History in the making

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From The Canadian Rockhound, August 1980

On the banks of the St. Lawrence, more than 400 years ago, the French explorer Jacques Cartier heard Indians tell of gold and precious stones that abounded in this new world.

Cartier was disappointed. The stones he took back to France turned out to be “fools gold” –iron pyrite, a pale-yellow mineral with but a few traces of gold in it. It was the same disappointment experienced a few years later in the 16thcentury by the Arctic explorer Martin Frobisher. He carried rock from Baffin Island back to England by the ton, only to find it was worthless. And he was just one of the many to put out a considerable mineral-hunting effort, only to run into an unrewarding dead-end.

But while neither Cartier nor Frobisher lived to know it, the tales of Canada’s mineral riches –legendary though they may have been at that time –do not seem far-fetched in retrospect, in light of later events.

The New Land, in fact, did contain mineral wealth –enough to elevate Canada to second position among metal-producing countries, to first rank in several key minerals such as nickel, silver and zinc, and to establish the country’s mining industry as one of the world’s most diversified with its output of more than 60 different minerals.

In the century following Cartier and Frobisher, the first chapters of the country’s mineral story began to unfold.

Samuel de Champlain, early in the 17th century, brought a mining engineer, Master Simon, with him on his second journey to the St. Lawrence; and this expedition discovered silver and copper occurrences. Neither was significant, but they may have helped Champlain confirm his intention to establish permanent settlements in the New World. Later, a more definite pattern became common in Canada’s economic history –first, a mineral discovery, then settlement, followed by further effort at economic development.

That development, as far as mining was concerned, came slowly in those early times.

But interest in mineral deposits, as a practical necessity to life and commerce, began to pick up in the following century. In the 1700’s the coal deposits of Cape Breton began to be worked; iron was found, mined and smelted for local use in what is now Quebec. Silver, lead and copper discoveries were made to the west, in what is now Northern Ontario.

And of equal, long-range significance, the intrepid and perceptive Samuel Hearne explored vast stretches of what is now the Northwest Territories from 1769 to 1772 for the Hudson’s Bay Company. His mineral finds were disappointing, but his comprehensive reports and journals were later to spur mineral-hunting in the northwest region which, in turn, led to important discoveries there.

As exploration and settlement spread westward from the St. Lawrence in the 19th century, discoveries of iron, gypsum and various industrial minerals were made and developed for local use in Upper Canada.

Immigration into the Canadian provinces, new settlements east and west, growing commerce, expansion of industry, increased water transportation and the advent of railways –all combines to open an explosive opportunity for the prospectors and mining entrepreneurs  of the latter half of the 19th century.

Place names tell the glamorous side of the story; names like Berkerville, in the Cariboo district of British Columbia, scene of a wild gold rush in the mid-century; the Fraser River gold discoveries and Quebec’s Chaudiere River gold finds of the same period; the Kootenay region of B.C., where the rich and world-famous lead-zinc-silver Sullivan mine was established; Sudbury, where blasting operations in the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway accidentally led to the great nickel-copper deposits of the Sudbury Basin; the Klondike, site of a gold discovery that set off one of the greatest rushes in history.

But these are only the highlights. Mineral discovery and development proceeded in an ever-widening spectrum all across the country –coal expansion in Nova Scotia and new coal developments in British Columbia, copper and lead in Newfoundland, large asbestos finds in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, and copper, silver and iron in Ontario.

After the turn of the century, mining boomed in Northern Ontario and North-western Quebec, spurred by the mineral discovery at Sudbury, the building of a rail-way line towards James Bay and a generally rising demand for metals. Very rich deposits of silver were found at Cobalt in 1903 (a repetition of the Sudbury discovery, since it too, was the result of accidental blasting by a railway construction crew).

The precious metal discovery at Cobalt touched off a surge of interest in Northern Ontario. Gold was found at Larder Lake, silver at Gowganda, and then the huge gold deposits of Porcupine at Timmins were uncovered –they became Canada’s most productive in later years. Gold finds followed in the Kirkland Lake region.

Exploration advanced eastward into Quebec where the major finds of copper with gold were made at Noranda, the first of numerous further discoveries of metals in North-western Quebec. And in Ontario, the rich gold deposits of Red Lake were found.

By the 1920’s, coal and iron ore mines were supporting a steel industry, the Sullivan mine’s ore was being treated as a result of a metallurgical breakthrough, the refining of zinc followed in this western complex, and nickel refining began in Ontario.

This decade also saw a solution to the financing and metallurgical problems that for 14 years had stalled development of important copper-zinc discoveries at Flin Flon on the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border.

Canada’s mining industry truly had progressed to a mature stage. In 1929, the country ranked first in the world output of asbestos and nickel, third in gold and silver, fourth in copper, fifth in lead, and sixth in zinc. To underline this spectacular leap from a largely unexplored wilderness to world leadership, Canada was producing 90 percent of the world’s nickel by 1929.

Mining developments, except for gold, paused during the economic depression of the first half of the thirties, although, by mid-decade, exploration picked up again and continued to uncover a wide range of mineral deposits –ready for development in more buoyant times. One such find was the Eldorado radium and uranium deposit at Great Bear Lake.

Better times were not far away. Canada’s mines were called on to supply a large part of the Allied requirements in the Second World War. Following the war, Canadian mining entered its greatest period of expansion.

New industrial technology and economic prosperity created a demand for metals on a scale undreamed of previously; existing mines increased production; and exploration men adapted war-developed techniques to prospecting, including the airborne magnetic method. From coast to coast and from the north to the Arctic, the Canadian mining “frontier” exploded with a new and unprecedented round of activity.

Vast iron ore reserves, were discovered and major developments took place, notably in the Quebec- Labrador area; uranium discoveries and developments in Ontario and Saskatchewan catapulted Canada to the top ranks in atomic metal; scores of copper and other base metal mines were opened up across the country including a large lead-zinc mine at Pine Point in the Northwest Territories, and a second major nickel complex, in Manitoba, added to the nickel wealth of Canada.

Mining has grown and matured with Canada and today adds about $13 billion a year to Canada’s output.

It is one of our oldest industries, standing at a high stage of maturity, and epoch of progress away from the days of the “fools’s gold” of Cartier and Frobisher.