The story of how two prospectors, down to their last nickels, discovered diamonds in Canada’s frozen north is the stuff of legend. Back in 1982, Chuck Fipke and Stewart Blusson laid low in a pup tent by day while their competitor De Beers hauled 45-gallon drums of rock samples to a nearby outpost for transport to South Africa.
Using the long hours of summer sunlight north of the 65th parallel, the two searched for indicator minerals — bits of garnet, chromite or zircon often found with diamonds — while their opponent slept. Nine years later their treasure hunt culminated with the discovery of a carrot-shaped funnel of blue-grey kimberlite rock that would become Ekati — the first great diamond mine outside Southern Africa or Russia.
For all the drama associated with the discovery in Canada’s Northwest Territories — hacking through snow and ice taller than the average person, battling Arctic winds and temperatures of -50 degrees Celsius — what came next is proof that diamond mining in Canada is not for the faint of heart.
Whether a diamond mine makes money or not comes down to three variables: production costs, the grade and size of the deposit, and the price the diamonds fetch on global markets. In recent years, all of these have conspired to bring the Canadian industry to its knees.
“It’s disconcerting, given the way it started,” said Blusson, an active octogenarian who helms diamond exploration company Archon Minerals Ltd. and still flies his own helicopter. “Twenty years is only all we’ve been mining now. Is there going to be another 20 years? I don’t know.”
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