August 2008

The changing fortunes of Chibougamau

By M. Sabourin

Construction of the first mine shaft at the Copper-Rand mine in 1958, prior to production

Throughout its recent history, Chibougamau wavered between obscurity and prominence as a centre of industrial booms for well over a half-century, before becoming the well-established mining city it is today.

Located 500 kilometres north of Montreal and 230 kilometres north-west of Lac St-Jean, Chibougamau, with a population of approximately 8,000, is the largest town in northern Quebec.

The name Chibougamau, said to signify “meeting place” in Cree, first entered Canadian history in 1671 via a Jesuit missionary, Father Charles Albanel. Father Albanel had been mandated, in the name of the King of France, to explore the territory linking Lac St-Jean to James Bay and establish the fur trade with aboriginal groups. Though many other explorers, hunters, merchants and fur traders followed in his intrepid footsteps, the Chibougamau area was virtually forgotten by non-indigenous settlers from about 1760 to 1870.

Interest in the region was renewed in 1870, this time over minerals. The first official mineral exploration was carried out by James Richardson, who was sent by the director of geological research in Canada. Richardson’s 1870 report indicated the probable presence of asbestos and copper in Chibougamau. This inspired many prospectors and adventurers to endure arduous canoe voyages deep into the northern wilderness, tempting fate in the quest for copper. Success eluded most in the following decade.

In 1881, on a voyage to Hudson Bay, Professor John Galbraith from the University of Toronto’s School of Practical Science noted that his compass needle deviated strongly between Lake Wakonichi and Lake Chibougamau. This mysterious observation set prospectors astir once again.

In 1903, Peter McKenzie had the honour of discovering high-quality copper in Chibougamau. In addition to copper, he brought samples of magnetite, ferrous pyrite, asbestos and quartz to Montreal for analysis. Impressed by the quality of these specimens, Joseph Obalski, inspector for Quebec Mines, decided to investigate the area. During his 1904 expedition, a sizeable gold vein was discovered on Portage Island, later to become the site of Portage mine in 1959.

Obalski attested that Chibougamau’s important mineral reserves would surely be vital to the industrial future of Quebec. Yet, Chibougamau remained distant, isolated and inaccessible. Obalski, along with others, championed the building of a northern railroad to develop the mineral discoveries profitably.

The railroad proposal was rejected in 1910, because the climate was deemed unfavourable to agriculture and the known orebodies were not judged to be sufficiently lucrative. General interest in Chibougamau petered off and World War I further hindered exploration and development in the area.

Following the War, a new wave of prospectors and engineers discovered additional lodes of copper, gold, iron and asbestos and new lodes of silver, zinc and lead in the Chibougamau area. New companies were founded, encouraged by the soaring copper price. Unfortunately, hopes were shattered with the Great Depression of 1929. Chibougamau was quickly abandoned and went virtually unmentioned until 1934.

From 1934 to the late 1940s, business was off and on. The town’s population climbed anew and mines were built, but money was scarce. Then, in 1950 a road was built linking Chibougamau with Lac St-Jean. This, along with the rising price of copper, finally set Chibougamau’s fortunes in motion.

Within a decade from 1953, several new mines began production — Opemiska in 1953, Cedar Bay in 1957, Copper-Rand in 1960 and Obalski in 1963. By 1960, seven millions tonnes of minerals were extracted. From 1960 to 1970, the total reached a whopping 28 million tonnes. Finally, in 1971, an annual record of over three million tonnes was reached. Mining activities continue to expand in Chibougamau today, despite the cyclic nature of the economy and market demands.

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