Canada is celebrating the 150th anniversary of Confederation. In 1867 the founding fathers met in Charlottetown built the foundation of a nation truly “strong and free”. They did a very good job, too. We can savour their hard work as we join in various celebrations around the country.
One of the reasons to be proud of Canada is its vast storehouse of natural resources and the men and enterprises that put us among the world’s premier mineral producers – gold, uranium, potash, base metals, diamonds, and the metals of the future. Our mineral legacy has also given rise to some of the world’s best technology for finding, mining and processing those riches.
Let’s take a look at the first person to be caught up in our mineral wealth. While Martin Frobisher searched for the Northwest Passage, he ballasted his ships with shiny yellow rocks. What he thought would be his fortune was pyrite, not gold, and his mistake was not pointed out until he had made another voyage and collected even more rocks.
The lesson is: Never send a ship captain to do a geologist’s job.
French king Louis XIV granted what are probably the first mineral concessions on Cape Breton Island to Nicolas Denys who discovered coal there in 1672. For the next 200 years mining was small scale, done to meet local needs.
The turning point came in the 1870s as mining began to see significant development. Not coincidentally the Geological Survey of Canada, created in 1842, was hitting its stride. That expertise gave the Canadian hunt for minerals the backbone of its success.
The next 100 years saw an accelerated pace of discovery. Nickel and copper were uncovered in Sudbury, Ont. (1883). Lead and zinc were found leading to the Sullivan mine and town of Kimberley, B.C. (1893). Asbestos was found in the Eastern Townships of Quebec and first milled in 1888. The Klondike gold rush (1896) brought fortune hunters to the North. Gold was discovered at Porcupine (1909) and Kirkland Lake, Ont. (1911). The copper and zinc deposits at Flin Flon, Man. (1915) were found. Gold was discovered at Rouyn-Noranda and Val d’Or, Que., as was copper (1920s). The Sherritt-Gordon deposit was staked in Manitoba (1923). Gold was discovered in Red Lake, Ont. (1925). The first aluminum was produced in Arvida, Que. (1926). The merger of Mond and International Nickel (1928) created what was to become a true global powerhouse, Inco Ltd. (sadly now in foreign hands). The great Porcupine fire destroyed the Dome gold mine (1929). The decade also saw the first coal mine in southeastern British Columbia.
The Great Depression of the 1930s did little to slow mine building in Canada. Radium was found at Great Bear Lake and gold at Yellowknife, N.W.T. Silver-radium ore was discovered at Great Bear Lake. Both Falconbridge and Inco blew in new smelters near Sudbury (1930). Milling began at the Macassa gold mine in Kirkland Lake (1933). The first commercial shipment of lithium was made from the Pointe du Bois district of Manitoba.
The mining industry, particularly gold, suffered from a severe shortage of labour during the Second World War. Then mining expanded as demand grew during peacetime, and the United States became the largest consumer of base metals and iron ore from Canada. Copper mining took hold at Murdochville, Que. Iron ore was discovered at Atikokan, Ont., and nickel in Thompson, Man.
Thanks to the Cold War, Elliot Lake, Ont., became the Free World’s leading uranium producer.
The 1960s saw another boom in mine discovery. Lead and zinc were found at Pine Point, N.W.T. Copper deposits were unearthed in the Highland Valley of B.C. The deposit that became the Brunswick No.12 mine at Bathurst, N.B., was discovered. Iron ore was found in the Labrador Trough. Syncrude began mining the first bitumen from the oil sands near Fort McMurray, Alta. (1967). The short-lived Rankin Inlet nickel mine became Canada’s first mine in the Arctic.
The ’70s and ’80s saw mine start-ups across the country. The Polaris zinc-lead mine on Little Cornwallis Island. The Bullmoose and Quintette coal mines in northeast British Columbia. The potash mines of Saskatchewan plus new ones opened in New Brunswick made Canada in the 1990s the world’s No.1 producer. And let’s not forget the first diamond mine – Ekati in N.W.T. – that began production in 1998.
The coming of the 21st century saw both highs and lows for our miners, as some of our most iconic companies were taken over by foreign interests. Then in 2008, the world’s financial markets collapsed taking with them commodity prices. It’s a situation from which the mining sector is now beginning to recuperate, although unevenly.
So there you have a quick version of some highlights from Canadian mining history. Now turn to page 28 and read Stan Sudol’s list of the Top 10 Canadian Mining Men. Dissenting opinions are welcome. These are some of the people who grew not only an industry but a country into today’s prosperous, 150-year-old Canada. True North, forever!
This version contains the correct year of the GSC founding, 1847. The wrong year was inadvertently published in the print issue. CMJ regrests the mistake.