Since 1915, the Northern Miner weekly newspaper has chronicled Canada’s globally significant mining sector.
Some of Canada’s biggest and best mineral discoveries began as little more than faint hope in the hearts of a few determined prospectors and geologists. The recent diamond discovery in the Lac de Gras region of the Northwest Territories adds yet another tale of remarkable perseverance in the face of incredible odds.
The Lac de Gras area swept to international prominence in 1992, the result of a diamond discovery in late 1991 on claims held in this sub-Arctic region by Dia Met Minerals (TSE) and BHP Minerals Canada.
Geologist Charles Fipke, founder of Dia Met, is credited with the original discovery of the Point Lake kimberlite pipe where diamonds, including those of gem quality, were returned from subsequent drilling and a bulk-sampling program. The staking rush that ensued, one of the largest in Canadian mining history, continues today.
More recent results from core and surface sampling on the claim block revealed that nine new kimberlites found last summer contain macrodiamonds. The latest results dazzled mining analysts, silenced skeptics, and fuelled optimism that a new world-class diamond source will one day emerge in the Lac de Gras area.
These events also prompted The Northern Miner to name Charles Fipke its “Mining Man of the Year” for 1992, in recognition of his technical skills, years of hard work and dedication to a single goal.
After earning a B.Sc. degree (Honors) in geology from the University of British Columbia, Fipke’s early professional career took him to New Guinea, Australia, South Africa and Brazil where he worked as a heavy mineral geologist specializing in diamond and heavy mineral exploration. He founded C.F. Mineral Research in 1977, and patented the Fipke methods which have put its laboratory and services into the forefront of geologic analysis and research in North America.
The roots of the Lac de Gras discovery go back to the early 1980s when Fipke and Hugo Dummett, currently managing BHP’s North American exploration, first worked together on a diamond exploration program. Fipke had his own company (CF Minerals), while Dummett was working for Superior Oil, then involved in a joint venture with Falconbridge Ltd.
After hearing that other diamond exploration teams were active south of Norman Wells, N.W.T., an exploration program was initiated, only to be discontinued a short while later when Superior pulled out of minerals exploration in Canada. The early venture included Stewart Blusson who, like Fipke, is a minority shareholder (10%) in the current Dia Met-BHP joint venture.
By 1984, Fipke had formed a public company, Dia Met Minerals, which continued the bulk of exploration in the Northwest Territories to 1989, when the first claims were staked in the Lac de Gras region. Exploration criteria for recognizing kimberlitic minerals from a diamond-bearing kimberlite were established by John Gurney, a professor at the University of Cape Town, and the program was premised on these criteria (based on microprobe composition of minerals derived from kimberlite). In the Northwest Territories, these minerals were transported by glacial activity and can serve as a detectable pathway back to the source pipe.
Fipke tracked the indicator mineral train for about 350 miles from the McKenzie Valley to Lac de Gras. That represents five years of superb geochemical detective work, considering the huge gaps in the trail. He also recognized the unique shape of Point Lake, and correctly predicted that it covered a kimberlite pipe.
Funds for this early work were raised on the Vancouver Stock Exchange, a venture capital market too rarely given credit for having financed early exploration on a number of important Canadian discoveries.
In August, 1990, Dia Met formed a joint venture with BHP Minerals Canada, allowing the major to earn a 51% interest in the land package which now totals about 853,000 acres. Today, Dummett manages the overall program, while the geochemical portion of the program is carried out by Fipke on a contract basis. Ground geophysical surveys are conducted by BHP geophysicist Ray Ashley, and airborne surveys by Dighem.
BHP has spent more than $4 million to date, and ongoing work will determine if any of the kimberlite pipes identified so far (or yet to be found) will support an economic diamond mine, the first ever in Canada.
Dia Met owns North America’s only pilot mill diamond recovery plant, which is in Colorado. The company is still based in Kelowna, B.C., where Charles Fipke lives with his wife, Marlene, and family.
Dia Met’s remaining directors — Wayne Fipke, James Eccott, David MacKenzie and George Poling — have also contributed to the company’s extraordinary success to date.