The Operational History of Mines in the Northwest Territories, Canada (2009) – by Ryan Silke

Ryan Silke is a writer, musician, and historian who offers historical research services and tours.

An Historical Research Project

The Canadian north was settled because of its mineral resources. When the Canadian Dominion Government first purchased the arctic from the British Crown in 1870, the Northwest Territories was seen as a vast stretch of cold and inhospitable land and was practically ignored by the authorities at the time. First minerals were reported in the 16thcentury by British explorer Martin Frobisher, but his gold ores turned out to be types of pyrite, or better known as ‘fool’s gold’.

The original inhabitants of the north, the natives, once mined copper ores along the Arctic Coast for use as tools, implements of war, and objects of trade. This copper was the target of fur trader and explorer Samuel Hearne, who in the 18th century sought out the legendary mountains of the mineral along the Coppermine River. Those copper deposits proved vastly exaggerated and to this day no mine has entered production in this area despite periodic copper strikes and aerial staking rushes.

The Klondike Gold Rush of 1897-1898 was the turning point in mineral exploration in the north. While no major gold strikes were made in the boundaries of the modern day N.W.T., some of the Yukon stampeders did make their journey through the subarctic, including the prospectors who first reported gold at Yellowknife River and lead and zinc ores at Pine Point on the shores of Great Slave Lake. In 1900, exploration of the N.W.T. was underway by students of the Geological Survey of Canada and the first mapping was done at Great Slave Lake and Great Bear Lakes. As Canada entered the 20th century, it was abundantly clear that the Barrenlands North of 60 held immense potential for mineral resources.

Numerous gold strikes were reported in the Nahanni River-Mackenzie Mountain ranges and also at Great Slave Lake (Wilson Island) during this time, but the first real mineral rush into the N.W.T. occurred as a result of Gilbert LaBine’s radium and silver discoveries at Great Bear Lake in 1930. This new and exciting development not only brought forth the first productive mines, but it also spurred production of oil resources at Norman Wells, discovered in 1921.

By this time aerial exploration was playing a big part in exploring the vast stretches of the N.W.T. Parties fanned outwards from Great Bear Lake during the 1930s and high-grade gold was discovered up the Yellowknife River in 1933 by Herb Dixon and Johnny Baker. An increase in the price of gold that year caused great interest, and by 1936 several hundred claims had been staked around Yellowknife Bay on Great Slave Lake and a settlement was being built. The first gold mine to go into production was the Con Mine in 1938, followed by Negus Mine in 1939, and several smaller mines before conditions attending to World War II mothballed most projects and companies.

The silver and radium mines at Great Bear Lake also ceased operating during the war. However, the demand for wartime minerals such as uranium brought new life back into many of these mines. Tungsten and some high-tech metals such as tantalum and columbium were also the target of exploration during this time period in the Yellowknife area, but no substantial mines were discovered.

Post-war N.W.T. was a very active one. Federal powers that oversaw administration of the northern regions understood that development of the north hinged upon the harvesting of its resources. They invested huge capital into the modernization of communities and infrastructure. Fantastic gold discoveries at Yellowknife brought forth the producing reigns of Giant Mine and Discovery Mine, and the community of Yellowknife grew into a modern pioneer town. Its first municipal town council was elected in 1953.

Another major event during this time period was the establishment of an immense lead and zinc orebody at Pine Point. To mine those ores economically, a railroad to Great Slave Lake was necessary. The Canadian government recognized the value of this new mine and provided funds for the project. Pine Point Mine and the community around it operated from 1965 to 1988. Mining very valuable base metal products, mineral production in the N.W.T. increased tenfold with the sale of Pine Point’s ores.

Nickel deposits were exploited at Rankin Inlet in Nunavut from 1957 to 1962, and silver production from the Great Bear Lake region recommenced in the late 1960s chiefly from Echo Bay Mine and Terra Mine. Lead and zinc ores were also mined from the arctic islands at the Polaris and Nanisivik Mines in the 1980s. Large-scale production of tungsten was achieved at Cantung Mine between 1962-1986.

A steady climb in the price of gold during the 1970s brought new life to Yellowknife’s gold mines. Con Mine began major expansion programs and Giant Mine developed its open pits. Yellowknife became the Territorial Capital in 1967 with the transfer of government from Federal authority to local officials.

During the 1970s, Canadians were achieving greater awareness of the effects of mining on the environment and aboriginal ways of life, and mine development in subsequent years was dictated largely by these factors. Mineral development was also impacted by new political developments, including land claims, which continue to have an effect on the mineral industry today. Stricter environmental conditions were imposed on operations, and older abandoned mines were targeted as part of remedial efforts.

The most recent mineral rush in the N.W.T. was the ‘Diamond Rush of 1992’, in which prospectors and companies staked large tracts of land in response to Chuck Fipke’s diamond discoveries in 1991. Two mines have so far emerged from this exciting new field north of Yellowknife and deep in the ‘Barrenlands’ – Ekati Mine and Diavik Mine, with a third mine, Snap Lake, ready for production soon.

In April 1999, the Northwest Territories was split into two with the creation of Nunavut Territory. The western section retains the old name. As a result of this division, this report does not report on any of the mines that exist within Nunavut boundaries, although all of the mines were actually developed during the years as part of the N.W.T.

Today, the mineral industry struggles in the north, where costs are high and political forces continue to put pressure industrial development. Although the old gold mines have closed in Yellowknife (Giant Mine was the last to close in 2004), diamonds have been very successful and other commodity prices have turned around. Other mines, including a large poly-metallic deposit called the NICO, and reactivated gold projects such as Tyhee’s Ormsby project and Seabridge’s Tundra project, are also gearing up for major developments and probably production. The N.W.T. is large and still full of geological potential. Only the surface has been scratched.

There are some difficulties that prospectors and companies face in the effort to develop and open up new mines. Land claims issues have not been settled and mineral exploration companies face incredible uncertainty when they come north to explore for metals. There are also miles of environmental regulations and other forms of ‘red-tape’ that have to be navigated. Due to geography, many deposits are written off as uneconomic. With new transportation corridors, improved markets, and better sources of local labor, hopefully those deposits will become productive mines.

If there were a final chapter in the story of mining up to this point it would be the effort of enthusiasts to preserve that history. The N.W.T. lacks a mining museum although there are many interesting artifacts, documents, and structures that could be put to a good use. Since 2000 a group now known as The N.W.T. Mining Heritage Society has been active in establishing a mining museum in Yellowknife. It will be located at Giant Mine and will cover the history of mining and mineral exploration in the N.W.T. and Nunavut. The author of this report is amongst the founding members of the group.

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