Engineering a future
Bob Spence reflects back on his more than 30 years in Yellowknife

Doug Ashbury
Northern News Services

NNSL (July 05/99) - Bob Spence is a miner 49er.

He is one among a group of students who graduated from Canada's Queen's University as a professional mining engineer.

It was in the spring of 1964 when he came to Yellowknife to take on the post of exploration superintendent at Giant mine. His trip North was via Noranda, part of Quebec's Abitibi West region.

"I don't know how many of us refer to ourselves (as miner 49ers). There were 21 of us. We were all veterans," Spence said, adding he was a ground school instructor in the Royal Canadian Air Force, stationed largely in Kingston, Ont., from 1942 to 1946. This year is of course an especially significant one for the Class of 49 -- it's the classes 50th anniversary. Spence is planning on heading back to Kingston, for homecoming celebrations and a family reunion in Picton, Ont.

Altogether, Spence said he spent nine years in Abitibi West "in exploration, for a good deal of the time on my own."

"We called ourselves consultants. Then I got the offer here in '64."

For the first 17 years in Yellowknife, Spence and his family lived in a rented home on the Giant property. He did outside exploration all through the territories, including the Kivalliq region, the Arctic Coast, as well as work in Nevada, Newfoundland and the Yukon.

"I think they raised the rent once, and I ended up paying $75 a month and that included heat and light. I think I had to pay for the phone. All those houses were heated from a central plant. I think they still are."

In 1981, the four chambers of mines, NWT, Yukon, Alberta and B.C., determined Spence should be the Northern mineral advisor to then minister of Indian and Northern Affairs John Munroe. Spence had been on two occasions president of the NWT Chamber of Mines.

20-year career with Giant

He served as Northern mineral advisor during his remaining three years with Giant, which completed a 20-year career with the mine. During that three years, Spence, who was posted in Ottawa, often returned to Yellowknife in connection with his civil service.

"I never considered I had been away," he said.

Asked to compare the life of the exploration superintendent to his work with government, Spence said he "felt like a fish out of water" with the latter.

"It is better to be on the rock out there, than on the hill down there."

Asked what one of his main accomplishment was during the early-'80s, Spence pointed to the publishing of a departmental position paper with respect to mining in the territories.

During his tenure with the federal government, Spence travelled with minister Munroe, especially when he came North where Spence would often organize meetings between Munroe and industry officials.

On one occasion, Spence recalls there was a big concern about the potential closing of the Farrow lead-zinc mine in the Yukon. The government's options were simple: keep it operating or let it shut down completely.

"We were having meetings with the chamber over there and other citizens and people were philosophically against government involvement. So I called them into a meeting and said I think you're giving the minister the wrong message. If I know you, I think you want employment to continue... but that's not the message your sending, so they called him (Munroe) back."

Spence said the result was the government paid to strip the overburden, as a big cost of producing from an open pit mine is removing the overburden. That meant the mine was upgraded substantially and it started operating again, Spence said.

Time to retire

After his three-year stint with government, Spence opted to take early retirement in 1986.

His end to years of travelling to a full-time life in Yellowknife coincided with big news in the North.

"I'd only been back here a short time when I'd heard they had found diamonds in the Barrens and I couldn't believe it. I'd explored up there and never even thought of looking for diamonds. And if I ever walked over one of those formations I wouldn't have recognized it because when I went to university, nobody had heard of looking for diamonds in Canada," he said.

Spence called the process which led to the discovery "impressive."

He also pointed to Polaris and Nanisivik as other impressive examples of adapting to the Northern environment.

Both use freezing ice, as part of their structural support underground. And this is unique, he said.

Civil and structural engineers who work in the territories have to be aware of the existence of permafrost, especially discontinuous permafrost. It's a very serious matter.

In 1990, Spence's NAPEGG predecessor Mel Brown called him up and said, "How'd you like to take my place."

Spence has served as executive director of the Association of Professional Engineers, Geologists and Geophysicists of the Northwest Territories, the association that administers the Engineering, Geological and Geophysical Professions Act of the NWT, for the past nine years.

Spence was a good choice for the position. He was the charter president of the society that preceded the association, the Society of Professional Engineers of the NWT.

The function of NAPEGG is to administer the act and the purpose of the act is to protect the public from unqualified professional engineers and geoscientists. In order to do that we have an enforcement role, he said.

Spence makes sure anybody who says he or she is a professional engineer or professional geoscientist is registered with NAPEGG.

If a complaint arises about poor practice, Spence will set up a review.

"So those are my main NAPEGG functions, registration, enforcement and discipline."