Mining: The Historical and Current Context in Canada

Indigenous people were mining well before the arrival of the Europeans. They used various minerals to fabricate tools, weapons, art and other artifacts. There is also evidence that copper trading existed in the Lake Superior area approximately 6000 years ago. As early as 700-1000 BP (Before Present), the Little Passage people (Beothuks) developed chert beds and used the chert (a rock very similar to flint) to make arrowheads and other tools such as scrapers and knives (Pastore, 1998). Indigenous people were also mining silver in the Cobalt area approximately 200 years before arrival of the Europeans.

Mining in Greater Sudbury Area

Greater Sudbury, one of the world’s major mining industries, is known for its large deposits of nickel, copper, palladium, gold and other metals. More recently is the discovery of Chromium. Why is Greater Sudbury so rich in all these metals? Approximately 1.8 billion years ago, a comet collided with the planet forming what is now known as the Sudbury Basin: a crater that is 39 miles long, 19 miles wide and 9.3 miles deep. Greater Sudbury is also known for being one of the locations having the best agricultural land in Northern Ontario due to the high mineral content of the floor of the basin.

Mining occured in the Greater Sudbury area long before the settlers arrived and before the development of the mining industry.There is archeological evidence that the Plano cultures that existed approximately 11,000 years ago used quartzite mined in the Sheguiandah area to fashion tools and weapon heads (Jewiss, 1983). Subsequently, the Northern Shield Cultures used copper and silver to make tools, weapons and jewelry for trade. The minerals that were extracted by these early cultures also provided opportunity for trade relations between other Indigenous cultures thus establishing trade routes throughout Northern Ontario.

According to the Sudbury Mining Journal (1890), mining in Greater Sudbury was discovered accidentally by a young man named McConnell when he got lost while out looking for timber for the Canadian Pacific Railway. The Sudbury Mining Journal contains a wealth of information about mining in Sudbury – the development of the mines; uncertainty about the permanency of mining; the location and range of minerals; the impact of mining laws; the need for a mining act that would encourage people to stay in Canada; the land entitlement process; and a look into a prospectors life.

The following excert from an Interview with Art Petahtegoose from Atikameksheng Anhisnawbek (2018) describes the differences in how Anishinawbek view the land and how the land is viewed by non-Indigenous people. The impact of not understanding the importance of the relationship to the land can have deveasting effects on peoples ability to survive. For example, the gold mine that was operating on Long Lake in the 1900s and again in the 1930s operating on Atikameksheng Anishinabek territory created high levels of arsenic that was leaching into the surrounding waters affecting the recreational area for both the Anishnawbek and non-Indigenous people in the area.

“When we think about what was here before coming into contact with European nations there was a level of thought that was very abstract yet at the same time very sustaining for our population that gave us a way to live on the land, which kept the land green.  So we end up living with the lakes and the waters and the land, and what has shifted has a lot to do which he practices in living. So when we look at industry, the hope is that industry will go green. It is going to take some time to get there because technology that we rely on to keep nature green will become better.   But if we look at Vale as one example, back in the 1960 time, the hurting years of the Milling operation when they were smelting on the open ground of the ore as it is run through the plant and they are extracting the gold and the nickel and other metals, the toxic gases and run-offs which was emitted through the burning on the rock began to kill the rivers and  vegetation. The space where we live and the beings we are have been put into a very narrow niche in surviving, and we have become dependent on that niche but if we start turning that thought upside down we threatened ourselves that kind of understanding is in what is in our way of seeing. Our place in the cosmos is very delicate, so the ultimate question is what do we do?   The teachings become important, understanding what that teaching is saying we have got to be able to translate it from our language into forms which can be shared to the modern world. we have to get out of the fear because it is something that our parents did not have, they begin to self doubt. We should not doubt ourselves with the teachings because there is a knowledge there that we need to appreciate.” (Art Petahtegoose, personal communication, 2018)

Learning Activities

  1. What similarities can you draw from the history of the Robinson-Huron Treaty making process to the development of mining in the Greater Sudbury Region?
  2. Put yourself into the Anishnawbek’s mocassins. What do you see happening here (or not happening) with respect to Anishnawbe-Settler relations?
  3. Why do you suppose that non-Indigenous people are becoming concerned about the impacts of mining on the ecosystem?
  4. Why is understanding the importance of the relationship to the land necessary to survival of the human race?

Expanding your Knowledge

  1. Take a look at these two websites for more detailed information regarding the history of mining in Sudbury. The article mentions other important information such as the role of surveyors, the approach for refining metals and the post-war development of the mining industry. There are a few images of the Copper Cliff Mine and the workers in the early 19th and 20th centuries:
    The Mining History of the Sudbury Area
    Sudbury Ontario History Information, Listings and Links
  2. Take time to view this online resource archive regarding Sudbury and mining. This resource contains a map of the railway expansion and of the mineral deposit sites in Ontario from 1890:
    The Sudbury Mining Journal: Special Number (January 1890)
  3. The following link contains information about the status of the clean up efforts of the Long Lake Gold mine that was operating in the 1900s and 1930s on Atikameksheng Anishnawbek territory:
    Long Lake Gold Mine remediation project hits stumbling block
  4. The following website contains a document by Morrison (1996) on the case study of the Robinson-Huron Treaties of 1850. It contains detailed history on the impact of the mining at Mica Bay that prompted the negotiations for the Robinson-Huron Treaties and provides an interesting perspective of the details leading up to the negotiations:
    The Robinson Treaties of 1850: A Case Study