Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
June 2005

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Mining Industry of Canada


[This article was published in 1948; for the precise citation, see the end of the text.]

Mining Industry. Minerals have played a basic role in speeding up the economic development of Canada at various periods throughout her history. Cartier insistently sought for the source of supply of small quantities of copper found in the hands of the St. Lawrence Indians, and interest flagged with the failure of the Precambrian shield to yield the wealth of Mexico and Peru. Throughout the French régime the copper resources of the lake Superior region attracted the attention of New France, but energies in the development of mining were concentrated on the more accessible minerals of the later sedimentary formations. Attempts to develop the coal mines of Cape Breton to offset the limitations of French resources by preferences were handicapped by the difficulties of shipping-coal to France because of its high sulphur content and the dangers of heating. The rich deposits of bog iron near Three Rivers were exploited through extensive support of the state for the manufacture of articles for domestic consumption, but the handicaps of lack of capital and skilled labour were enhanced by increasing costs through depletion of adjacent forests for charcoal. Abundant forests reduced the costs of building materials, but danger from fires and demand for more permanent buildings, particularly for the fortifications and governmental purposes, led to the opening of stone quarries, the establishment of brickand-tile plants, and lime kilns, particularly in the vicinity of Montreal, Three Rivers, and Quebec.


After the British conquest, English interests continued to develop the mining industries begun by the French. The St. Maurice forges continued in primitive fashion to produce bar iron, cast-iron stoves and pots, and ploughshares. Coal was mined in large quantities in Cape Breton to meet the demands of the garrison at Halifax and later of Newfoundland, but lack of capital, inefficient operations by the government, and short-term leases restricted developments until the General Mining Company with English capital secured a lease in 1828 for thirty-six years on payment of an annual rental and a royalty on the coal produced. Reduction and abolition of the export duty on coal from Great Britain, completion of navigation on the Schuylkill, import duties in the United States, and lower grade coal seriously restricted the American market and accentuated concentration on the colonial market; but even here the ships brought coal in ballast from England. Montreal introduced coal-burning stoves in 1833, and the beginning of steam navigation; with the Royal William, for example, provided an expanding market: Short lines of railway brought coal from the mines in Cape Breton and in the Pictou fields (1840) to the harbours: for export. Abundant shipping and accessibility to the seaboard facilitated exploitation of the gypsum beds of Nova Scotia, especially at Windsor, to meet the demands of the exhausted agricultural areas in the eastern United States and of rocks suitable for the manufacture of grindstones, particularly after the turn of the century.


The discovery of placer gold in California introduced a new epoch in the history of mining in North America. Rush of population to the Cordilleran region of the Pacific coast brought a demand for coal from Vancouver island. Difficulties with coal-mining at Fort Rupert led to the opening of coal-mines at Nanaimo and to the export of coal to California in 1853. Prospectors movednorthward from the crowded gold-fields and discovered placer gold on the bars of the Fraser river, thus precipitating the rush of 1858. In turn they pushed up the Fraser to the rich deposits of the Cariboo. With marked increase in population, local demands for coal increased; and in 1862 the Hudson's Bay Company sold the mines at Nanaimo to the Vancouver Coal Mining and Land Company. Exhaustion of the placer mines of the Cariboo was accompanied by extended migration of prospectors and isolated developments of placer-mining in British Columbia, and by a search for gold which included the upper reaches of the Saskatchewan, the Peace, the Liard, the Stikine, and the Yukon. The Cassiar region on the Stikine was developed in the seventies. Decline in population in British Columbia, competition of coal brought from England in ships returning in ballast from carrying wheat from California, and the additional duties in the United States limited the production of coal during the severe depression of the seventies. Recovery in the early eighties and beginnings of railway construction led to the purchase of South Wellington mines (1882) and the construction of the Esquimault and Nanaimo Railway (1883-6) by Dunsmuir interests.


In Eastern Canada interest in gold was followed by small placer-mining developments on the Chaudière river (1863) and at Ovens in Nova Scotia (1861), and by the opening of a large number of small quartz gold-mines in Nova Scotia, particularly in the Mooseland and Tangier districts. Inexperience, lack of knowledge of the complex geological structure, and inefficient financing restricted development. In 1872 company operation practically disappeared in favour of the tribute system. Introduction of dynamite in the seventies, improved methods, and acquisition of experience with the mines brought increased production in the eighties. In Ontario, particularly in Hastings county, small deposits of quartz gold were exploited, the most important being the Deloro mine. Development of the mineral wealth in the Precambrian formation was handicapped by transportation, and was restricted to small deposits accessible by cheap water navigation. Silver was discovered on Silver islet in lake Superior, and operations began with New York support in 1870. It was abandoned in 1884. Base metals were even more difficult to exploit because of lower prices and the necessity of shipment over long distances for refining. Copper ore was sent from Bruce Mines and Wellington Mines in the lake Superior region by vessel to Swansea in England in the fifties and sixties, as well as from the Acton Mine in Bagot county and Harvey Hill Mine in Leeds county. Apatite (phosphate) was exported chiefly through Kingston and near Buckingham on the Lièvre river to meet the demands of agriculture in Europe for fertilizer following the exhaustion of the guano beds of Chili and Peru. The complex formations north of lake Ontario yielded not only gold and apatite, but also mica and iron. In the seventies and eighties, iron ore was shipped to Cleveland from numerous mines, including those of Madoc and Marmora townships, chiefly from Kingston.


The rise of industrialism, with the railway and the steamship and increase in population in the agricultural areas, hastened the development of mineral production in sedimentary formations. Gypsum was produced in the district along the Grand river, and established a market in competition with the Nova Scotia product. Petroleum was discovered in the late fifties in the Petrolea district, and production increased rapidly to the seventies, when competition from the United States became important. The search for oil led to the discovery of salt near Goderich in 1866 and to the rapid increase in production. Increase in urban population supported a demand for building materials, and led to the development of stone quarries, brick-and-tile plants (especially at Toronto, with its extensive clay deposits), and the manufacture of plaster of Paris and cement.


The demands of industry for cheap supplies of power and exhaustion of wood supplies hastened an increase in coal production. The Reciprocity Treaty brought an increase in exports of coal from Nova Scotia to the United States 'nd a demand for revocation of monopoly privileges exercised by the General Mining Association. With cancellation of these privileges in 1858, several new mines came into production, particularly to meet the demands of the United States for gas coal. Restoration of duties, following abrogation of the Reciprocity Treaty in 1866, narrowed the foreign market and accentuated pressure on the domestic market. Steam navigation on the St. Lawrence brought increased demands for bunker coal, the imposition of a tariff on coal from the United States, and construction of the Intercolonial Railway (1876); and increased industrialism following the National Policy was followed by demands for increasing quantities of iron and of coal. The iron-and-steel industry of New Glasgow and the emergence of the Nova Scotia Steel Company followed an extended period of experiments with small developments.


Placer-mining and its subordinate activities in British Columbia brought serious problems with rapid expansion and rapid decline, which were solved by the admission of British Columbia to Confederation and construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Coalmining in Nova Scotia and the importance of the industrial market of the St. Lawrence supported Confederation in Eastern Canada. Penetration of the Precambrian formation and of the Cordilleran region by a transcontinental railway brought the rapid expansion of metal mining, which became a basic factor in the later economic history of the Dominion. Expansion of lode mining in the Cordilleran region assumed dependence to a large extent on a transcontinental rail-haul, and was hastened. by support of the Canadian Pacific Railway. In the Kootenay region, ore was sent from mines tributary to Kootenay lake to United States smelters, but extension of control south of Revelstoke to the Arrow lakes brought the Canadian Pacific Railway into the struggle for the rich copper gold deposits of the Rossland mines. The smelter at Trail was acquired by the railway in 1898, and the Crowsnest Pass Railway, built with extensive subsidies from the Dominion government in return for lower freight rates from the prairie region to pastern Canada, brought coal and coke from the Crowsnest Mines to the smelter. Cheap supplies of coke hastened exploitation of the Rossland mines, and led to the opening of mines and smelters (Greenwood and Grand Forks) in the copper region of the Boundary district. These mines, as well as the Rossland mines, were exhausted during the high-price period of the World War. The Silver King Mine and the Hall smelter at Nelson showed signs of exhaustion by 1907. The silver-lead-zinc mines of the Slocan and East Kootenay regions were developed with difficulty as a result of metallurgical problems and the United States tariff. The Moyie Mine at St. Eugène was exploited through the support of bounties on lead. Exhaustion of less difficult copper gold ores, and demands of the war period, necessitated a determined attack on the problems of the complex ores, particularly of the Sullivan Mine, which were solved through the support of the Imperial Munitions Board and the rapid development of hydro-electric power, particularly for the extraction of zinc by electrolytic processes. Extensive development under the Consolidated Milting and Smelting Company (controlled by the Canadian Pacific Railway) was evident in construction of concentrators to handle ore from the Slocan Mines and at the Sullivan property, in installation of additional hydro-electric powerplants, and the establishment of byproduct industries for the manufacture of sulphuric acid and in turn of chemical fertilizer on a large scale. Competition of hydro-electric power and of crude oil brought acute problems for the coal mines of the Crowsnest region, particularly during the depression: In 1932 the Coal Creek Mines were closed, and in 1933 the Corbin Mines. Fertilizer has become important to agriculture in the prairie regions. The Granby Company, after exhaustion of its mines in the Boundary district, acquired control of a copper deposit at the Hidden Creek Mine, and opened a smelter at Anyox in 1914. The plant was closed down in 1935. The Britannia Mining and Smelting Company began operations at a copper mine in Howe sound in 1900concentrating its product for export to smelters. The Premier Company, incorporated in 1919, sent its concentrates from Hyder to smelters at Anyox and Tacoma, Washington.


The economic development of British Columbia, after completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway, was hastened by the dramatic discovery of placer gold on Bonanza creek, a tributary of the Klondike in the Yukon in 1896. News of the richness of the discovery was followed by the rush of 1897 and of 1898, when thousands poured over the White pass from Skagway and the Chilcoot pass from Dyea and down the river to Dawson City. The Yukon gold rush was one of the world's greatest economic explosions. A railway was built to lake Bennett in 1899 and to White Horse in 1900, to link up with river steamboats. Roads on the creeks hastened the introduction of steam points for the handling of frozen ground, and within a period of four or five years the exhaustion of claims by primitive methods of extraction. The dredge followed on the creek claims, and in turn the hill and bench claims were washed down by extensive hydraulic operations. These large-scale capitalistic types of development displaced much labour, and led to migration to new fields in Alaska and to the marked decline of population. Subordinate industries included coal-mining and the development of hydro-electric power. New mining developments include the silver lead deposits of the Keno Mine near Mayo, from which concentrates are shipped to smelters, and minor copper mines near Whitehorse. The depression has been marked by increasing attention to placer-mining in the old fields of British Columbia, including the Atlin region, and in the Yukon, and by inward railway traffic for the White Pass Railway and the Pacific Great Eastern. Railways and steam navigation in British Columbia and the Yukon created demands for the coal. The Union Mine was opened in the Cumberland region in 1888, and miners were moved from Wellington to open up the Extension Mines at Ladysmith on Oyster bay in 1900. A smelter was in operation at Ladysmith from 1902 to 1916. The Western Fuel Company (controlled by American interests) bought out older properties in 1903; and Canadian Collieries (controlled by English interests) purchased the Dunsmuir properties in 1911. The latter purchased the property of Western Fuel in 1928. Granby Consolidated opened a coal mine at Cassidy in 1918. Fluctuating duties in the United States had serious effects on Vancouver coal mines, as did the fluctuations of economic activity in the province, the competition from hydro-electric power and oil, and the increasing cost of mining.


In the Cordilleran region, mining activity was characterized by sudden violent developments, as in the Yukon, and by heavy capital investments essential to the exploitation of base metals on a large scale. The intense optimism of the Yukon gold rush was an important factor in the psychology behind the. statement that "the twentieth century belongs to Canada", the consequent boom of the period after 1900 with its addition of transcontinental railways, and the bitterness which characterized the dispute with the United States over the Alaska boundary. Exhaustion of more accessible richer deposits has been followed by the steadier economic activity which characterizes the enormous capital outlay of Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company. Operations under mountain conditions lowered costs of extraction by permitting extensive use of gravity in bringing down ore, and strengthened the peculiar influence which mining development in British Columbia had on the Dominion through its effect on transcontinental traffic.


In eastern Canada, the Canadian Pacific Railway across the Precambrian formation tapped the nickel deposits of the Sudbury area. In 1888 the Canadian Copper Company began operations at Coppercliff. After numerous experiments and work, chiefly on mines with a high proportion of copper, the Creighton Mine was opened in 1900, and the whole was merged in the International Nickel Company in 1902. A large smelter and an extensive power plant at High Falls on the Spanish river were added in 1904. A bessemer matte was sent to Bayonne, New Jersey ; but with a provincial export tax a refinery was completed at Port Colborne in 1918. The Mond Nickel Company began operations in 1900, depending chiefly on the Victoria Mine for supplies of ore for the smelter. Exhaustion of this mine was followed by removal of the smelter to Coniston, and dependence on the Garson and Levack Mines. The matte was sent to Clydac in Wales for refining. A sulphuric acid plant was added in 1925. The Frood property was mined by both companies. In 1929 the two companies were amalgamated under the International Nickel Company. Hydroelectric power has been purchased from the Abitibi Canyon development on a large scale. The industry has occupied a strong monopoly position, and has depended during its early development on armament requirements, and since the World War on an energetic direction of development for industrial purposes.


The relative stability involved in enormous capital investment and substantial ore reserves is in contrast with the character of expansion in the precious metal regions of northern Ontario. Construction of the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway led to the discovery of the high-grade silver deposits at Cobalt and to the rush of of 1903 and later years. The product was shipped directly to smelters; but, with increasing costs of mining at lower depths and production of lower grade ore, concentrators were built and hydro-electric power plants installed at convenient power-sites. Higher costs during the war were accompanied by improvement in processes, and higher prices of silver immediately after the war hastened exhaustion. Labour and capital migrated to new areas in South Lorrain and Gowganda; but, by the beginning of the depression, large numbers of mines had been abandoned through depletion. Cobalt was an important joint product. In 1909 gold was discovered in the Porcupine district, and Cobalt and other interests developed properties which warranted construction of a railway to Timmins in 1911 and the emergence of large mining organizations, notably Dome, Hollinger, and McIntyre. Marked expansion in the demand for power led to the installation of adjacent power sites and later at Quinze and at Island Falls (later transferred to the Abitibi Power and Paper Company). In turn gold was discovered at Kirkland Lake near Swastika in 1912, and mines were developed especially at Tough Oakes (now Toburn), Wright Hargreaves, Lake Shore, Teck Hughes, Kirkland Lake, and more recently at Macassa and other properties. Limitations of power were met by restricted production, transfer of power from declining demands of Cobalt to Kirkland Lake, and development of new power-sites. In the Patricia district, opening of the Howey Mine was followed by development of properties to the north and north-west in Manitoba. The depression has been accompanied by expanding production and an intense search for new properties from Nova Scotia to British Columbia. Gold-mining in northern Ontario has involved heavy demands for power amd for constant technical improvements and reduction of costs, since in contrast to the mountain regions of British Columbia ore must be hauled up the shaft rather than run down and costs of pumping and other operations tend to be higher. The geographic background, the character of the ore body, the technique of exploitation, the cost of hydro-electric power, and the position of gold in the monetary structure are important factors in determining the extent and character of gold production.


Precious metal mining in Northern Ontario was followed by the discovery of the copper gold deposits in the Rouyn district of Quebec and construction of a smelter at Noranda in 1927. In northern Manitoba, the Great War was responsible for shipments of copper ore from the Mandy Mine. The difficult flow sheet of Flin Flon properties was worked out, a smelter was built in 1929, and operations were developed with reliance on power developments at Island Falls on the Churchill river. Sherritt Gordon Mines were linked to Flin Flon by rail.


The construction of the Hudson Bay Railway, the development of aviation, the use of gasoline on a large scale in transportation and navigation, and the organization of mining development, in which large-scale mining companies, such as Mining Corporation and Nipissing in Cobalt, Hollinger, and Consolidated Mining and Smelting, began a search for new properties to replace exhausting ore bodies and to extend control; and prospecting companies, such as Ventures, Dominion Explorers and N.A.M.E., were formed with public support, and were followed by prospecting work over the whole of the northern portion of the Precambrian formation. A small mining deposit of quartz gold at Tavane on Hudson bay, the development of silver and radium properties on Bear lake, and a knowledge of the general structure of the region, as well as of promising ore-bodies, were a result of the work in the later years of the twenties.


Railway construction in Quebec led to the discovery of the asbestos deposits in the Thetford Black district. Demands of the construction industry for fireproof material, particularly in the United States, involved exposure to the difficulties of marked prosperity and depression. Financial reorganizations have tended to support control of a dominant group.


Throughout Canada a large number of minerals other than those described are to be found, but generally in small quantities. Minerals peculiar to the sedimentary formations have been produced in relation to the demands of the marked expansion after 1900. The demands of railways and of increasing population in the prairie provinces were responsible for increased production in the coal-fields of southern Alberta and southern Saskatchewan. Building materials were supplied for the expansion of urban centres. Discovery of gas and oil in Alberta have been accompanied by tremendous waste. Oil discovered at Fort Norman in 1920 has been used in the development of Bear lake mines. In southern Ontario gas fields extend over a wide area, but the trend has been toward depletion. New Brunswick has gas fields and coal areas of limited extent.


Railway construction in the period after the turn of the century and its demands for iron and steel and the expansion of industrialism in the St. Lawrence led to a rapid growth in the production of coal and iron and steel. Montreal and Boston interests, through the Dominion Coal Company, introduced capital on an important scale to support a reorganization of coal mines in the vicinity of Sydney. Nova Scotia interests supported an expansion of the iron-and-steel industry near New Glasgow and in turn of coal production and extended control to coal mines in Cape Breton and iron mines of Wabana in Newfoundland. Expansion of coal production for the manufacture of iron was accompanied by increase in exports to the St. Lawrence. The war period was followed by amalgamation and reorganization, by increased costs of mining coal, and by the necessity of subventions facilitating the marketing of coal in the Ontario market. Iron-and-steel production in Ontario has been largely dependent on imports of raw material from the United States, but iron mines were developed to a limited extent in the Algoma district to feed the industry at Sault Ste. Marie.


Administration of the mining industry has remained under the British North America Act with the provinces, and its history has varied with the character of mining development in each province. In the North West Territories and in the Yukon , jurisdiction has rested with the federal government. A heavy strain was imposed with the gold rush of the Yukon, with consequent charges of irregularities. Transportation and the tariff have been largely matters of federal concern, and policies have had important effects on the mining of coal and the iron-and-steel industry. Bounties and subventions have been a part of Dominion policy. The provinces, notably Ontario and British Columbia, have been concerned with mining development, with the construction of provincial railways and with taxation policies.


The sudden bursts of economic activity characteristic of placer-mining in the Cordilleran region contributed to the speeding up of economic activity, first through the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and second with the Yukon through the boom which hastened construction of two additional transcontinental railways. Base-metal mining has contributed in more stable fashion to the development of long-haul traffic. Railway construction on a large scale hastened expansion of the iron and coal industries, but decline in railway construction, accompanied by the increasing importance of hydro-electric power, has weakened the position of coal. Penetration of more northern areas of the Precambrian formation, with the assistance of gasoline, has increased traffic for the more northerly railways; and the importance of precious metals has produced a steadying effect during the depression. The peak-load problem of railway traffic incidental to dependence on wheat has been minimized; and metropolitan areas such as Toronto, Winnipeg, and Edmonton have felt even more directly the benefits of a more balanced development. The effects have been evident in subordinate industries, finance, and substantial contributions to cultural growth.


Bibliography. See Report of the Royal Commission on the mineral resources of Ontario (Toronto, 1890); Report of the Royal Ontario Nickel Commission (To ronto, 1917); M. M. Mendels, The asbestos industry of Canada (McGill University Economic Studies); J. G Ross, Chrysotile asbestos in Canada (Ottawa, 1931); W. J. A. Donald, History of the Canadian iron and steel industry (Boston, 1915); R. S. Moore, Canada's mineral resources (Toronto, 1929) ; R. Drummond, Minerals and mining in Nova Scotia (Stellarton, 1918) ; R. Brown, The coal fields and coal trade of the island of Cape Breton (London, 1871); W. J. Trimble, The mining advance into the inland empire (Madison, 1914) ; Select documents in Canadian economic history, vols. i and ii (Toronto, 19-) ; J. N. Fauteux, Essai sur l'industrie au Canada sous le régime français (Quebec, 1927); A. R. M. Lower and H. A. Innis, Settlement and the forest and mining frontiers (Toronto, 1936) ; E. Forsey, Economic and social aspects of the Nova Scotia coal industry; and W. Malcolm, Gold fields of Nova Scotia. (Ottawa, 1929). See also the Reports of the Geological Survey of Canada, of the Mines Branch of the Canadian government, and of the Mines departments of the provincial governments.

Source: H. A. INNIS, "Mining Industry", in W. Stewart WALLACE, ed., The Encyclopedia of Canada, Vol. IV, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 400p., pp. 297-305.

© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College