This speech was given at the Canadian Business History Association Conference at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto on September 12, 2017.
Good morning everyone.
For over 150 years the strategic mining sector has played a major role in the economic development of Canada as well as opening up many parts of the country’s isolated north for settlement. It also helped solidify our western and northern borders during the first few decades of Canada’s existence at a time of threatening American expansion.
British Columbia Gold Rush
In 1848, placer gold – which refers to the metal found in rivers and streams – was discovered in California. This was the first of a series of gold rushes throughout the world over the next 80 years.
Fortunately, when these placer gold deposits started to decline by 1858, a similar discovery was made hundreds of miles to the north at the mouth of the Fraser River, in a territory known as New Caledonia.
At that time, this region was controlled by the Hudson Bay Company and the colony of Vancouver Island was ruled by Governor James Douglas who was based in Victoria. He was fearful that an influx of about 30,000 miners, many from California, would cause the territory to be annexed by the Americans.
Douglas quickly petitioned London to create the new colony of British Columbia, was appointed its Governor and confirmed the border with Washington State.
Over the next decade or so, the gold rush continued up the Fraser River, along the Caribou trail and onwards to the town of Barkerville. Without a doubt, the enormous mineral riches and economic development of this new colony did not go unnoticed by a group of politicians in the east.
The year was 1867 and they were merging four separate provinces into a new country called Canada. That same year, the U.S. purchased Alaska from Russia. This further fueling fears of annexation in the now combined colonies of British Columbia and Vancouver Island as the Americans would want to have continuous land connection between Alaska and the lower mainland.
They finally agreed to join Canada in 1871 when Sir John A. MacDonald offered to build a railroad to the isolated region, a railroad that also led to the discovery of the largest and one of the richest mining camps in our history, Sudbury.
Yukon Gold Rush
But first, let’s highlight the legendary Klondike gold rush. I sometimes have a bit of a problem with the Klondike as it seems to take up so much of our “historical oxygen” to the detriment of other gold and base metal discoveries.
The main part of the rush only lasted from 1896 to 1899 but thanks to terrific public relations from writers like Jack London, Pierre Berton and Robert Service and his iconic “Creation of Sam McGee”, it is the most well-known mining event in our history.
I am of a generation of Canadian children who were required to learn that iconic Klondike poem in primary school:
“There are strange things done in the midnight sun, by the men who moil for gold; The Arctic trails have their secret tales that would make your blood run cold; The Northern Lights have seen queer sites, but the queerest they ever did see; Was that night on the marge of Lake Labarge, I cremated Sam McGee.”
In total, about 12 million ounces of gold was produced during a ten-year period, though there was probably much smuggling due to a tax on production. That’s small change compared to the Timmins camp which is currently at 73 million ounces and counting!
However, the Klondike did draw attention to the enormous mineral riches of our mostly ignored north. And strategically extended Canadian rule of law into the region and firmly established our somewhat hazy border with Alaska.
As in the earlier B.C. gold rush, the vast majority of miners were American. By sending the North West Mounted police – we all know of the legendary Sam Steele – as well as the 200-man Yukon Field army, political and social control was quickly established.
Canada was not going to allow a “wild west” environment as was occurring on the American side, particularly in Skagway, Alaska.
Notwithstanding the historical hype of the Klondike the two most important mining events in our history are the discoveries of the Sudbury nickel mines in 1883 and the Cobalt silver boom of 1903.
Both were the result of railroads – the construction of the Canadian Pacific to British Columbia in Sudbury’s case and the building of the provincial Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway, going through Cobalt, which was for the colonization of northern Ontario.
But the similarities end there. Sudbury was built with American capital. It was American technology that successfully separated the nickel from the copper in the complex Sudbury Basin ores. And additionally, American research and testing first established the unique properties of nickel which when added to steel made the resulting alloy much stronger and resistant to corrosion.
Nickel-steel alloys became the perfect metal for war used in a wide variety of ways including the construction of the feared dreadnought ships of the First World War, tanks, ordnance and the mighty B-29 bombers during World War Two.
A 1954 U.S. Department of Defense report stated that nickel was “the closest to being a true ‘war metal.’ It deserves first priority among materials receiving conservation attention.”
There had always been a close association between senior Inco management and the American military-industrial complex for most of the 20th century.
Both Inco Limited, formed in 1902, and Falconbridge Limited, founded in 1928 would leverage their Sudbury basin mines to become corporate giants with global operations. For much of the 20th century, Sudbury was a key source of this strategic material supplying upwards to 90% of global demand at various times.
CEO Robert Stanley guided Inco for much of its first 50 years and basically saved the company when nickel markets crashed after the end of the First World War by finding many peace time uses. Under his leadership, sales of nickel increased from 13 million pounds in 1921 to 241 million in 1951, the year he passed away.
For over 130 years, no other resource community in Canada has impacted the national news as often as Sudbury. Here is a brief list of some of the issues that kept that community on the front pages of the national media:
• nickel was a metal that was absolutely critical in times of war and of primary concern to the nation and politicians;
• government threats of nationalization when Inco was caught selling nickel to the Germans during World War One;
• union battles during the cold war hysteria of the McCarthy era, which included car bombings, riots and government spying on the allegedly communist controlled mine mill union which was replaced by the right-leaning Steelworkers in 1962;
• a devastated local “lunar like” environment – Nasa astronauts visited the community in the early 1970s before going into space, however it was to study the geology not because Sudbury resembled the moon;
• some of the longest and most bitter strikes in Canadian history;
• very high death rates in the mines due to poor safety;
• massive layoffs and social disruption in the late 1970s;
• the largest source of acid rain pollution until the 1980s when new technologies significantly reduced sulphur emissions;
• a protracted foreign takeover battle during the last decade, just to name a few issues!
And let’s not forget the cultural impact of Stompin Tom’s Sudbury Saturday Night – “Well the girls are out to bingo and the boys are gettin stinko, We think no more of Inco on a Sudbury Saturday Night.”
Sudbury today is a vibrant regional hub for north-eastern Ontario, with a thriving cluster of mining supply and service companies, post-secondary mining education and a centre of mineral research.
Successful revegetation initiatives have garnered international acclaim and the city continues to produce nickel, platinum, copper and cobalt – all key metals needed for the booming electrical vehicle market and pollution controls.
In contrast, many historians have called the Cobalt silver boom “the cradle of Canada’s mining industry.”
Notwithstanding a large American presence, Cobalt enhanced the prospecting and mining capabilities of Canadians and most importantly, provided the necessary financing for future mine development. Roughly 100 mines were developed over the life of the camp and an astonishing 460 million ounces of silver produced.
The smelting of silver was not a very complicated process and the deposits were fairly shallow and didn’t need the huge amounts of capital investment as in Sudbury.
During the first decade of the 20th century, important technological advances in mining and metallurgy were also being discovered and applied at Cobalt that were adopted throughout Canada and the world.
And being a very proud northerner from Sudbury, I really want to emphasize to this southern audience, that the silver boom and subsequent discoveries throughout northern Ontario and the rest of Canada was the primary reason Toronto and its two stock exchanges and banking sector became a global mine financing powerhouse. In 2016, the Toronto Stock Exchange and the TSX Venture Exchange were responsible for 57% of global mine financing.
While the Cobalt silver boom was largely over by the end of the 1920s its enduring legacy also included the discovery of a number of adjacent gold and base metal deposits at Timmins, Kirkland Lake, Rouyn-Noranda and Val D’Or, over the next two decades.
This led to the founding of new companies and the further settlement of many regions throughout northeastern Ontario and Northwestern Quebec.
The two largest of those discoveries included gold in Timmins and the world-class copper/gold deposits at Rouyn/Noranda.
In the summer and fall of 1909, near Porcupine Lake, 90 miles slightly northeast of Cobalt, individual prospectors – Jack Wilson, Benny Hollinger and the hard-drinking Scotsman, Sandy MacIntyre each found separate gold deposits that became three of the most legendary gold mines in Canadian history – the Dome, the Hollinger and the MacIntyre, respectively!
I need to mention two key points for context. Mines that produce 10 million ounces of gold or more are very rare. And the Timmins gold camp is part of the extraordinary Abitibi-greenstone belt which is roughly 150 km wide and runs in a east-west direction from that city for about 660 kms to Chibougamau, Quebec.
The Abitibi is one of the world’s greatest gold mining regions, producing about 200 million ounces of the precious metal along with roughly 35 billion pounds of zinc and 15 billion pounds of copper to date. It is one of the exploration hot spots of the country.
The Dome Mine which has produced about 17 million ounces of gold will be finally closing later this year. The amazing Hollinger produced 19.3 million ounces of gold over 58 years – the most in Canadian history – before closing in 1968.
It was built by Noah Timmins who used the profits of this mine to invest in many new mineral camps discovered across the country including Noranda’s Horne Smelter. He was known as the “Grand Old Man of Canadian Mining” when he died in 1936.
His nephew Jules Timmins would go on to build the great iron ore mines of northern Quebec and Labrador in the 1950s to supply the booming steel mills on both sides of the Great Lakes and helped spur the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway.
And the MacIntyre mine produced a little over 10 million ounces and its CEO Jack Bickell was instrumental in the formation of the Toronto Maple Leafs and finding the money to build Maple Leaf Gardens during the early years of the Depression.
On the Quebec side of the Abitibi, prospector Edmond Horne claim-staked one of Canada’s richest copper/gold deposits at Rouyn’s Osisko Lake.
Formed in 1922 to develop the discovery, Noranda and its first CEO James Murdoch started a mining boom which helped develop northwestern Quebec.
Due to the huge amounts of gold byproduct, and the ensuing discovery of the precious metal in nearby Val D’Or, the region became known as “Quebec’s Klondike”.
From the beginning Murdoch saw Noranda as a company that not only mined and refined the copper but would also fabricate products. A refinery was built in Montreal in 1930 and a rolling mill for the Canada Wire and Cable Company soon followed – all during the start of the Great Depression!
Noranda under Murdoch became a huge complex of related metal industries. He died in 1962 but is remembered as the “Father of Quebec Mining” and a committed Canadian nationalist who significantly helped build this country’s north.
Recent History – Takeover Frenzy
The first decade of the 21st century could be easily summed up as the proverbial “It was the best of times and it was the worst of times.” China was expanding at double digit growth rates and mining companies struggled to meet that country’s voracious demand.
But the foreign takeovers of historic mining companies like Inco Limited, a merged Falconbridge/Noranda as well as Alcan, and the three steelmakers – Stelco, Dofassco, and Algoma – not only dealt a serious blow to Canadian pride as miners to the world but also negatively diminished the Toronto Stock Exchange.
Conversely the country’s gold miners weathered the takeover storm exceptionally well. Through aggressive takeovers and strategic exploration, Barrick’s CEO Peter Munk had turned two small gold operations in 1984 into one of Canada’s largest miners. During the takeover frenzy, Munk made a bold bid for Canadian-owned Place Dome and succeeded in creating the largest gold miner in the world.
Barrick had no dual class share system like Teck to prevent a takeover or a sympathetic Premier like Brad Wall in Saskatchewan who stopped the BHP Billiton buyout of Potash Corp. Ontario Premier McGuinty was absolutely silent when historic Ontario base-metal producers were bought by foreigners!
It was a prey or predator scenario and Peter Munk came out on top, as well as ensuring one Canadian miner was among the global giants.
There is still some bitterness among Canadian mine builders at the loss of Inco and Falconbridge/Noranda and their Canadian world-class assets. However, there is a new generation of mine builders working on projects in Canada and around the world. The country has a vibrant, entrepreneurial class of mine finders and builders that are second to none.
And with exceptionally promising new mining regions like Ontario’s Ring of Fire in the province’s remote Northwest, British Columbia’s Golden Triangle and many developments in the three territories, just to name a few promising new camps, the sector will recover and thrive.
And for good measure significantly help alleviate the impoverished living conditions in many northern First Nations communities. Agnico Eagle’s gold mine in Nunavut and the diamond mines in the Northwest Territories are creating a growing Indigenous middle-class. These are only a few examples of First Nation participation with the mining sector across the north.
Mining will continue to create enormous wealth, jobs and sustainable economic activity both here in Canada and around the world like we have always done throughout the past 150 years.