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Mining the good life Down Under

Mining the good life Down Under

Ever since Mike Young, Sc'85, graduated from Queen’s, he has worn a path between his Canadian homeland and Australia. These days, he’s busy with an exciting new challenge.

[photo of Mike Young]Mike (R) talking with Yandicoogina, a “senior lore man” from the Palyka people of northwestern Australia. Yandi, who’s reported to be about 90, is helping Mike with a planned “haul road” that will pass through an area where Yandi worked in the 1960s as a jackaroo—a cattle ranch cowboy.

Mike Young is full of enthusiasm for his job as the chief executive of BC Iron Limited—a burgeoning Australian iron ore mining company that’s going at crazy speed—from zero to a full-on mine in four years. 

In 2006, Mike was a one-man geological exploration company. He was doing his own fieldwork, drilling, and even answering the phone when he wa sin his office. Today, he’s spending a lot of time in his office in Perth, on the south coast of Western Australia; that’s 1,300 kms from the mine he’s developing.

The project is a joint venture between BC Iron and Australian mining giant FMG. The two are digging out iron ore for a 1,500-square-km landholding in the northwestern Pilbara region of Western Australia. The ore will be hauled by truck from Nullagine 55 kms on a private road to Christmas Creek then by rail (on trains owned by FMG)—175 kms miles to Port Hedland for shipping overseas.

Mike’s company owns the mine, while FMG is providing end-to-end rail haulage and port operations; the latter company is owned by Andrew Forrest, a Western Australian mining entrepreneur who’s one of the country’s richest men.

This is a big project, one that has taken a lot of work to bring on line. Mike says he is particularly proud of his working relationship with FMG and with indigenous people in the Pilbara region.

“Often companies go in with lawyers at 20 paces. Our lawyers are in the background. I decided early that there are legal issues and there are moral issues in a project of this sort. They are both important.”

Mike has come by his ideas after living Down Under for 23 years, and in that time he has has spent many a night in the Outback talking with indigenous people around their campfires, and he has met with many of these same people in his company’s conference boardroom.

“The question in my mind is always what’s the right thing to do? Not what’s the legal thing to do? “Jobs for local people are a major part of our project, and we say that local people should benefit. We’ve agreed to hire 10 per cent Aboriginal workers and to train them. Some workers will fly in and fly out of the mine site, but hopefully some will also bus in and out from local communities.”

How Mike Young came to be doing business with Australia’s indigenous people and with the likes of Andrew Forrest is a story that begins during his student days at Queen’s. He recalls that it was Prof. Sandra McBride, MSc’72, PhD’77, who ignited his passion for geology as a possible career.

“I was studying geography and got into Geology 111 as an interest course. Sandra’s enthusiasm and the way she ran labs drew me in and gave me the enthusiasm that I still have for working in the bush.”

Mike says McBride was one of a group of professors at Queen’s, including Ron Peterson, Herwart (“Herb”) Helmstaedt, and John Dixon, who helped him see the challenges and satisfactions of studying geology.

These days, Mike is a long way from the geology labs at Miller Hall. The Kingston native now lives and works out of his base in Floreat, a suburb of Perth, a city of 1.2 million on Australia’s remote southwest coast. He lives here with his wife Jocelyn, six-year-old daughter Eloise, and Honey, the family’s “labradoodle.”

Mike loves Perth’s Mediterranean climate and the fact the city is the world’s most isolated major metropolis. “There’s a real the West-versus-the-Rest atmosphere here, a little like it is in Alberta. I find that very appealing,” he says.

Despite the entrepreneurial atmosphere, the Perth lifestyle can be surprisingly laid back. Mike unwinds by riding his bike or paddling on the nearby Swan River, which is usually flat calm, and on the Indian Ocean, which can be very rough. He also follows Australian Rules football in winter, supporting the local West Coast Eagles in the national competition.

The team were formed in 1987, the year Mike came here. He arrived at Easter, after a chance meeting with a teacher who was in Canada on exchange and suggested Mike might like to visit Port Hedland in Western Australia. He came, he saw, he stayed, and he’s put down roots and is making a good life for himself and his family here. 

[Queen's Alumni Review 2010-2 cover]