Top 10 most important mine builders in Canadian history
As Canada celebrates the 150th anniversary of the signing of Confederation this year, it is a great time to remember the enormous contributions the mineral sector has made to our past and highlight the Top 10 Mining Men in Canadian history.
The list is only focused on mine builders not mine finders.
It highlights individuals who have built corporate empires and/or who have developed isolated regions of the country with the necessary infrastructure for mines to flourish and create multi-generational jobs, shareholder wealth and great economic impact. The list is primarily focused on gold and base metal miners though some companies did have coal mining divisions.
It also includes Americans as there really was no border between the two countries when it came to mining expertise and investment.
Before I start my list, I need to make an “honorary mention” of three Saskatchewan premiers.
NDP Premier Allan Blakeney nationalized four key potash mines – roughly 40% of provincial production – in 1975 and formed a crown corporation called Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan. In addition, the Saskatchewan Mining Development Corporation was formed the year before to oversee the government’s interests in uranium, gold and diamond exploration and mining.
Conservative Premier Grant Devine privatized both these crown corporation in 1988. The Saskatchewan Mining Development Corporation was combined with the privatized federal crown corporation Eldorado Nuclear to form Cameco Corporation.
In 2005, conservative leaning Brad Wall shocked the business establishment by not allowing PotashCorp. to be taken over by BHP Billiton. Without a doubt, these three premiers have had more of an impact on the history of mineral development in Saskatchewan than any business individual.
10 The Golden Boys – Noah Timmins (Hollinger) and Harry Oakes (Lake Shore) Sharing the tenth spot on the list are Noah Timmins and Harry Oakes, well-known mine builders in the Timmins and Kirkland Lake camps, respectively. Noah Timmins, along with his brother Henry, first struck it rich in the Cobalt silver boom.
Prospectors Benny Hollinger and Alex Gillies claim staked some promising ground in the Porcupine Gold Rush in 1909. They sold out to Noah Timmins who oversaw the construction of and ran one of Canada’s legendary mines, the Hollinger.
The mine produced 19.3 million oz of gold over 58 years before it finally closed in 1968.
Through the Hollinger, Noah Timmins invested in other mining interests including the Noranda Horne smelter and gold mines in Quebec, Manitoba, Kirkland Lake, Yellowknife and the Yukon. He was called “one of the great mining magnates of Canada” by the Toronto Star and known as “Grand Old Man of Canadian Mining” when he died in 1936.
American born and well-known for his cantankerous personality, Harry Oakes played an instrumental role in transforming Kirkland Lake into one of the world’s most significant gold camps. Oakes came to Kirkland Lake in the summer of 1911. His ultimate goal was to establish a prospector-built and owned mine. In total, seven gold mines were built along a single fault or strike zone, but the richest one of all was Oakes’ Lake Shore.
9 Francis Clergue and his Iron Ore Legacy at Algoma Steel American-born entrepreneur Francis Hector Clergue founded Sault Ste. Marie-based Algoma Steel in 1901 – now owned by Essar Steel – due to the development of iron ore deposits north of that city.
Prospectors Ben Boyer and Jim Sayer unearthed hematite (iron) ore in the Michipicoten/ Wawa area in 1898. Clergue bought the claims for $500 and built the Helen mine. He also constructed a power plant, pulp and paper mill, a steam ship line and a railroad which lead to the industrial development of the isolated Algoma district.
8 Gilbert A. Labine – A Fateful Destiny With Uranium (Eldorado) The pitchblende that Gilbert Labine discovered in 1930 at Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories became the critical source of the material for the first atom bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The resulting Eldorado uranium mine and refinery at Port Hope produced both radium and uranium, which had no market value during the depression era but which was wisely stockpiled. Labine’s operations had to close due to poor demand until the Second World War and the urgent need of uranium for the American Manhattan project.
The Canadian government nationalized the Eldorado mine in 1944 for strategic reasons, making Labine president. He stayed until 1950, discovering another uranium mine – Eldorado Beaverlodge mine – for the corporation. On his own, Labine discovered two more mines, the larger being the very profitable Gunnar on the shores of Lake Athabasca in northern Saskatchewan.
7 Thayer Lindsley – A Mining Genius (Falconbridge) Born in Japan to American parents, Thayer Lindsley is considered one of the great mine finders and company builders. A true international mine executive, he found or was involved with the development of many well-known companies, including Sherritt Gordon, Giant Yellowknife, Canadian Malartic, and United Keno Hill as well as developments in Africa and Australia.
However, it was Falconbridge Ltd., which he built into an international powerhouse, that he was best known for. In 1928, Lindsley along with a group of investors founded Ventures Ltd. as a holding company for a variety of properties that included Falconbridge. The original owner of the Falconbridge claims was Thomas Edison. Lindsley bought the claims and developed the company’s first nickel mine in competition with the dominate International Nickel (later Inco).
6 Robert C. Stanley – The Grandfather of the Nickel Industry (International Nickel Ltd.) American-born, president Robert C. Stanley’s 50-year career with International Nickel began in 1901.
Until the end of the First World War, the primary use of nickel was for amour-plated steel, which was made into a wide variety of military products. With the end of hostilities in 1918, the market crashed and it is widely said that Stanley basically saved the company by establishing a new engineering and technical department that pursued intensive research for new peacetime uses. Under Stanley’s leadership, sales of nickel increased from 13 million lb. in 1921 to 241 million in 1951, the year he passed away.
International Nickel was created in 1901 with the merger of the Canadian Copper Company and its strategically located polymetallic nickel-copper deposits in Ontario’s Sudbury Basin – discovered in 1883 during the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
5 Norman Keevil Sr. and Norman B. Keevil Jr. – A Canadian Mining Dynasty (Teck Resources) Norman Keevil Sr. saw the enormous potential of airborne magnetic surveys for mining exploration which helped him find a high-grade copper deposit in Ontario’s Temagami district in 1954 marking the beginning of the company we now know as Teck. By 1963, with his son Norman B. Keevil working at the company and a merger with four other junior mining companies, Teck’s amazing growth trajectory was on its way. In 1981, Norman B. Keevil was appointed president and CEO and in 1989, Keevil Sr. passed away.
A variety of coal, gold, and copper projects kept increasing the size and stature of the company but it was the acquisition of 30% of the historic Canadian Pacific- owned Cominco Ltd. in 1986 and the subsequent takeover of the rest of the company in 2001 (Cominco was a significantly larger miner than Teck) that made headline news in the Canadian mining scene and highlighted the financing expertise of Keevil Jr.
The Keevils have turned Teck into the country’s largest diversified base metal miner, and with the company’s dual class share system, ensured it would safely stay in Canadian hands.
4 James Murdoch – The Father of Quebec Mining (Noranda) Claim staked by prospector Edmond Horne and his partner Ed Miller in 1922, the very rich copper-gold deposits around Rouyn’s Osisko Lake became the basis of Noranda Inc., one of Canada’s legendary mining companies. James Murdock who would become the new company’s president, stayed on for an astonishing 30 years.
The Noranda copper deposits were the richest in Canada up to that time. Rouyn exploded with activity and due to the gold by-product the region became known as Quebec’s Klondike. From the beginning Murdock saw Noranda as a company that not only mined and refined the copper but would also fabricate products. A refinery was built in Montreal in 1930 and a rolling mill for the Canada Wire and Cable Company soon followed – all during the 1930s depression! Noranda under Murdock became a huge complex of related metal industries.
Three years before Murdoch stepped down as president in 1953, he started the development of a new copper deposit, mill and smelter in Quebec’s Gaspe. The resulting town, Murdochville, was named in his honour. He died in 1962 but is remembered as the Father of Quebec Mining and a committed Canadian nationalist who significantly helped build this country’s north.
3 Jules Timmins – Quebec’s Northern King of Iron Ore (Iron Ore Company of Canada/Rio Tinto) The development of the vast iron ore deposits in the isolated wilderness of northern Quebec and Labrador by Jules Timmins is one of the great mining stories in Canadian history. Jules began his career as a miner at the Hollinger gold mine, and became president of Hollinger Consolidated in 1936 after the death of his uncle.
With Hollinger money, Jules purchased the mineral rights to the Ungava region in 1941, and established the Iron Ore Company at the end of the decade to start development.
While the iron ore was of exceptional high quality and near the surface, allowing for low-cost open, pit mining, the infrastructure and financing challenges were great. With a financing consortium of six American companies, Timmins raised the necessary capital to build a 560km railroad, a shipping terminal at Sept-Îles on the St. Lawrence River, and the iron ore mine. The project was completed in 1954 and helped spur the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway.
The project created tens of thousands of jobs, more iron ore mines and the foundation of nearby communities of Schefferville and Labrador City.
2 Stephen B. Roman – An Empire of Uranium, Coal, Oil and Potash that Crashed Stephen B. Roman, a Slovak immigrant who came to Canada in 1937, worked in a number of blue collar jobs before becoming a mine investor and seizing a great opportunity.
In 1952, the U.S. military desperately needed uranium and a staking rush in the Algoma district north of Blind River indicated potential deposits.
Roman wisely purchased 83 strategic claims from prospector Arthur Stollery that would contain the largest uranium deposits in the world at the time and turning his Denison Mines into a major mining powerhouse. By the early 1960s, the American military cancelled most of its uranium contracts and left Denison and the boom town of Elliot Lake in dire straits.
Roman diversified his company with potash mines in New Brunswick, oil and gas properties in western Canada and Europe, and the development of the Quintette coking coal project in northeastern British Columbia where a new town called Tumbler Ridge was built. By the late 1970s the uranium market rebounded and Denison secured a $5billion deal with Ontario Hydro to supply fuel for their nuclear reactors.
In 1989, Ontario Hydro opted out of its uranium contracts with Denison, and a downturn in the commodity markets brought Denison to the verge of bankruptcy. A drastic restructuring sold many of the corporation’s properties, and by 1997 a much smaller Denison was a shadow of its former self.
But at his corporate peak and due to the strategic value of uranium for both military and nuclear power generation, Stephen Roman was among the most powerful business leaders in the country.
1 Peter Munk and Barrick – Canada’s Godfather of Gold
In November 2005, Peter Munk launched a takeover bid of historic Canadian gold miner Placer Dome agreeing to sell certain assets to Goldcorp. By the following spring, the takeover was complete and in less than 25 years, this upstart junior miner with two small gold operations – an Alaskan placer mine and a half interest in a small northern Ontario gold operation called Renabie – had created the largest gold mining empire in the world.
Unlike Teck or Goldcorp from its inception in 1994 to 2004, Barrick had no dual-class share system to prevent a takeover a sympathetic premier like Brad Wall in Saskatchewan who stopped the BHP Billiton buyout of PotashCorp. Barrick got no sympathy from Ontario Premier McGuinty who was absolutely silent when historic Ontario base metal producers were bought by foreigners. It was a prey or predator scenario and Peter Munk came out on top.
For that reason alone, Munk deserves the top spot, as 2006 and 2007 witnessed the foreign takeovers of legendary base metal miners like Inco by Vale, Falconbridge/ Noranda by Xstrata (subsequently taken over by Glencore) and Alcan by Rio Tinto. Canada’s corporate elite – shell shocked at the frenzy of foreign takeovers in the middle of the last decade – could thank Munk for saving at least one globally significant Canadian mining corporation that is still based in Toronto.
One of Munk’s most astute original moves was the takeover of the Camflo mine in Quebec in 1984. The mine came with a seasoned technical team led by mining engineer Robert Smith. This team would go on to discover the extraordinary Goldstrike deposit – one of the richest gold mines in North America – in Nevada’s Carlin Trend which really started the company’s climb to the globe’s number one gold miner.
An offshoot of the Goldstrike discovery was the founding of a royalty company called Franco-Nevada headed by two of Canada’s best-known mining financiers, Pierre Lassonde and Seymour Schulich. It financially benefited from the royalty rights that they bought for $2 million from the property’s previous owner. This helped turned Franco-Nevada into the world’s largest mine royalty company.
In addition, since 1992, Peter and Melanie Munk have donated more than $180 million to charities and public institutions in Canada and abroad including approximately $75 million to the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre at the University Health Network (Toronto) and about $51 million to the University of Toronto, including the establishment of the Munk School of Global Affairs.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I consulted with many people during my research for this essay, however, the four that I absolutely must acknowledge are corporate director David Constable, news editor Marilyn Scales at the Canadian Mining Journal, consulting geologist George Werniuk, and Jane Werniuk, geologist at Agnico-Eagle and former editor of the Canadian Mining Journal. However, I take full responsibility for the final list!
Stan Sudol is a Toronto-based communications consultant and owner/editor of a mining news aggregator website: www.RepublicOfMining.com