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Justin Trudeau visits rare earth elements processing plant in Saskatoon

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited a rare earth elements processing plant in Saskatoon Monday as part of a tour to oversee the Canadian supply chain of metals and minerals needed for a greener world.

The world will look to Canada to step up its production of rare earth elements and bolster available supply chains, many of which have been plagued with issues throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, Trudeau said Monday.

“We need, of course, efficiency in our supply chains. But we also really need resilience in our supply chains,” Trudeau said.

“This is an exciting time to be forward-looking at what the world needs from Canada… Canada is extraordinarily well-positioned to succeed in the decades to come.”

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In 2020, the World Bank predicted that demand for critical minerals — dozens of metals and minerals like lithium and copper that are used in batteries and clean energy generation — will soar 500 per cent by 2050.

Lithium, graphite, nickel, cobalt, copper and the group of 17 metals and minerals known as rare earth elements are being prioritized for investments in exploration, production and processing as part of Canada’s critical minerals strategy, announced by Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson last month.

Critical minerals were also among the issues Trudeau, U.S. President Joe Biden and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador discussed during their summit last week in Mexico.

Many European countries were forced to pivot from where they supply energy, as Russia — a massive energy producer, particularly for European countries — is not currently reliable due to the war, he explained.

Additionally, the economy is shifting toward greener solutions, such as electric vehicles.

Saskatchewan, a mining hub, has the ability to boost the local supply chain of metals minerals needed for those new technologies, he said.

On Monday, Trudeau and Saskatoon Mayor Charlie Clark toured the Vital Metals facility in Saskatoon, speaking with workers and getting an inside look at the process.

It’s part of the Nechalacho Project that Vital Metals — an Australia-based company — launched last year. The project made the company the first rare earths elements producer in Canada, according to the corporate website.

The metals and minerals are extracted at the Nechalacho mine in N.W.T., before being shipped to Saskatoon to produce a “rare earth carbonate product,” that is then sent to a company based in Norway, the website says.

The federal government recently spent $5 million to help establish processing and production at the Saskatoon facility, according to a news release issued by the government.

“It’s not just about buying from a reliable ally,” Trudeau said.

The tour, in part, is to ensure that Trudeau knows how the whole process works — that it’s done efficiently, in partnership with Indigenous peoples, and that employees work under proper labour practices, he added.

Moe alleges he was not invited to tour

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe released a statement Monday welcoming the prime minister, while calling the visit “disappointing, but not surprising.”

Moe said the provincial government has been advocating for more investment into this area of natural resource development, but alleged his government was not made aware that Trudeau was visiting.

“It’s disappointing simply because this is one of the points where the province of Saskatchewan and the federal government most certainly do see eye-to-eye,” Moe later told reporters Monday afternoon.

In his statement Monday, Moe pointed out that he led a delegation in Washington, D.C., last month to discuss ways to partner with the United States to provide “elements required for North American energy security.”

Trudeau’s visit was unsurprising because he was likely made aware of those conversations during that meeting, Moe told reporters Monday.

Moe said he didn’t feel slighted by not being invited, but that Monday was a missed opportunity to at least have a discussion about working together on natural resource development in Saskatchewan.

Moe added that when he’s in Ottawa, he informs the prime minister — and he would expect the same.

A man wearing a grey suit, white dress shirt and mauve tie is speaking at a microphone. He is standing in a rotunda, with marble pillars standing behind him.
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe says he was disappointed that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did not make Moe aware of his visit to Saskatoon, because they could have had a discussion about natural resource development in the province. (Kirk Fraser/CBC)

CBC News twice asked Trudeau twice during a scrum why the premier was not invited.

He dodged the question, saying he was happy to be joined by Clark and John Dorward, Vital Metals’ managing director, during the tour.

The federal government wants to keep working with the Saskatchewan government, particularly toward innovating the economy, Trudeau said.

In a statement sent to news media, Saskatchewan Opposition NDP leader Carla Beck accused the premier of acting childish, opting to play politics instead of working together and promoting potential further investment.

The province, Beck said, must get back to telling the rest of Canada and countries abroad that Saskatchewan has much potential.

FSIN ‘dismayed’ Trudeau did not visit Star Blanket

Trudeau’s agenda in Saskatchewan Monday also drew the ire of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN), which represents the province’s First Nations.

In a statement, the FSIN said it is “dismayed” the prime minister would exclude Star Blanket Cree Nation from his trip.

On Thursday, the community announced findings from recent ground penetrating radar searches at the former Lebret Indian Residential School.

According to the FSIN, Trudeau was invited to attend that event, but declined because he was “waiting to confirm a meeting with the Japanese prime minister.”

“The Prime Minister is without the decency to pay his respects in person to Star Blanket, as they mourn the horrific discovery,” FSIN chief Bobby Camerson said in the statement.

“His lack of respect is hurtful toward all residential school survivors and descendants, who are grappling with how to handle finding the child’s remains and more unmarked graves.”

Cameron said he first learned of Trudeau’s visit to Saskatoon Monday in the press, adding he was “taken aback that their request to attend the residential school announcement wasn’t valued as much as a tour of a rare earth mining processing plant.”

The FSIN said its statement is a formal invitation for Trudeau to visit Star Blanket, 75 kilometres northeast of Regina, in the coming months.

“We want him to see the site. The amount of anomalies is devastating to our people, who wonder how many of our relatives may have died there,” File Hills Qu’appelle Tribal Chair Jeremy Fourhorns said.

“This is a dark part of Canadian history that deserves acknowledgement from the Prime Minister of Canada.”

Trudeau’s first comments at Monday’s tour addressed Star Blanket, calling the discoveries there “heartbreaking” and noting that he spoke with Chief Michael Starr on Friday.

“[I called] to express our ongoing support, whether it’s financial or with resources, as that community moves through the location of remains,” the prime minister said.

“Also of the healing and closure we know is so important in the aftermath of the horrific residential schools that impacted so many people across the province, across the country.”

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