’re at the forefront of mineral exploration in southern New Brunswick.”
Farmers who thought a provincial program protected their land were shocked the government leased the rights to the minerals underneath. 5:55
The sight of drilling equipment is not new for third-generation farmer Ryan Bridges. His family has been growing blueberries in New Brunswick since 1921, with fields dotting southern New Brunswick from St. Stephen to Petitcodiac.
Over the past 50 years, Bridges Brothers Ltd. has dealt with mining companies occasionally coming on the land. But things escalated in the last decade, Bridges said.
Trying to protect his crops from bulldozers and heavy mining equipment is a challenge that often keeps him awake at night.
“We’ve had a lot of negative experiences with the mining companies,” he said. “Bulldozers and large drill-rigs — it doesn’t take very long for them to come in and tear up the ground.”
He said what starts as promise just to dig a few holes often turns into a headache. When heavy equipment crosses a blueberry patch, it can take 10 years for that patch to recover.
“The mining companies, they have a certain amount of rights to come on your property, and as a landowner it’s hard to keep them at bay,” Bridges said. “You really can’t say ‘no’ to them.”
The Mining Act says prospectors must meet with the landowner and come to an agreement about compensation before digging. If an agreement cannot be reached, mining work can continue once a security is deposited with the province for any damage.
Farmer turns to lawyer
Bridges said there’s only one thing to do when mining companies come knocking: get a lawyer.
“We’ve learned that you get a bond before they come in on the property,” said Bridges.
A bond allows the landowner to try to recoup some money for damaged crops, although Bridges said this often does not fully cover his losses. His farm also tries to work out contracts to ensure plants aren’t run over and equipment isn’t dragged across fields. That often doesn’t work either.
“It causes confrontation because there’s no real set laws, and there’s no one to really go to make sure they adhere to the contract,” he said.
Bridges is also registered with FLIP. Like Detorakis he wants to see farmland exempted from mining operations, but doubts this will happen when the government makes money from mining.
According to the Department of Natural Resources gold mining nets the province a portion of what’s dug up, although it’s still not known how much potential gold there is anywhere.
Government would collect two per cent of net revenue from a gold mine starting two years after it is notified of mining operations. In addition, government would get 16 per cent of net profits in excess of $100,000, but a tax credit on gold royalties would also apply.
No one from Natural Resources was made available for an interview. Spokespersons said this would be inappropriate because Detorakis has filed a complaint with mining commissioner Michel Poirier.
Detorakis said he’s often tried to speak with government officials, but no one returns his calls.
The only person in the legislature who ever got back to him was Green Party Leader David Coon.
“I, at a very emotional level, relate to this, because someone staked a claim when we had an old farm in Charlotte County,” Coon said in an interview. “And I couldn’t believe it.”
He said the uncertainty around mining claims can lead to sleepless nights and is ultimately a threat to farms.
“Government has passed legislation to create nature preserves that don’t allow mining underneath,” said Coon. “And if government really cares, as it should, about preserving farmland, we need similar legislation to protect farmland.”
Brunswick Exploration said if it finds enough gold worth digging up, it’s at least three to five years behind where neighbouring Galway Metal is in its own development.
Miner tries to allay fears
Charles, the Brunswick president, said he knows the term “mining” can frighten people into visions of open-pit mines and environmental disasters. He also said a lot of Canada’s mining activities in the past were “mismanaged.”
“We’re committed to being good corporate citizens in the area,” said Charles, who is confident his company won’t affect the Canada Green farm.
Detorakis said it already has. All the unknowns about the search for gold have put stress on him and his wife and kept them awake at night.
He vows to keep fighting to get farms registered with FLIP exempted from mining activities. What troubles him is being brushed aside by government.
“We are not a third-world country, we are Canada,” said Detorakis. “And when I see key people not giving answers or ignoring my requests for answers, I’m getting concerned.”