Regional Distribution of Mineral Resources

Canada covers nearly 10 million km2 and has 6 main geological regions, each with its characteristic features.

History of Mineral Resource Development

In the course of Canada's history, and more particularly since Confederation (1867), Canadians have discovered and brought into production a wide variety of minerals (metals, industrial minerals and energy resources), making Canada one of the world's leading mineral-producing countries.

Minerals and Economic Development

Minerals, vital to a modern industrialized country and to the standard of living of its people, have had an important impact on the social and economic development of Canada, especially because of the importance of mineral exports to the Canadian economy. Only about 15% of Canada's metal production is consumed domestically, with the balance exported.

Mineral development depends on efficient and economical means of transportation (railways, highways, waterways and air), which link the resources to domestic and foreign markets. Crude minerals and products (excluding petroleum) account for over half of all revenue freight moved by Canadian railways; half of all cargoes loaded at Canadian seaports for international markets are made up of minerals. In turn, materials for mineral development comprise a significant portion of the tonnage moved by the transport industry.

From mining to marketing, the mineral industry provides much direct and indirect employment in Canada, stimulates a broad range of manufacturing and service industries, and, through export sales, makes a substantial positive contribution to Canada's balance of payments. Apart from large amounts of new investment, mineral development has also accounted for much of Canada's railway construction, for several new ports, and for many Canadian frontier communities.

Mining has helped Canadians attain one of the highest standards of living in the world. Canada's mineral industries are dependent not only on a continuing supply of new ore discoveries, but also on the economic well-being of Canada's trading partners in the world economy. Production is adversely affected by a severe slowdown of growth in the world economy and by changing geographic patterns of world industrial growth and mineral consumption.

Canadian Shield

Dominating this territory is a massive area of Precambrian rock, known as the Canadian Shield, that underlies about half the total area of Canada. This vast expanse of ancient Precambrian igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks, glacial overburden, forest and muskeg has been Canada's leading source of precious and base metals and has large reserves and resources of base metals, gold, iron ore and uranium. Because of its large size and favourable geological features, the Canadian Shield still has considerable potential for the discovery of many additional mineral deposits.

Interior Platform

Between the Canadian Shield and the Cordilleran mountain region of western Canada, and stretching from the US border to the Arctic Ocean, lies the Interior Platform, which includes the Arctic Platform, the Hudson Platform and the St Lawrence Platform. Under the farmland of the southern portion of the western Interior Plains are substantial resources of petroleum, coal, potash and salt, all contained in thick sequences of gently inclined sedimentary rocks in a wedge that thickens westward towards the Rocky Mountains. This region holds promise for further discoveries of fossil fuels. Petroleum exploration has been extended through most of the plains, including areas in the Arctic Archipelago, but many areas and specific formations remain largely untested. The central part contains the Athabasca, Peace River, Wabasca and Cold Lake oil sands, which together contain an accumulation of 270 billion m3 of heavy-oil resources - larger than the petroleum resources in any other country in the world. About 75% of these heavy-oil resources are in the Athabasca oil sands. One-quarter of Canada's crude-oil production comes from oil sands.

Canadian Cordillera

West of the Interior Plains is the Canadian Cordillera, a mountainous region with plateaus and valleys that is underlain by various igneous and sedimentary rocks. This region covers most of British Columbia, the Yukon and the western part of the Northwest Territories, and has extensive and varied mineral resources. Whereas the western and central parts have mainly been sources of a great variety of metals, the eastern region of the Cordillera is noted chiefly for coal and certain industrial minerals, and for petroleum and natural gas along its eastern fringes.

Appalachian Region

Southeast of the Shield, the Appalachian region of eastern Canada consists of a broad belt of mountains, hills and plains. It underlies all of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, western Newfoundland, and that part of Québec lying south of the St Lawrence River and east of a line between Lake Champlain (US) and Québec City. A great variety of minerals is found there, particularly asbestos (Eastern Townships, Québec) and coal (Nova Scotia); important deposits of zinc and lead occur near Bathurst, New Brunswick. Industrial minerals, including salt and potash, are also found in New Brunswick, salt and gypsum in Nova Scotia and salt in the Magdalen Islands.

Innuitian Region

This region, which lies mainly in the Arctic Archipelago, is underlain mainly by folded and gently dipping sedimentary rocks that contain petroleum resources (eg, in the Sverdrup Basin), from which there has been only limited production. The older limestone of the Cornwallis Belt contains zinc and lead, including the rich Arvik deposit on Little Cornwallis Island, Nunavut, which since 1982 has supported Canada's most northerly mine, Polaris. Other minerals, including oil sands, coal, salt and gypsum, have also been identified in the region but are not currently economic to mine in such a remote location.

Continental Shelves

Of increasing importance are the continental shelves extending off the coasts of Canada, underlain mainly by seaward-dipping sedimentary and, in places, volcanic rocks. They include the Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic continental shelves. The Arctic Shelf extends to the edge of the Arctic islands and beneath the Beaufort Sea. The Atlantic Shelf lies east of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador and in the area between Baffin Island and Greenland. Canada has (after Russia) the world's second-largest continental margin - the vast submerged area that is the geological prolongation of Canada's landmass into the seas.

Exploration, particularly off the Atlantic coast where the shelf extends out more than 320 km, has revealed both petroleum and natural gas. There is some production from the Cohasset-Panuke oil field, which lies west of Sable Island, Nova Scotia. Production from the much larger Hibernia oil field on the Grand Banks, 350 km east of Newfoundland, began in September 1997, and from the nearby Terra Nova in 2002. Also in 2002, the White Rose oil field received regulatory approval; it went into production in 2005. In 2008, a deal was reached to develop Hebron, the fourth field to go into production on the Grand Banks. In June 2009 Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams announced that a tentative agreement had been reached on expanding the Hibernia oil field. At the time, the Hibernia oil fields had yielded 670 million barrels; the South Hibernia expansion was expected to yield a further 230 million barrels.

17th and 18th Centuries

Quarrying and mining are among the oldest industries in Canada. In 1672, coal was discovered on Cape Breton Island by Nicolas Denys, to whom Louis XIV had granted a concession to mine on the island. Admiral Walker of the British Navy obtained coal from Cape Breton Island in 1711. In 1720 the first coal was produced in Canada by regular mining methods, and it was exported to Boston in 1724. In New Brunswick, coal was first mined in 1782 near Grand Lake, and in 1784 systematic coal mining began on the northwest shore of Sydney Harbour, Nova Scotia. Alexander Mackenzie of the North West Company discovered coal on the Great Bear River, NWT, in 1789, and David Thompson, also a Northwester, found coal outcrops on the Saskatchewan River in 1800. On Vancouver Island, coal was discovered at Suquash in 1835 through information supplied by native people and at Nanaimo in 1850.

In Québec, iron ore was smelted on the St Maurice River beginning in 1737. The first iron furnace in Ontario was erected at Furnace Falls, Leeds County, in 1800. An iron blast furnace was erected in Marmora Township, Hastings County, in 1820 and another at Normandale in 1822.

In 1770 Jesuit Fathers experimented with native copper, found at Port Mamainse on the north shore of Lake Superior. The earliest recorded gypsum mining in Canada was by settlers in Nova Scotia in 1779. The first gypsum production in Ontario was in 1822, near Paris. The first Canadian base metal production was of copper, beginning in 1848 at Bruce Mines, Canada West (Ontario), on the north shore of Lake Huron.

19th Century

In the 1850s, gold discoveries in BC, oil finds in Ontario and increased production of Cape Breton coal marked a turning point in Canadian mineral history, from events of primarily local importance, to developments destined to have wide-ranging impact.

The first production of gold in Canada, in the late 1850s from a small deposit on the Queen Charlotte Islands of BC [now named Haida Gwaii], was soon followed by production from gold placer deposits in the Cariboo District of central BC, ultimately yielding a total of 110 t of gold. Gold production in Nova Scotia began about 1860. Over the years, production from many very small deposits in that province yielded cumulative production of some 45 t of gold. BC's entry into Confederation in 1871 came about largely because of the rapid growth of the west coast colony that followed the Cariboo and other gold rushes there.

The discovery of petroleum at Oil Springs, Canada West, in 1857 represented North America's earliest commercial petroleum discovery and predates the first US petroleum discoveries in Pennsylvania.

During the 1870s, Canada emerged as a major phosphate producer with the development of deposits of the mineral apatite [Ca5 (F, CI, OH)(PO4)3] in eastern Ontario and in the adjacent Gatineau Hills region of Québec.

The mineral potential of Canada became more evident with the discovery of asbestos in the Eastern Townships of Québec (1877) and the first nickel-copper discoveries at Sudbury, Ontario, in the 1880s, with the first indication of nickel-copper mineralization exposed in 1883 in a rock-cut made during construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway line to the West. Cape Breton coal, the development of the Wabana iron mine in Newfoundland (1893), the Intercolonial Railway, industrial expansion of Ontario and Québec that was assisted by mineral development, and the start of a Canadian iron and steel industry were all important in the subsequent economic growth of Canada.

In the years following Confederation through to the 1890s, increasing exploration in southern BC led to a considerable number of gold, silver and base-metal discoveries, including the Rossland copper-gold deposit (1887) and the famous Sullivan zinc-lead deposit at Kimberley, BC (still in production in the late 1990s) in 1893. The Athabasca oil sands of northern Alberta, which began production only in the 1960s, received attention in a Senate committee report of 1887 following investigations made by the Geological Survey of Canada a few years earlier.

In 1896 placer gold was found in the Klondike District of what became the Yukon Territory, giving rise to one of the world's most spectacular gold rushes. From 1898 to 1905, 167 t of gold, worth more than $110 million at that time ($3 billion at mid-1990s gold prices), was mined from the sands and gravels of creeks near Dawson, which for a brief period had the largest population of any community west of Winnipeg and north of Seattle. Placer gold production from the Yukon continues to the present, having yielded a total of some 440 t of gold from initial production in 1886 until the end of 1997.

In the late 1800s, large deposits of coal and oil sands were evident in that part of the North-West Territories that later became Alberta. Ontario's mineral potential also inspired considerable optimism, especially since good progress was being made in finding the best ways to extract metals from the Sudbury nickel-copper ore. Asbestos was the leading mineral in Québec at that time, followed by copper. In the Atlantic region, Nova Scotian coal was the dominant mineral commodity. Newfoundland's copper production, from mines in the Tilt Cove area, was significant in the context of that time, but not particularly significant in terms of today's world copper production.

Early 20th Century

Although economic policy based on railways, immigration and tariffs did not adversely affect the mineral sector, such economic policy was closely linked to the railway-building programs of the 1870s and 1880s (see Railway History). After 1896 a new period of expansion began, particularly in the Prairie West. The resulting impetus for the production of capital goods increased demand in the manufacturing sector for more minerals. During World War I, Canada's industry almost doubled in capacity. Diversification increased, transforming the steel industry from a specialized enterprise serving the railway-building market to one equipped to supply a range of products to meet the needs of an industrial economy.

In the 1920s the mining and metallurgical base was broadened by the mining and smelting of copper-gold at Rouyn-Noranda, Québec, by copper-zinc mining-smelting at Flin Flon, Manitoba, and by the Britannia copper mine north of Vancouver; by expansion of mining and metallurgical operations at Sudbury, by the establishment of the Trail zinc-lead smelter in BC, and by many other developments, including the drilling of the first oil well at Fort Norman, NWT, and the discovery of a major deposit of natural gas in the Turner Valley, near Calgary (1914).

Mineral development was slower in Saskatchewan. The first copper ore production from the Manitoba-Saskatchewan boundary area was from the Mandy mine in Manitoba in 1917. The prairie provinces did not contribute significantly to Canadian metal production until the Flin Flon mining and smelting operation was built (1930). In 1930 Gilbert Labine discovered uranium-silver-radium ores at Great Bear Lake, NWT, that were mined initially for their radium and silver content, yielding by-product uranium that was used to provide yellow and orange colours in glass and ceramic glazes. In the early 1940s, with the advent of the nuclear age, uranium became the dominant metal of value in these ores, which were exhausted by 1960.

Mid-20th Century

During World War II, Canada became an important source of metals and of other strategic materials needed for the Allied war effort. Expansion of production was substantial in the steel and nonferrous-metals industries and in the electrical apparatus, tool and chemical industries. Between 1939 and the peak period of war materials output, Canadian steel production doubled and aluminum output, based on imported bauxite and alumina, was increased five-fold. During the war years, production of the base metals nickel, copper, lead and zinc increased by 50% or more.

After 1945, the country quickly returned to peacetime activities. Interest in mineral resource development was renewed. The new discoveries of minerals, such as petroleum and natural gas, iron ore, potash, copper, zinc and uranium, not only launched Canada's mineral industry on its greatest period of expansion, but also provided an impetus to Canada's capital goods industries.

The postwar era was marked by many major mineral discoveries: deposits of nickel in Manitoba, of zinc-lead, copper and molybdenum in BC, and of base metals and asbestos in Québec, Ontario, Manitoba, Newfoundland, the Yukon and BC. The discovery of the famous Leduc oil field in Alberta (1947) was followed by a great expansion of Canada's petroleum industry. In the late 1940s and early 1950s uranium was discovered in Saskatchewan and Ontario, giving Canada the world's largest known reserves of this metal in ore. In fact, Canada is the world's largest uranium producer.

Iron ore also became important when huge deposits were developed for mining in Québec and Labrador, and when a major titanium ore body was discovered and developed on Québec's North Shore, providing titanium dioxide pigment and pig iron. Major base-metal mines were brought into production in the Bathurst region of New Brunswick, and a smelting industry was developed there. The world's largest deposits of potash were discovered in Saskatchewan, and North America's first tantalum mine was opened in Manitoba. The Kidd Creek zinc-copper-silver ore body, one of the world's largest, was discovered late in 1963 near Timmins, Ontario, and began production in 1965; it continued to be enlarged for more than 30 years.

The development of mining communities has helped to expand the frontiers of the nation and to provide economic activity in resource towns across the country. The names of many of these communities are familiar: Labrador City and Wabush, Newfoundland; Bathurst, New Brunswick; Black Lake, Chibougamau, Fermont, Matagami, Murdochville, Rouyn-Noranda, Sept-Îles, Val d'Or, Québec; Balmerton-Red Lake, Cobalt, Elliot Lake, Kirkland Lake, Manitouwadge, Sudbury, Temagami, Timmins, Wawa, Ontario; Flin Flon, Leaf Rapids, Lynn Lake, Snow Lake and Thompson, Manitoba; Esterhazy, Rocanville and other potash-mining communities in Saskatchewan; Blairmore and Grande Cache, Alberta; Ashcroft, Cassiar, Kimberley, Logan Lake, Peachland, Sparwood, Stewart and Trail, BC; Yellowknife, Pine Point and Rankin Inlet, Nunavut; Dawson, Faro and Whitehorse, Yukon. Some resource-based communities were abandoned when the ore bodies that supported them became depleted.

Late 20th Century

A resurgence in the gold price, fixed by the US government at US $35 an ounce troy from 1934 until the early 1970s, resulted in a major increase in gold exploration and production in Canada.

With much higher gold prices since the late 1970s, Canada's reserves of gold in ore at Canadian mines increased more than four-fold. New gold ore bodies were discovered and new gold mines opened, including three on a major gold deposit discovered in 1981 at Hemlo, Ontario. Hemlo is one of Canada's most important gold discoveries ever, smaller in its gold content only than the combined Hollinger-McIntyre gold ore body in the Porcupine gold district at Timmins, Ontario, which has yielded more than 2000 t of gold, and possibly smaller than the "Golden Mile" at Kirkland Lake, Ontario, where 800 t of gold have been produced from several separate mines.

Other important new gold mines were opened from the early 1980s to 1996 in Newfoundland, northwestern Québec, northeastern Ontario, northern Saskatchewan and BC (including the extremely rich Eskay Creek gold-silver mine). Various other gold mines reopened, including the former Paymaster mine at Timmins, Ontario, the former Britannia and San Antonio mines in Manitoba, and the former Nickel Plate mine in BC. All of these had closed as they were no longer economic to run because of the then-fixed gold price and increasing production costs due to inflation. Nonetheless, from 1858 to 1997 Canada's cumulative production of gold totalled 8675 t, approximately 7% of the world's all-time cumulative gold production.

A downturn in gold and base-metal prices since 1997 has hurt Canada's mining industry. There have been more mine closures than openings. Mines producing nickel, niobium, iron ore, platinum metals and diamonds did reasonably well considering the economic climate in the industry, while most other metal and nonmetal mines struggled to survive, with many failing.

A significant portion of the world's known uranium resources are in Saskatchewan, specifically in McClean Lake, McArthur River and Cigar Lake, which were discovered in the 1980s. There are three uranium mining operations in the province, at Eagle Point, McArthur River and McClean Lake. Saskatchewan is the largest uranium producing region in the world, accounting for about 30 per cent of annual world uranium production, making Canada the world's leading uranium producer. The Voisey's Bay nickel-copper-cobalt deposit, discovered in Labrador in 1993, is one of Canada's most important nickel deposits. It is located on the eastern edge of a northern expanse of wilderness, 350 km north of Happy Valley-Goose Bay. In 1996, Vale Inco Ltd. acquired the rights to the Voisey's Bay property. The company established an integrated mine and concentrator; Vale Inco began processing its first ore in August 2005.

Several attractive diamond ore bodies have been discovered in the Northwest Territories, the first in 1992. Diamond deposits of economic significance had not previously been discovered in Canada. Canada's first diamond-mining operation began production in October 1998 at the Ekati mine in Lac de Gras, NWT, followed by the Diavik mine in 2003. According to Statistics Canada, the mines produced 13.8 million carats, worth $2.8 billion, between 1998 and 2002.

Canada's third diamond mine, and Nunavut's first, was the Jericho mine, established 400 km northeast of Yellowknife by the Tahera Diamond Corporation. It was officially opened in August 2006.

In 2008, De Beers began production in two mines in Canada. The Snap Lake Mine, 220 km northeast of Yellowknife, was the company's first diamond mine established outside Africa and the first Canadian diamond mine completely underground. The Victor Mine, in the James Bay Lowlands of Northern Ontario, approximately 90 km west of the Attawapiskat First Nation, is an open pit mine and Ontario's first diamond mine.

Canada has become the third-largest diamond producer in the world, behind Botswana and Russia. Most importantly though, Canada's diamonds have a global reputation for being of high quality and for being "clean" - they do not finance terror, war or weapons as they do in some countries. Diamonds that contribute to such activities are referred to as "dirty" or "blood diamonds."