Can mining and environmental sustainability go hand in hand?

Canada is home to abundant natural resources, including the world’s fifth-largest coal and seventh-largest iron ore reserves. The nation ranks first for the world’s potash extraction and produces 2 billion tonnes of nickel, more than 700,000 tonnes of copper and roughly 320,000 tonnes of zinc annually.

Mining in Canada has been deeply interwoven into the nation’s history and continues to be an important economic powerhouse. It contributes roughly five per cent to the country’s annual GDP and employs more than 690,000 workers.

However, the industry has also faced significant criticism, including exploiting natural resources on Indigenous land and contributing to climate change and biodiversity loss. But with mining such a crucial part of Canada’s history, what will its future look like in the wake of growing climate change concerns?  

Origins

Many years before the arrival of European settlers, Indigenous people were mining minerals. There is evidence of an Indigenous copper trade in the Lake Superior region roughly 6,000 years ago. Between 700-1000 BCE, the Beothuk peoples, an Indigenous tribe, developed beds for chert to make arrowheads, knives and scrapers. Indigenous peoples were also mining silver in Cobalt, Ont., at least 200 years before Europeans.

Mining exploration conducted by settlers goes back centuries. In 1672, settlers began to extract coal in Sydney, N.S. By the 18th century, the commercial mining industry started to emerge. The onset of the industry began in 1738 with the large-scale mineral exploration at St. Maurice Forges in Quebec. St. Maurice Forges was an ironworker facility fed by iron ore deposits at Trois-Rivières. In the mid-19th century, large coal deposits were discovered and mined on Vancouver Island.

Dangers of early mining

But, the early mining industry came with significant issues. Firstly, the land was colonized by European settlers and then exploited. Indigenous people lost their land and received no benefit from the industry.

Secondly, the working conditions were dangerous and exploitative. Workers were expected to regularly work long shifts in darkness while breathing in hazardous dust. Child labour was also regularly used in coal mines until the 1920s, with children as young as eight years old working in dangerous conditions.

Coal mining disasters occurred regularly between 1886 to 1987, with explosions being a major cause of these disasters. One of the worst occurred in 1914 in Hillcrest, Alta., when 189 workers died following an explosion in the mining tunnels, leaving behind 130 widows and 400 fatherless children.

Precious metals and minerals

As the industrial revolution led to new advancements in transportation and technology, precious metals and other minerals became available to Canadian and international mining companies, the most famous of which was the Klondike gold rush in Klondike, Yukon.

On Aug. 17, 1896, gold was successfully prospected in the Klondike and Yukon rivers, and by 1897, more than 30,000 prospectors had moved to the area to attempt to mine gold.

These 30,000 prospectors set up temporary settlements called boomtowns, which are settlements tied to rapid economic growth in an area. Some of these settlements became permanent features of the area, including Dawson City, Yukon.

Mining methods used in the gold rush varied in complexity, ranging from crude and cheap to tech-heavy and industrial. One inexpensive method was dry washing, where gold dust was mined by hand, ground up and separated from the dust by throwing it into the air, allowing the finer dust particles to separate from the gold. A more technological, automated approach was dredging, where a chain was attached to several buckets and rotated on a belt system to dig into the earth and separate the gold automatically.

 Environmental and social consequences of the Klondike gold rush were significant. Deforestation, erosion, aquatic ecosystem collapse and biodiversity loss were just a few consequences of resource exploitation. These activities scarred the land and Indigenous people of the area heavily, with many of the consequences still being felt today.

What is the future of mining?

The future of mining is complicated because minerals and metals are needed to sustain our current way of living. We use mined materials to produce essential items, including modern technology and medical devices. At the same time, mining contributes significantly to many of the world’s current problems.

Mining has been linked to water and air pollution and biodiversity loss while causing permanent damage to the surrounding areas. Coal burning is the world’s largest electricity generation source and is responsible for 40 per cent of fossil fuel greenhouse gas emissions.

 Mining has also affected Indigenous communities significantly throughout history. It has made these communities suffer the loss of their land, culture, resources and way of life.

Canada must re-evaluate its relationship with the mining industry and how it impacts the environment and Indigenous communities. One element that needs particular attention is the country’s reliance on coal, a major source of fossil fuel emissions. To reduce Canada’s fossil fuel emissions, the government must keep its commitment to transition away from coal in favour of cleaner alternatives.

Transitioning away from coal would also carry a financial benefit. According to the International Monetary Fund, the transition is estimated to potentially inject $78 trillion into the world economy.

We will likely always need mining to sustain our modern world, but there are solutions to lessen the impact. Zero-waste mining is one solution. This involves mining companies utilizing every material extracted from the ground. In addition, the University of Western Australia explained that increased scientific understanding of mined materials is one key aspect to progress. At the same time, more efficient mining techniques would lead to less waste, less water consumption and purer materials. With purer materials, many extracted materials from the mining process can be successfully recycled.

With growing pressures to work towards a greener and more equitable future, Canada needs to consider how it will balance the need for mined materials with the lowest impact possible. The ideas and technology already exist –– they just need to be implemented and used. Let’s transform the legacy of one of our most historical industries before it becomes detrimental to our future.

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