Is the size and diversity of Canada’s mining industry that is perhaps its main strength. Maurice Jones reports
Such is the size of the Canadian mining industry that it is tempting to concentrate on mining in one or two provinces. However, those chosen (Ontario and British Columbia) featured for the wrong reason in the recent survey by the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute. This determined that these, unlike most other Canadian provinces, did NOT appear in the top 10 favoured locations in the world to carry out mining investment business. They came in at 23rd and 28th respectively, but also ahead of Nunavut and Nova Scotia. Saskatchewan led Canadian provinces, being listed 2nd in the world behind Finland. Criteria for the survey of 485 mining exploration executives included geological attractiveness and how well the 122 jurisdictions encouraged mining exploration and investment.
Canada can claim many leading positions in mining including the top country producing potash and uranium. It also has the world’s deepest base-metal (copper/zinc) mine (Kidd Creek near Timmins, Ontario) at almost 3000m (10 000ft). To those outside the industry and fans of the TV series ‘Ice Road Trucker’ it is not widely known that Canada is also the third largest producer of diamonds in the world thanks to a number of kimberlite pipe mines, both open pit and now underground, chiefly in the North West Territories. Traditionally Canada has been well known as a leader in nickel production, and it is still in the world’s top five producers. There over 800 mines of different types employing over 360 000 workers.
Despite a diverse economy, all this places mining in a very important position within Canada as well as in foreign trade. Including metal producing the industry is valued at 42 billion CAD (32.9bn USD) annually.
Despite the lower commodity prices in most types of mining, Canada still has many start-ups including those commencing production. For example, despite its problems with the Mount Polley mine tailings dam breach, Imperial Metal Corp has just commenced trucking copper concentrate from its Red Chris mine to the port of Stewart, British Columbia, following commissioning of the mineral dressing flotation circuit using low-grade ore feed. Imperial, based in Vancouver, operates the Mount Polley copper/gold mine, the Sterling gold mine in Nevada, USA, and has 50% interest n the Huckleberry copper mine and Ruddock Creek led/zinc property, both in British Columbia.
Exploration also continues, especially for more valuable materials. For example Harte Gold, following completion of a drilling programme, recently discovered a new zone, the ‘Footwall Zone’, as well as the ‘Contact Zone’, at its Sugar Zone property northeast of White River, Ontario.
In other areas mining activity is relatively steady, typically in gold and palladium mines where production was ‘regular’ without plans for any increases in capacity, according to a leading producer of components supplying the mining industry. Mining in eastern Canada is reported as ‘business as usual’ except for the Labrador Trough. Mines in the Sudbury, Ontario, area reported an increase in production last year that would have been more save for an extended maintenance closure at Vale Inco. Labrador mines were also all up in production but exporting rather than feeding ‘local’ smelters that were not up to full capacity.
Most of Canada consists of the Pre-Cambrian rocks of the Canadian Shield, with the major exceptions of younger strata making up the mountainous west and the Archaen Labrador peninsula in the east. The Shield has been greatly affected by Ice Age glaciation that has eroded the strata but left uneven deposits of glacial clays, gravels and boulders.
Canada has a wide range of mineral wealth from the high value commodities of gold and diamonds to the energy sources of coal on both east and west seaboards, the oil sands of the province of Alberta, and uranium ore. It was coal that started Canadian mining with its discovery on Cape Breton Island, within the Maritime Provinces, over 350 years ago. The world’s leading potash mines of Saskatchewan province now have even more significance with the increasing demand for the salt and its derivatives in agriculture, and various industrial processes. Canada’s development of rare earth resources has gained increased relevance recently with concerns over the security of economic international supplies for growing technologies. Canada produces dysprosium, lanthanum, neodymium and samarium.
A high proportion of Canada’s mineral value is in precious materials (gold, silver, platinum and diamonds) with a 2013 gold production of 4.4 million ounces. A production increase of around 16% has been forecast by 2020. Most of this comes from Ontario. Major gold development projects there included Snowfield and Harmony, plus the Bronson Slope Property in British Columbia.
In order to support such an important industry many service and manufacturing business have been developed. The Canadian Association of Mining Equipment and Services for Export (CAMESE) represents these. Some businesses are part of multinational groups and others are homegrown.
One example is the Cubex drill-rig manufacturer that specialises in down-hole drilling (DHD/ITH) equipment in a wide range of applications. Although homegrown and headquartered in Calgary, Alberta, the drilling services business is now part of the Sandvik Mining group.
Atlas Copco Exploration Products has drill-tool manufacturing facilities at North Bay, Ontario, and specialises in products for the mineral exploration, especially diamond coring equipment for the international market. Products include everything from the top of the drill rig to the tip of the bit including branded range such as Christensen surface core drills, Diamec underground core drills, in-hole tools, Craelius, Hobic, Excore diamond products and Swellex rock bolts.
In addition to mines and manufacturers the Canadian industry includes a number of world-class mining educational establishments with associated research facilities.
Despite the overall stability of the Canadian mining scene, it is not without its difficulties, in addition to lower prices for most commodities, even though many countries in similar circumstances share the difficulties. Chief among these extra problems are aboriginal rights leading to difficult multi-party negotiations over mining rights and infrastructure, and the pressure of environmental concerns, both those with legitimacy and those chosen by anti-mining pressure groups as causes. Both situations can be legal minefields delaying any exploitation of new mining claims, but the overall business climate has justified the high positions of Canadian provinces in the Fraser Institute survey previously referred to. Overall Canadian mining is justly proud of its safety and environmental records, although certain incidents have gained media prominence.
Of course there is also the problem of a generally harsh winter climate especially in the northern mines of the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Yukon. These require operations, including supplies, to be dictated by the seasons and for equipment to be resistant to extremes of low temperature.
Although this article focuses on the Canadian scene, it is worth mentioning the importance of Canada to the world of mining as a whole; not just because of the involvement of multinationals but also due to the involvement of Canadian companies worldwide. For example, Canada, perhaps surprisingly considering the publicity given to China and former colonial nations, is the leading foreign country involved in mining projects in Africa. It is also very strong in Latin America.