Canada’s Mining Boom Heads West

Quebec and Ontario stole the spotlight in 2020, but 2021 may be BC’s year

Deep in the forest of Central BC, the snowy silence is broken by a diesel-powered drill rig hidden on an old logging road. Resembling a square anti-aircraft battery, the drill can reach depths of over 1200 meters, but is only going 150 meters on this hole. The company behind the exploration is Engold, a BC-based explorer sniffing for gold and copper in the outer-foothills of the BC Rockies. Like a handful of other companies exploring in the area, Engold hopes to find a billion-dollar mine buried deep below this obscure area of Canada’s westernmost province’s interior, called the Cariboo.

Engold and other nearby explorers sit atop an ancient igneous structure called the Quesnel Trough, which stretches from north of the US border to near the Yukon. The trough is a massive volcanic band formed millions of years ago when magma from the earth’s mantle flowed up carrying gold, copper, zinc and other metals to the surface. Glaciers formed and over tens of thousands of years they scraped the Quesnel Trough’s surface smooth. As they melted glaciers left behind hundreds of feet of dirt and rubble. It is this overburden that has prevented this part of the Cariboo from attracting notice from the mineral market.

Compared to Val D’or Quebec where mineralization lies in plain sight in rock outcroppings that dot the landscape, the Cariboo’s riches are hidden from view. On a trip to the claims of Engold and Consolidated Woodjam located next door, the terrain looked like anything but a potential mining hotspot. Its rolling hills are covered by hundreds of feet of soil and trees and the few outcroppings are sandstone or mudstone. The only evidence of a gold rush is in the small town of Horsefly where residents speak of abandoned mine shafts in their backyards from an industry that died over 100 years ago.

 The mining boom moves west

Canada’s mining market exploded in early 2020 on the back of soaring gold and silver prices. Share values of explorers in Quebec and Ontario have led the pack with excitement focused on the Val D’or and Red Lake districts. A recent visit to Val D’or showed a boom town that bucked the covid-caused slowdown. But since September, the boom has been migrating west following recent discoveries in British Columbia.

The investment community’s attention was piqued in September when BC junior miner Kodiak Copper made headlines. The obscure exploration company hit a potentially major copper and gold ore body south of William’s Lake, clocking 1.4% copper, 1.46 g/t gold and 5.56 g/t silver over 45.7 meters. The stock had been floundering at around $0.40 and rocketed to over $3 on the news.  

Kodiak’s discovery could put politically-stable BC back on the map as one of the world’s lead mining jurisdictions. BC’s mining history dates back to the early 1800s when panners discovered gold near BC’s northern town of Dawson City. In the coming decades, gold finds appeared around the province including in the desert-like Cariboo region and the Golden Triangle in BC’s far north. Many of these mines have formed the basis of today’s exploration carried out by ‘junior’ mining companies. Junior miners’ business models is purely to explore for minerals and many have no revenue whatsoever.

The Cariboo had begun to attract market interest in the late 2000s when the last mining boom was underway. Large players like Teck and Goldfields began exploration campaigns near William’s Lake. Reports by Consolidated Woodjam show that their pre-2015 drill programme turned up 1% copper over 200 meters and potentially significant gold. But when the mining market collapsed after 2010, exploration dwindled and eventually nearly ground to a halt by 2015.

During an October visit to the Cariboo region, the nearby town of William’s Lake’s economy was strong compared to Vancouver which has been hard-hit by the recession. But it is forestry, not mining that is driving the region’s prosperity.

According to mining players working around William’s Lake, the latest interest in the Cariboo is about re-starting what was left unfinished.

In addition to its mineral merits, BC offers superior infrastructure to northern Ontario and Quebec. Quebec and Ontario are Canada’s most populous provinces but the vast majority of their people live within earshot of the US border. The inhospitable north has no road or rail access and in Quebec’s case, only a single, two-lane road protrudes the bottom one-third of the province. Quebec’s strict language laws severely restrict non-French language communications and act as a deterrent to foreign investment. And records obtained from the BC government show that land has been heavily staked around the Cariboo region, presumably in anticipation of a coming mining boom.