May 2007

Mining in Manitoba: the beginning

By A. Nichiporuk


Galena limestone quarry at East Selkirk | Produced with permission of Natural Resources Canada


The mining industry is alive and thriving in Manitoba. It employs close to 4,000 people, as well as an additional 11,000 to 13,000 indirectly. The second largest primary resource industry in the province is mining, and its average annual production is valued at around $1 billion. Today’s facts and figures are easy to come by, but what do we really know about the origin of mining in Manitoba?

When mining actually began in Manitoba is hard to say. A safe guess is anywhere between hundreds and thousands of years ago. Not the small range you were expecting? The first to mine in the province were aboriginals, who quarried ochre/hematite and used it in body and rock painting for tribal rituals.

Jumping ahead to the early 1800s, salt was the first mineral to be commercially developed in the province. An important commodity in the fur trade, salt was extracted from brine springs on the west side of lakes Manitoba and Winnepegosis. Hudson’s Bay Company freemen began manufacturing salt in large iron kettles. And, up until 1874, over 1,000 bushels of salt were prepared annually to supply the posts and settlements on the Assiniboine, Red, and Saskatchewan rivers.

In 1830, Tyndall stone was the material of choice for workers building the bastion of Lower Fort Garry. However, it was only 55 years later that limestone was being commercially produced.

Gypsum was discovered in the Interlake area during the 1850s; the first plant opened around the end of the century.

The second half of the 19th century was significant for the mining industry in Manitoba. The Geological Survey of Canada grew increasingly interested in the province’s Precambrian areas in the early 1870s. Reconnaissance work was carried out by Bell, Cochrane, and other geologists, but it was only in the mid-1880s that Dawson, Tyrrell, and others carried out detailed investigations in the West.

In 1870, the province of Manitoba was created. That same year, Section 26 of The Manitoba Act stated that the federal government would carry out and pay for a geological survey of the province. Also, a provision in the Bill of Rights called for the appointment of a Commissioner of Engineers who would explore and report on the newly created province’s mineral wealth within five years of joining the Confederation. On the flipside, joining Canada also meant that all mines, minerals, land, and royalties now belonged to the federal government. It would take Manitoba 60 years to regain control of these areas.

The 1880s marked a busy time for the mining industry in Manitoba. An iron, hematite, and limestone deposit on Black Island was the first to draw significant attention, and numerous companies were formed to exploit the Lake of the Woods area. The first Dominion Mining Regulations were created in 1884, a year prior to the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway to British Columbia. In 1887, a Manitoba Oil Company drill reached 743 feet while searching for petroleum on the Vermillion River. A year later, the International Mining and Smelting Company further explored the Black Island deposit and mined hematite. And, in 1889, gypsum was discovered northwest of Lake St. Martin. A second producer was later discovered in Amaranth.

Approaching the end of the century, prospectors began arriving in the West Hawk Lake area in the southeast, as well as in the north of Manitoba. However, interest in prospecting was diminishing. In fact, the discovery of gold in the Klondike in 1896 led to a mass exodus of people to the Northwest. But, for a core group of faithful Manitobans, their belief in the province’s mineral resources could not be swayed.

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