Western Canadian mining shines with gems and precious metals

When it comes to the mining industry, Western Canada is most closely associated with its energy-related mineral resources. Much of the world’s uranium comes from Saskatchewan, while Alberta is known for its bitumen and various forms of coal. But the West is earning a reputation as a major source of gems and precious metals, especially those high in demand in Asia-Pacific markets.

The world market for jade is estimated at 300 tonnes each year, approximately 75% of which is produced in British Columbia. It is also estimated that 90% of the world’s jade reserves are in that province, though the jade currently sold internationally comes from only three active mining areas in northern BC: Dease Lake, Mount Ogden, and Cassiar. Currently, BC’s jade industry generates only $10-20 million in annual revenue, but this could certainly increase along with an expected surge in demand from China’s middle class, which views jade as culturally symbolic of prosperity and power. Beyond the jade that is exported for jewelry, BC has been stockpiling industrial-grade jade in anticipation of future demand for its use in residential tile.

Ammolite, an organic gemstone made of the fossilized shells of ammonites, can exclusively be found at gem quality in southern Alberta. The leading producer, Korite, is currently expanding its mining operations near Lethbridge, while the gems are polished and manufactured into jewelry in Calgary. Although Canadian exports of ammolite have previously taken place on a case-by-case basis, Korite signed an agreement in November 2016 with the China-based retailer Mahasida Jewellery that will allow for regular exports of ammolite and so could see mining these iridescent fossils becoming quite a lucrative business.

De Beers Canada is reportedly surveying northwestern Saskatchewan to determine the potential for a diamond mine in the region. In recent years, the De Beers Group of Companies has shown growing interest in Canadian diamonds, beginning operations in 2016 at Gahcho Kué, one of the world’s largest diamond mines and located 280 kilometres northeast of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. In addition, Shore Gold has proposed a diamond mine near Prince Albert, Saskatchewan but is in the midst of consultations with local communities regarding the potential social and environmental impact of the mine. If one or more diamond mines are built in Saskatchewan, this could mean more value-added jobs in the province as a spinoff effect: after all, Saskatchewan is already home to the Seabee operation, one of Canada’s largest gold mines with more than 1.3 million ounces of gold in reserve.

Meanwhile, the mining industry in Manitoba has stalled, at least as far as gemstones and precious metals are concerned. Geologic surveys of northern Manitoba have uncovered some potential diamond deposits, but a moratorium on mining activity in the relevant areas – specifically for the sake of caribou and polar bear conservation – has prevented any further exploration activity. As such, this already cash-strapped province will likely miss out any future boom in mining investment, unless demand from China for mineral resources like nickel rebounds.

As Canada increasingly looks to the Asia-Pacific region for trade partners, including the potential for a free trade agreement with China and the ongoing discussion on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the future of Western Canada’s mining industry could come bedecked in gold, jade, diamonds, and the unusual beauty of ammolite.

Paul Pryce is Political & Economic Advisor to the Consul General of Japan in Calgary and serves on the Board of Directors at the Alberta Council of Technologies. He is a frequent commentator on economic trends and issues in the Asia-Pacific region.