Joseph Retty played a major role in the discovery of iron ore deposits in the Quebec-Labrador boundary region, remote wilderness which was later developed into one of the world’s greatest iron-producing fields. The harsh climate and dearth of maps, roads and navigable rivers did not dampen his energy, enthusiasm and missionary-like zeal to explore and map this virgin territory.
His pioneering efforts led to the founding of the Iron Ore Company of Canada, the development of its iron mining operations at Knob Lake and Carol Lake, and shipments of an estimated 700 million tonnes of direct-shipping iron ores, concentrates and pellets. Retty is also recognized as the first person to appreciate the economic potential of the ilmenite deposits of the Havre St. Pierre region, where titanium mining continues today.
Retty was born at Fort-Coulonge, Quebec, in 1904. He obtained a science degree in geology from the University of Ottawa and a PhD from Princeton University before joining the Geological Survey of Canada and the Quebec Bureau of Mines as a geologist. Geological surveys he conducted north of the St. Lawrence River led to the discovery of world-class titanium deposits at Lac Tio, in the Allard Lake region.
In 1936, Retty was hired by Labrador Mining and Exploration to explore for a variety of minerals on ground it held north of the St. Lawrence River, in Labrador. Although iron had been found by others at Knob Lake, Retty was guided by local natives to a new, high-grade iron deposit at Sawyer Lake, a hundred kilometres away. The discovery kept exploration in the region alive for many years.
Retty continued to manage exploration in Labrador and on newly acquired ground in Quebec, even after M.A. Hanna acquired a 40 percent stake in Labrador Mining in 1943.
Two years later, the search for iron ore was revived as the result of near-depletion of the Mesabi Range in Minnesota. Retty established a base near Knob Lake, and his prospecting program proved up 400 million tonnes of iron ore. In 1949, the Iron Ore Company of Canada was formed to develop these deposits.
A few years later, Retty sent field parties to the Wabush area to search for specularite iron formations. Drilling of the Carol deposit started in 1956, and development of a mine and concentrator followed in 1962. During this period, he recognized the hydro-electric potential of what is now Churchill Falls and Twin Falls, later developed for the Carol project.
Retty left the Iron Ore Company of Canada in 1951 when he was satisfied that the Knob Lake iron deposits would be developed. He continued to work in the region for several more years, later accepting a post as professor of economic geology at Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal.
Retty was the spark that ignited interest in the Labrador Trough, and his work spurred the development of its iron ore resources, a railway line and various support facilities. The legacy of this indefatigable and pioneering geologist lives on in northern Quebec and Labrador where he is affectionately remembered and respected as “Father Ungava.”