The changing face of Canadian mineral exploration

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By Ellsworth Dickson

The way mineral exploration in Canada is carried out today dates back thousands of years.

Despite the fact that Native peoples had an irrefutable claim to the land – much of it unceded to European nations – early European explorers didn’t care if what eventually became Canada had been and still was occupied by hundreds of thousands of Indigenous peoples.

In what can be seen today as incredible arrogance, European rulers assumed all they had to do to acquire the Western Hemisphere was to drive a cross into the new land, hold a ceremony and take possession.

In 2018, a team of Canadian scientists from the University of Victoria and the Hakai Institute found 13,000-year-old fossilized human footprints of a man, woman and child on Calvert Island off the central coast of British Columbia – the oldest in North America. This is just one piece of the mountain of evidence of Indigenous occupation for thousands of years.

Unfortunately, Canada’s Indigenous peoples have been largely left out of benefiting from the country’s mineral wealth. However, this is changing as is noted below.

Of course, whoever controls a country, controls mineral exploration. In Eastern Canada, the Vikings built a settlement on the island of Newfoundland about a thousand years ago; however, it was first the French and then the British that took “possession”, although the Americans also had their eyes on Canada, too.

In what became British Columbia, although Spain was there first in 1774, Britain disputed Spain’s sovereignty even though they had built a small community called Fort San Miguel in Nootka Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island. The dispute was settled in 1790 – and war avoided – with the signing of the Nootka Convention under which Spain relinquished its possession of British Columbia. This set the stage for British rule and the implementation of mineral exploration laws.

Canada’s Native peoples had always mined minerals on a small scale to make tools, weapons and decorative objects but it was the newcomers that created a mining industry.

Canada’s first production of gold was in the late 1850s from the small Early Bird mine on the Queen Charlotte Islands (Haida Gwaii) off the northwest coast of British Columbia. With the discovery of gold in the Fraser River in 1858, some 30,000 American prospectors, mostly veterans of the California gold rush, landed at Victoria on the southern tip of Vancouver Island and made their way across Georgia Strait to the Fraser River and upstream to between Hope and Lillooet.

There were fears that the huge invasion by American miners could prompt the United States to annex the British territory known as New Caledonia and resulted in the founding of British Columbia as a colony.

The Californians basically disrespected and abused the native peoples in their path that led to the short-lived Fraser Canyon war. To get things under control Sir James Douglas, governor of Vancouver Island, asserted his jurisdiction over the mines and required prospectors to buy a licence. This government prospecting licence continues to this day and is known as a Free Miners Certificate.

Back East, coal was discovered on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia by the French in 1672. In New Brunswick, settlers discovered coal in 1782. Iron ore production in Quebec began in 1737.

There were many important mineral discoveries over the years such as the silver-cobalt deposits at Cobalt, Ontario in 1903, the Klondike gold rush of 1898, the nickel mines in Sudbury, the Sullivan mine in southern BC and in more recent years, Teck’s giant Highland Valley copper mine in BC and the diamond discoveries in the Northwest Territories. There are too many major mines to list in this article; however, it is interesting to note that before the 1880s, most mineral deposits were discovered by accident.

It was the early Toronto and Vancouver Stock Exchanges that were mining-friendly and greatly facilitated mineral development that created tremendous wealth for the country. The 2019 value of Canadian mineral production was $48.2 billion.

As geological knowledge improved, dedicated prospectors and geologists fanned out and discovered mineralized outcrops. Access to remote sites became much easier with the use of helicopters in the 1960s. Geophysics technology, originally developed by Teck’s late Dr. Norman Keevil, Sr., was proven to be a valuable exploration tool and is continually advancing.

Most jurisdictions in Canada now have online claim staking which is faster, easier, less expensive and more accurate than field staking, particularly in very rugged areas, although there is still field staking in the Yukon.

With the fairly recent recovery and rise of the Native population and their assertion of rights, mineral explorers are required to consult with the Native bands in their area of interest. Not all, but many Native bands want mineral development for several reasons: royalties, job opportunities, career training and the opportunity to create service businesses related to the nearby mining operation. In fact, the Canadian mining industry is the largest employer of Indigenous workers in Canada.

For example, Doubleview Gold Corp. [DBG-TSXV] recently entered into a Communications and Engagement Agreement with the Tahltan Central government to advance their Hat gold-copper project in northwest BC that acknowledges that the Tahltan Nation holds certain inherent Aboriginal title, rights and interests in respect of their traditional territory.

Richard Billingsley, a professional British Columbia claim staker and mineral property assembler for many years, told Resource World, “One of the current problems is that some Native bands welcome exploration in their territory while others are not that interested in mineral development and just want financial compensation.”

Billingsley added that it is currently not an equal partnership between a claim staking prospector and a Native band. As it stands, he said that First Nations have unlimited substantial legal representation that will be paid by the federal government but the prospector is on his own.

He went on to say that there are significant challenges in British Columbia in terms of government exploration and mining regulations. Any challenges with First Nations are small in comparison. Billingsley is concerned that overzealous and provincial and federal government regulations will hinder – not help – mineral development, an industry that is crucial to Canada.

With over 600 Native bands across Canada – all with their own governments – the federal, provincial and territorial governments have pretty well left mineral explorers on their own to draft agreements with Indigenous governments. This means that working with various bands can be good or difficult for would-be explorers.

Currently, Native organizations are launching mineral development opportunities. For example, founded in 2009, the 6th Indigenous Resource Opportunities Conference takes place October 21-22 in Nanaimo, to learn and discuss the sustainable economic development opportunities that exist for Indigenous communities and resource-based businesses.

Another Native organization – The First Nations Energy and Mining Council (FNEMC) – “supports and facilitates First Nations efforts to manage and develop energy and mineral resources in ways that protect and sustain the environment for generations while enhancing the social, cultural, economic and political well-being of First Nations in British Columbia.”

There may be occasional challenges dealing with First Nations and the various ministries of mines across Canada; however, being entrepreneurial, junior exploration companies are still keen to discover and develop mineral projects. If one takes a look at the BC government’s claim staking map at their website, it is obvious that every worthwhile known mineral occurrence has been staked – a positive sign indeed.

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