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The Mining Industry

History of Mining In Canada

Records of Samuel de Champlain’s early explorations of the New World about 1604 refer to copper minerals in the area now called the Gaspé. The site eventually was developed into the giant Mines Gaspé, owned by Noranda Mining and Exploration Inc.

The first coal mine in Canada was started in 1720 on Cape Breton Island.

The first iron was smelted at the Forges St. Maurice just north of Trois Rivieres, Quebec, in 1737. The production of items such as stoves and pots was important to life in Canada, and the mines and processing plant became an important employer in the area, until the plant closed in 1883. The site has been restored as a museum and is well worth visiting.

Gold was discovered in Quebec in 1823, British Columbia in 1852, Nova Scotia in 1860, Ontario in 1866, the Yukon in 1896. Prospectors looking for favourable rock formations in the bush made the early discoveries; now people skilled in geology and geophysics use complex technology to find these formations deep beneath the surface.

An exceptionally rich lead-zinc orebody was discovered in 1893 in the East Kootenays, British Columbia. The Sullivan Mine closed in 2001 after more than 90 years of production. A copper-zinc orebody of similar value was discovered near Timmins, Ontario, in 1964.

Copper-nickel ore was discovered near Sudbury in 1883 by a doctor who was looking for a man lost in the bush. The ore also contains gold, silver, platinum, cobalt and other valuable minerals, contributing immensely both to the economy and the quality of life in Canada.

Two railway tie contractors discovered veins of almost pure silver at Cobalt, Ontario in 1903. Eventually more than 100 mines came into production, and much of the wealth generated was used to find and develop mines in other parts of Canada.

Major deposits of iron were found in Northern Ontario around 1900 but this was wilderness area and it wasn’t until the 1950s that significant development took place. At about the same time vast discoveries of iron were being made on the Quebec-Labrador border and the Iron Ore Company of Canada started a major construction project, including railroads, townsites, production and processing facilities.

Also about 1950 uranium deposits were found in Saskatchewan and Ontario. At the height of the Cold War, uranium was a strategic material for the United States and the mines were rushed into production. Now uranium is used to produce electricity in many countries around the world.

Canada now produces 60 kinds of metals and minerals, classified for statistical purposes as metals, non-metallics, structural materials and fuels. In terms of value, the most important metals are gold, copper, iron ore, zinc and nickel. Cement, sand and gravel, which are combined to make concrete, are valuable structural materials, while salt and peat are the most valuable non-metallics. Fuel minerals - oil, gas and coal - now make up 63 percent of the value of minerals produced in Canada. The search for valuable minerals led to the population of the more remote areas of Canada.

A geological map showing the principal mineral areas is available from Natural Resources Canada. The role of the Canadian government in the development of Canada’s mining industry has been very important, beginning with the establishment of the Geological Survey (in 1841, under Sir William Logan), then the Department of Mines (in 1907), the Geodetic Survey (in 1909), and continuing today with Natural Resources Canada. Provincial governments have had their own resources ministries also making significant contributions.

Mining - More Than Mines

Canada’s mining industry is made up of more than mines, and this is reflected in the backgrounds of the members of The Canadian Mining Hall of Fame. Above all, the success of the industry depends on people - intelligent, educated, dedicated, enthusiastic, persevering, inquisitive and optimistic individuals. Educators, prospectors, geoscientists, engineers, financiers, accountants, environmentalists, lawyers, marketers and a host of skilled workers in the mines, processing plants, smelters and refineries work together using the most modern equipment and technology to make a profitable enterprise.

The object of any mining enterprise is to produce a product that someone wants to buy, at a price that can satisfy all the stakeholders. A modern mine in Canada often requires an investment of $200 million or more (large mines might cost $1 billion) before producing any income.

  • The investors, lenders and shareholders want their money back with a reasonable return.
  • The workers want a reasonable wage for their efforts (miners earn the highest wages of any industrial group).
  • Suppliers of goods and services want to be paid. About half of mine income goes to suppliers.
  • Governments - local, regional, provincial and national - want taxes from the enterprise to pay for the services they provide.
  • The company wants a profit, out of which comes the money to invest in exploration and development of new orebodies (to ensure the continued existence of the business).

It is a great challenge to find a mineral deposit, usually buried under the earth’s surface, and then to determine its size, content and economic potential. Talented professionals must design safe mining and processing methods, and skilled workers must carry out the plans. The valuable metals or minerals must be separated from the host rock, metals must be purified for sale in a form the purchaser wants, and waste materials must be disposed of in a way that protects the natural environment. The economics of the enterprise are complicated by the fact that prices are based on supply and demand in competitive world markets, not by local producers.

Canadian mine operators get paid in U.S. dollars, for their products, but pay their bills in Canadian dollars. It is difficult enough to predict what it will cost to mine and process the ore; added to this is the difficulty of predicting what an operator will be paid for the product.

Canadian miners have been among the best in the world at doing this. The stories of members of The Canadian Mining Hall of Fame represent the success of a small but important industry which helped open up the remote areas of the country, and created great wealth for the people of Canada.