| Written by Michal Wozniakowski-Zehenter

Mining in Canada is known for more than just being a big business – it is one of the core parts of the nation's history and how its economy has grown over time. - The shaping of the nation's physical places and its people's ways of life has been affected by mining from when Native American mineral use began to today's modern technology use and taking care of the environment. In telling the story of how mining in Canada started, one has to look at the many different places and ways of life found across the country that shaped its development. These many types of places all over the broad country of Canada, holding a lot of minerals, gave miners things to be excited about and problems to fix, which led to new ideas and hard work.
Mining in Canada

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Early Beginnings of Mining in Canada

Copper was taken out of the ground and shaped by native groups near the Great Lakes. The Anishinaabe were extracting copper deposits on the shores of Lake Superior to make tools, weapons, and items that looked nice. Records show that this practice started about 6,000 years ago, making it one of the oldest mining times noted in North America (2).

Soapstone was also collected by native peoples, especially near the Eastern Canadian coast. The Inuit used this easy-to-shape soapstone for their statues. Similarly, chert, a type of stone good for making sharp tools, was often dug out. Places like the Ramah Chert mines in Labrador are known for this past mining work. These mining doings included trading goods they mined rather than just working alone. Even the copper from the Great Lakes made its way to various old sites along both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. This showed that they knew how to make trading routes.

Native mining practices showed respect for nature. Their ways were small and did not harm the land a lot. They did things differently from the much bigger and harsher ways of mining that would start happening hundreds of years later. The first people knew a lot about where to look for valuable rocks and how to take them out with the skills from that time. They learned these things over many years, and that shows how close they were to the earth and how smart they were with what the land had to offer. When Europeans came, they saw the mining knowledge of the native people and often used it themselves. This marked an increase in the size and scale of mining works, which really changed mining's future in Canada.


European Exploration

During the 15th century, Giovanni Caboto, or John Cabot, as he was called when he sailed under the English flag, was a skilled Italian navigator and explorer. King Henry VII commissioned his 1497 voyage, which marked the beginning of Canadian mining. In addition to being one of the earliest European encounters with Canada's mineral resources, Cabot's coal discovery in Newfoundland set in motion a series of events that would have a profound impact on the development of mining in the region. First, it showed Europeans the immense mineral potential of the New World. Additionally, it demonstrated the practical utility of these resources, especially coal, which was becoming increasingly important to European economies during this period, not just the British but also France and Spain. Explorations were driven by European demand for resources, especially coal, which was essential to industrializing countries. Although early mining operations started in Newfoundland following Cabot's discovery, were small and sporadic for a while. These early ventures were rudimentary and primarily surface mining since deeper mining technologies weren't yet developed or brought to the region. Nevertheless, they laid the foundation for more extensive mining activities in later years. European exploration of minerals also had a big impact on Indigenous communities. There were often displacements and changes to Indigenous peoples' traditional ways of life as a result of settlers and mining operations. As a result of resource extraction, European settlers and Indigenous communities had a complex and sometimes troubled relationship during this period (compare also: Mexican mines).


Mining in Canada: The Role of the Fur Trade

The fur business was a top money-maker in Canada's early days, and it undeniably laid the foundations for mining to grow. Even though fur selling had no direct link to mining, the networks, investigations, and partnerships made through the trade opened doors for finding and using minerals. To make the fur business work, people had to look thoroughly in Canada's wild, often accidentally finding places with minerals. The people selling furs and catching them went deep into unknown lands, drawing maps of big areas of the earth. These journeys, first for furs, set the base for focused mineral hunting later on. The paths and trading spots generously used by fur sellers often turned into key locations for future mining journeys. The fur trade brought European people face-to-face with the native folk, who had deep knowledge of the earth. Working hand-in-hand with Indigenous people often led European traders to mineral-filled areas. The knowledge sharing between European fur sellers and native tribes occasionally helped people find precious, expensive stones and other valuable minerals.


MIning in Canada: Iron Ore

Iron ore was mined in Newfoundland and Labrador as early as the 16th century. European settlers saw the vast potential of the region's iron ore deposits, so they started mining it. As a result of this endeavour, Newfoundland and Labrador became two of the biggest mining players in Canada. With the oldest mine, close to Trois-Rivieres, called Forges du Saint-Maurice, the iron ore mining not only provided raw materials for construction and manufacturing in Europe but also set the stage for local industrialization. Iron ore mining and gold, but we'll talk about it later, had a huge impact on the regions involved. Getting these resources mined led to infrastructure development, like roads, railways, and ports, which made further exploration and development possible. There were new economic centres, demographic changes created by mining sites, and technological advancements in mining techniques and mine safety equipment. Innovative mining technologies from Europe improved the efficiency and scale of operations. Ore processing and refining innovations increased profitability and feasibility.


Canadian Gold Rush, all of them

The gold rushes of the 19th century were pivotal in shaping the social, economic, and geographical landscape of Canada. These events drew thousands of people to various regions, sparking rapid growth and development.

During the Fraser River Gold Rush of 1858, there was no doubt it marked a transformative time in Canadian mining history. A year earlier, in 1857, gold was discovered along the Fraser River. The news spread fast, so a bunch of prospectors started showing up. Because of the promise of new riches, prospectors from the United States, particularly California, migrated northward massively. The influx of prospectors and settlers had a profound, immediate impact on the area. With British Columbia's growing population, new and existing settlements, like Victoria and New Westminster, grew fast. In British Columbia, the Fraser River Gold Rush shaped demographics and economics. It stimulated economic development. The sudden increase in demand caused a boom in trading posts, saloons, and supply stores. It wasn't just gold mining that was happening, but timber and agriculture.

During the early 1860s, gold discoveries in the Cariboo region of British Columbia led to the Cariboo Gold Rush, which further pushed the region's growth and development. With the Fraser River Gold Rush's success, prospectors continued exploring further north, resulting in the discovery of gold deposits at places like Williams Creek. In response to these discoveries, thousands of prospectors and fortune-seekers fled. Towns like Barkerville exploded overnight, becoming bustling hubs of activity. There were a lot of miners and entrepreneurs in the frontier, resulting in a vibrant but often lawless frontier culture. Various sectors like transportation, retail, and construction benefited. There was a need for easy transport of miners and supplies to the Cariboo goldfields, so the government built the Cariboo Wagon Road.

In the same way as the Fraser River Gold Rush, the Cariboo Gold Rush had a huge impact on Indigenous populations, linking remote goldfields and more populated coastal areas. It became a vital artery of commerce and communication, linking the remote goldfields with the more populated coastal areas. It disrupted traditional territories and livelihoods, resulting in conflicts and challenges for many Indigenous communities.

The Klondike Gold Rush, which took place between 1896 and 1899, is considered one of the most iconic and transformative moments in Canadian mining history. It all began with the discovery of gold near the Yukon River in August 1896. It spread fast, attracting thousands of prospectors from around the world. By 1897, gold-seekers, known as "stampeders," were navigating challenging terrain and harsh weather conditions on their way to the Klondike. It was hard to reach the Klondike. Prospectors had to choose between several difficult routes. Skagway through the Chilkoot Pass or White Pass to the Yukon River were the most popular ones. There were a lot of logistical challenges, severe weather, and rough terrain on the trip (read also more about past safety topics in mining).

In some cases, prospectors ended up suffering and dying because they weren't prepared for the harsh conditions. As a result of the gold rush, boomtowns exploded, including Dawson City. As prospectors' needs grew, these towns grew fast, with businesses and services popping up. As a result of the gold rush, the region saw a lot of economic activity, affecting transportation, trade, and entertainment. Indigenous peoples in the Yukon were deeply affected by the influx of thousands of prospectors and settlers. It disrupted indigenous ways of life, overrun traditional lands, and impacted hunting and fishing, which are critical for their survival. Almost all the gold had been mined by 1899, so many prospectors left. Despite the Klondike Gold Rush's end, large-scale mining continued in the region, shifting from individual prospectors to corporate mining operations after the discovery of gold in Nome, Alaska.


Mining in Canada: 19th Century Expansion

Back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Canada's mining sector began to expand and branch out in different directions, a key factor in developing their economy. At this time, you would have found large deposits of basic metals in Ontario and Quebec. These basic metals became more and more vital to factories all over the world. In the 1880s, the Sudbury Basin rose to fame as one of the biggest producers of nickel in the world, adding substantially to the world's nickel supply. The moment nickel-copper ore was found in Sudbury, Ontario, it marked a key step in this branching out process. This time is well-described by Sandlos and Keeling in their book "Mining Country. A History of Canada's Mines and Miners ", showing how the expansion of trans-continental railways into British Columbia and further north across Canada spurred the search for coal, gold, silver, and base-metal deposits. This period marked a significant shift in the mining industry, with the formation of large companies to develop extensive mines and infrastructure, including smelters and "company towns" for employees. Major companies such as International Nickel (Inco) and Falconbridge emerged to mine the nickel-copper ores in the Sudbury basin, while Noranda was established to exploit the Horne copper-gold deposit in Quebec's Rouyn area. In western Canada, Cominco developed from operations in the Rossland and Kootenay areas of British Columbia, home to the Trail smelter and the Sullivan Mine. This era saw the decline of individual prospectors working their claims (1).

During this period, as the electrical and manufacturing sectors were growing rapidly, nickel mining and processing played a big part in helping Canada industrialize. There were other areas, like the vicinity around Flin Flon on the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border and Noranda in Quebec, that drew attention due to their copper and zinc deposits. These mining areas assisted in broadening the range of minerals Canada produced, placing it under the radar as a mining superpower. Meanwhile, coal mining was also steadily growing. The coal sector quickly rose in notoriety, especially in Nova Scotia, where small-scale mining had begun during the times of European colonization. As Canadian industrial businesses gained momentum, the coal mining field expanded to fulfil the increasing demand for energy and fuel.



What is mining in Canada known for?

Uranium, titanium concentrate, tellurium, platinum, palladium, niobium, indium, gold, gemstones, fluorspar, diamonds, cobalt, and aluminium are all produced in notable quantities in Canada; rankings amongst the top five producers are held by Canada for these products. Potash production is where Canada leads; it holds the top position.

Is mining in Canada popular?

The 60 minerals and metals produced by Canada's mining industry constitute key raw materials for goods that we rely on in our daily lives and for advanced technologies that will enable the transition to a low-carbon economy: fertilizers, construction materials, smartphones, electric cars, and solar cells.



There's nothing like the journey of mining in Canada, a story of transformation and progress, taking it from humble beginnings with small-scale operations to becoming a world-class mining leader today. This evolution reflects not only the vast riches of Canada's natural resources but also the resilience, adaptability, and innovative spirit of its people. It's also a testament to human endeavour, mine technology, and striving for perfection. It carries with it a legacy of transformation, reflecting the nation's journey and its ambitions for an economically prosperous and environmentally sustainable future.

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(1) Sandlos, J. and Keeling, A. (2021): MINING COUNTRY — A History of Canada’s Mines and Miners. James Lorimer & Company Ltd., Publishers.

(2) https://www.canadianminingjournal.com/featured-article/history-of-mining-mining-the-americas-in-deep-time/

Note: This article was updated on the 14th of May 2024



Michal Wozniakowski-Zehenter, Marketing Manager

Michal Wozniakowski-Zehenter is an experienced marketing and project management professional. He spent most of his career on projects with a strong focus on digital marketing and event management. He is a very active voice representing offshore and mining industries through social media channels. Michal writes mainly about offshore oil and gas, renewable energy, mining and tunnelling. Compiling and sharing the knowledge within industries is one of his goals.

Find here a selection of his articles.