The fairy tale romance of the Canadian Shield

A strange tale from 1955 about a rocky desert, and how its hidden treasures changed Canada


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THE HARDIEST of fairy tale themes have always had to do with the finding of treasure in the commonplace, the scorned and the rejected. In these classic stories ugly ducklings turn into swans, and battered tinderboxes or dirty old lamps are found to contain the key to wealth and power. Canada’s ugly duckling is the Canadian Shield, a great rugged horseshoe of muskeg and stunted forest, lake and bald grey rock that makes up more than half the whole dominion.

For more than three hundred years — eight hundred if you go back to Leif Ericsson’s time — the Shield was known only as a rocky waste, a barrier to progress and a blight to Canada’s future. Ericsson called it Helluland, “the land of flat stones”; Jacques Cartier reported to King Francis I of France that “there isn’t a cartload of dirt in the whole of it”; and it broke the heart of the gullible settlers who tried to clear and farm it, as earlier generations had done the St. Lawrence lowlands. Along its southern edge dense second-growth forest has already rubbed out all but a few pathetic traces of pioneer farms only eighty years old.

Because the Shield came frowning down so close behind the narrow strip of farmland, because the Shield laid a thousand miles of stony wilderness between settled Ontario and the western plains, the very idea of a Canadian nation struck many a prudent man as a foolish defiance of common sense. Yet in this twentieth century it is the Shield, more than all the rest of the land put together, that has transfigured Canada from a primitive agricultural to a modern industrial economy.

When we speak of Canada as a vast treasure chest of industrial raw materials we are speaking of the Canadian Shield that is where we get ninety-five percent of our copper, eighty-four percent of our iron, and all of our nickel, cobalt, platinum, titanium and uranium. Of uranium, the fuel of atomic power, the Shield is the second largest source in the world.

Pulp and paper earn more dollars for Canada even than wheat a billion and a quarter altogether, five percent of the gross national product. Three quarters of it comes from the forests of the Canadian Shield.

Canada has more fresh water than the rest of the world put together, and thus more hydro-electric power, potential and developed. Most of the water and potential power lie within the two million square miles of the Shield.

This is new wealth, all of it. Sir Wilfrid Laurier may have been boasting when he made his well-quoted remark about the twentieth century belonging to Canada, but he would have been indisputably right if he had put it the other way round. Canada certainly belongs to the twentieth century. Only in the last fifty-odd years have men known how to unlock the treasure house of the Canadian Shield.

According to the fairy tales that thousands of Canadian children will be reading this Christmas the hero or heroine who wins the treasure is the one who cared for the scorned and the rejected—Beauty must love the Beast without knowing that the Beast is really a prince. In the same way, the treasures of the Shield have been won in the end because a certain kind of man, the kind of man who made Canada, has always felt drawn to this harsh grey land.

It seems a new country—virgin country to the men who love it. Mankind has made little imprint upon it, civilization almost none. Until aerial photography came into its own after World War II less than half of it had ever been mapped. To this day it is still not thoroughly explored. Almost anywhere on its rough face, even fifty miles or less from the capital of Canada, it is easy to fancy yourself alone in both space and time, discovering new ground.

And yet this is really the oldest country in the world, older than life itself by a billion years or more. Its rock is called Precambrian because it was already there when the Cambrian Sea, five hundred million years ago, submerged most of North America and a lot more of the world’s dry land.

Most of that rock is the original crust that formed when the earth first cooled. Parts of it erratic—patches that look on a geological map like water spilled on an oily surface—are very ancient sediments, laid down perhaps by seas so old as to be nameless and uncharted, perhaps by the erosion of mountains under aeons of rain. These silts, long since compacted into hard rock by the pressures of a shrinking earth, are called greenstones. It is in and around the greenstone deposits that metallic ores are found.

The metals that have put the Shield into the news boiled up from the earth’s core through fissures in the crust. Because the weight of greenstone sediments put an extra pressure on the original granite, the crust is weakest in those areas weak enough to yield passage to the turbulent gases and molten liquids that cooled into iron and copper, cobalt and silver and gold.

The same thing happened elsewhere in the world, in other Precambrian rock. But other Precambrian rock is buried miles deep beneath younger strata of rock and soil, the silts of later seas. These oceans poured in when the land sank, sometimes inch by inch during millions of years, sometimes suddenly in the violent geological "storms” that built young mountains like the Alps, the Rockies and the Himalayas. In either case the land sank because it buckled or sagged or folded under the terrible pressures of a cooling shrinking globe.

The Land That Held Fast

Precambrian shields, of which the Canadian is only one, are the tough parts of earth that did not buckle. Some regions sagged a bit, like the iron-hearing "Labrador Trough” which now is level with the rest of the peninsula but once was low enough to let in the sea. Some were up-ended into mountains like the Torngats of Labrador, once Alp-high hut now eroded down to a mere six thousand feet. But in the main the shields held firm while frailer rock crumpled around their edges. Of all the world’s regions the Precambrian shields have changed the least in their long geological history, and among Precambrian shields the Canadian has probably changed least of all.

Today we know it as a vast rolling plateau that begins in the northeast at Baffin Island, takes in the whole Labrador Peninsula from Hudson Bay to the Atlantic, runs south to the valley of the St. Lawrence and the Ottawa, west along the north shore of Lakes Huron and Superior, down into northern Minnesota and then up again to Lake Winnipeg, and northwest along the line of Athabaska, Great Slave and Great Bear Lakes to the Arctic coast once more. In shape it must once have been a circle but it sagged enough in the middle to let in Hudson Bay; now it is a lopsided horseshoe on whose inner edge the receding waters of Hudson Bay have left a strip of alluvial lowland. At its broadest, in the middle of the Labrador Peninsula, the Shield is a thousand miles wide; at its narrowest it is a hundred miles from Lake Superior to the marshy flats around James Bay.

This land has not changed in the thirty thousand years, more or less, since the fourth and last Great Glacier receded and life returned to the northern quarter of the Western Hemisphere. What Canada may have looked like a million years ago, when the Ice Ages began, is a matter of speculation for geologists. It is not speculation but clear inference that the Canadian Shield, since it emerged from the icecap in the days of the mammoth and the saber-toothed tiger, has looked very much as it looks today.

Still plain to be seen on many a granite surface is the scar of the glacier, which scoured off the topsoil and swept it into the lowlands to south and west. The holders the glacier carried, the gravel it churned into fine smooth pebbles, still lie where the melting ice dropped them. The Shield is somewhat higher now than it was when the huge weight of the icecap pressed it down—ancient high-water marks can be discerned several hundred feet above present sea level but its contour and its shape are almost certainly the same.

We can still see today exactly what it looked like to the men in the little ships from Greenland and St. Malo, or to the wild coureurs de bois who fled from the godly settlements along the St. Lawrence. Man may have subdued the Shield at last but he hasn’t been able to change it much.

On its eastern edge the mountains of Labrador rise sheer from the sea to three thousand feet; in the northeastern corner, a few miles inland, they reach six thousand, the highest point in the whole two million square miles. A little farther south the Hamilton River tumbles off the Shield into the deep cleft of its own canyon in a clear fall of more than three hundred feet, a stream almost as big as the Ottawa falling from twice the height of Niagara. Grand Falls are still as they were when the Hudson’s Bay Co. factor John McLean came down from Fort Chimo in 1838, the first, white man to look upon them. Indians of upland and lowland tribes each have their own myth to scare them away from the awesome sight, but the roar of it can be heard for ten miles around.

Another such cleft in the Shield’s edge is the canyon of the Saguenay. Cape Eternity is one granite cliff from thirteen hundred feet above the water to eight hundred feet below it. Like the fiords of Labrador, the Saguenay River is deeper than the neighboring sea bottom. These clefts were eroded ages before the icecap’s weight depressed the Shield, when the northeastern peninsula of North America was six hundred feet higher than it is now. It is still snapping back to its old height, at a rate of several inches every century.

More accessible and almost equally striking is the edge of the Shield as it appears a few miles upriver from Ottawa. A brow of bald granite rises eight hundred feet from the flat alluvial plain of the Ottawa Valley to a rough plateau of bare rock and thin bush. The soil of half-decayed humus was burned off in a forest fire fifty years ago, and the second growth is still sparse. You can walk for miles here by compass and contour map, and need no path.

The air is five to ten degrees cooler than it is on the Ottawa River, and has a tang of pine in it. The water in the small rapid streams is clean and cold and its faint taste of dead leaves is as pleasant as the smell of distant smoke. Anyone who walks quietly will see deer. In the shallow valleys every brook is backed up into swampy ponds by beaver dams. You are half an hour’s drive from Parliament Hill, but you’re in the kind of country that stretches without much change all the way north to Hudson Bay.

To the settler it is terrible country, as many found out in our grandfathers' time. Often, walking through the deeper woods beyond the range of the old forest fire, you come upon apple trees growing wild. These are the only surviving trace of a farm someone cleared in the seventies or eighties; every stick of house and barn has vanished. Only the most foolhardy of immigrants would have tried to farm such land in the first place.

Everyone Went Broke

But though most Canadians now know better than to plant cash crops on it, they have never been able to stay away from the Shield. By 1660, twenty years before La Salle paddled to the Mississippi, a Jesuit and a Quebec seigneur had gone all the way up the Saguenay, over the height of land and down to Hudson Bay. There has seldom been a year since when somebody hasn’t gone over this or the other canoe routes to the north.

At first they used to say they were after beaver. For the last hundred years the excuse has been the search for metals—the useless ones that men call precious, and the precious ones called base.

Until lately, neither excuse made much economic sense. Even in the early days this wasn’t the best fur country; fur-bearing animals throve on the edge of the Shield, from the Ottawa Valley to the Athabaska country and the Hudson Bay lowlands, rather than on the Shield itself. As for metals, men knew they were there all right, but for two and a half centuries everyone went broke who tried to get them out.

Long before the white man came the Indians knew of the copper in the rocks. There are ancient pits, thirty-five feet deep, around Thunder Bay at the west end of Lake Superior, near which bits of old tools have been found, revealing how the pits were worked. The natives would build fires to heat the copper-bearing rock face, then shatter it by pouring on cold water, finally pull out the fragments and pulverize them with great stone hammers made of lake-shore holders.

Jesuit missionaries heard about the copper of Lake Superior as early as 1636, but the fur traders of the French regime were not interested in mining. The English were. Alexander Henry the Elder, one of the first English-speaking fur traders to invade the northwest after the French defeat, had the backing of the Duke of Gloucester in a project to mine copper on the north shore of Lake Superior. Henry found ore all right, and dug a shaft thirty feet deep. He also built a six-ton sloop to carry the ore from Michipicoten Harbor to Sault Ste. Marie, where apparently he thought it might be smelted. But the scheme failed and, in spite of its distinguished patronage, the first Canadian mining company went bankrupt.

All the other metals of the Shield, including gold, have the same kind of early history. It was the end of the nineteenth century before metallurgists knew how to separate, cheaply and easily, the complex ores of the Shield.

This is the reason for the long lag between discovery and development of Canada’s hard-rock mineral resources. It is also one reason why so few of the actual discoverers made fortunes by their finds.

Legend makes it sound easy—CPR navvies cutting right through the lode of copper, nickel and platinum at Sudbury, the richest mineral deposit in the world; blacksmith Fred La Rose throwing a hammer at a fox near Cobalt and scraping bare a patch of pure silver; Harry Preston falling down a slope of moss rock near Porcupine Lake and scraping off the moss to expose the glittering quartz of Dome gold mine. There was more to all these stories than legend bothers to tell.

It was 1883 when the CPR reached Sudbury on its way west. One spring evening Sir William Van Horne’s presidential private car was on a siding near the end of steel. Sir William’s young secretary, Thomas Tait, went for a stroll up the new cut ahead of the tracklayers, and his eye was caught by glistening fragments of stone. He took them back to the private car, left them on a window sill and forgot them. A week later the porter found them there and took them to Sir William Van Horne’s Montreal office, where Sir William left them lying on his desk for months. It was another railway builder, S. J. Ritchie, paying a casual call on the president of the CPR, who noticed the bits of rock and asked if he might take them away. He had them assayed and then quietly, without saying anything to his host Van Horne, he staked mining claims at the spot where Tom Tait had found the glistening fragments.

But even when these facts were known they didn’t create much stir. After Ritchie had staked his claims, after other CPR workers had found and staked other patches of ore, land in the Sudbury area could still be bought for a dollar an acre. This was not as stupid a price as it seems, for the useful copper in the Sudbury ore was mixed with a worthless white metal called nickel. Nearly twenty more years went by before Col. R. M. Thomson discovered a simple way of separating nickel from copper, and it was still longer before the value of nickel itself was known.

Fred La Rose and the other railway builders who found silver at Cobalt in 1903 were lucky enough to hit it at the right time. They were laying the Terniskaming and Northern Ontario Railway, which made it possible to move machinery in and the silver out. Cobalt became a boom town right away. What the Cobalt legend omits is that a timber cruiser, E. D. Wright, of Ottawa, had found the same silver lode fifty years before when his calked boots dug into the soft ore. He kept his samples twenty years before he got around to having them assayed, but even that wasn’t long enough: the company that tried to exploit his find went broke.

When gold was "discovered” at Yellowknife on Great Slave Lake in the 1980s, it started a boom. When the same gold was found in 1898 by a prospector who had failed in the Klondike, nobody paid the slightest attention. It was found again twenty years later, just at the close of World War I; this "discoverer” is said to have died of a broken heart because Toronto financiers weren’t interested in his find. Eight more years went by and Yellowknife was "discovered” again, this time by a man who raised money enough to sink a shaft on an island near the present townsite. But this pioneer was drowned and his barge-load of machinery lost in the rapids of the Athabaska River. Yellowknife’s boom had to wait for the airplane, first used in a northern mining venture about 1930.

Eccentries Found the Needles

Sandy McIntyre, the eccentric irascible Scot who gave his name to the fabulously rich McIntyre - Porcupine gold mine, is probably the most famous prospector-martyr. He got only a few thousand dollars for the claims he staked and died broke after living on the charity of mining men for some years. But the fact is that Sandy McIntyre’s own claims never did prove to be very valuable. The rich strikes were made in adjoining claims staked later and the shoestring syndicate that bought out McIntyre spent its first years on the thin edge of bankruptcy. The first gold brick to be smelted from McIntyre ore had to be rushed to the bank while it was still hot, to meet an overdue and impatient payroll.

All these men and dozens more like them struck the earliest possible moment for success, just at the beginning of "Canada’s century.” The fact that they could succeed at all was a result of many decades of work by oddly assorted men.

Some were men who never saw the Shield, like the young Scottish chemists McArthur and Forest who discovered in 1887 that potassium or sodium cyanide would dissolve gold out of ore. Without that discovery the rich strikes at Porcupine and Dome and Kirkland Lake would have been virtually worthless. But mostly these precursors were the strange fellows who loved the Shield as it was.

There were visionaries like G. C. Farr, a onetime Hudson’s Bay Co. factor and for years an MP for the Temiskaming area. He thought a great farming country was going to waste in the clay belt, the Shield’s one patch of arable land, once the floor of a glacial lake in northern Ontario. After years of preaching, he finally badgered the Ontario government into building a railway to it. This was the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario, the line that made Cobalt and the Ontario goldfields worth working.

Above all there were the dedicated eccentrics who staffed the Geological Survey of Canada. Without their reports over the past hundred-odd years, all the prospectors on the Shield would still be looking for needles in a vast haystack.

The founder and patron saint of the Geological Survey was a wiry little Scot named William Logan— Sir William, as Queen Victoria dubbed him after listening to him expound the Canadian exhibit of minerals at the Paris Exposition of 1855. The name Logan is to geology what Osler and Banting are to medicine. Among the geologists of the world he was a considerable figure; in Canada he was a giant who stood alone for most of his own lifetime. Canada has the greatest exposed surface of Precambrian rock in the world, and Logan knew more about it than any other man living. All real scientific knowledge of the Canadian north began with him.

Logan was a man of independent means and this was just as well. In the two years after he founded it in 1842, the Geological Survey cost eight hundred pounds out of Logan’s own pocket as well as the fifteen hundred pounds voted for the purpose by the legislature of the United Province of Canada. Nevertheless Logan lived, worked and stored all his specimens and equipment in a bare single room in Montreal, sleeping there on a folding cot in the same bedroll he carried on field trips in the summertime. He dressed like an absent-minded tramp, not because he was affected but because he really never thought of anything but his work. It was a good thing for some poor girl that he never married. By the time he died in 1875 he had surveyed the whole of southeastern Canada and the southern edge of the Shield, and his studies of the Precambrian structure had established that the world is some aeons older than was supposed.

Logan chose worthy successors. Under the stiff strict Englishman Alfred Selwyn and the astonishingly hardy little hunchback George M. Dawson, the survey was extended from east to west coast and north to a coast again. Dawson was the man who gave his name to the Yukon’s boom town, Dawson City. It was while he directed the Geological Survey that the Tyrrell brothers, J. B. and J. W., made the first modern crossing of the northwestern Shield. They traveled more than a century after Samuel Hearne, the Hudson’s Bay Co. man who crossed from the mouth of the Churchill River to the mouth of the Coppermine in 1772, but the Tyrrells had nothing but Hearne’s notes to guide them. Nobody else had been there in a hundred and twenty years.

But of all these latter-day explorers the man who learned most about the Canadian Shield, and whose reports make the most fascinating reading today, was a great hulking fellow named Albert Peter Low. He became director of the Geological Survey for a couple of years before he retired, but his great work was done as a simple field geologist on monumental trips by winter and summer in the north.

Low’s travels in the Labrador Peninsula were as thrilling as any of the seventeenth century. In fact they were the same. He used the same means of transport, covered the same kind of ground in the same kind of climate, met the same kind of wild primitive people. And he himself was the same kind of man.

Once in the 1880s he was sent north of Lake St. John with a joint federal-provincial expedition. The Quebec half of the expedition was led by a man named Bignell. They reached winter camp or Lake Mistassini just before Christmas, after making the last ten days’ journey on snowshoes. In January an argument developed between Low and Bignell as to how things should be done and who was in charge.

Low put on his snowshoes and set off for Ottawa to get the matter of authority cleared up. He got there early in March, waited three weeks for Ottawa and Quebec to make up their minds, got full authority on March 23 to command the whole expedition, and set off for Lake Mistassini the next day. He arrived before the end of April, in good time to begin the summer’s operations.

In a continuous two-year expedition during 1893-94 Low traveled fifty-five hundred miles—three thousand miles by canoe, a thousand by ship and a thousand on foot, and the remaining five hundred by dog sled.

It was on that trip that he saw and correctly appraised the iron ore deposits of central Labrador. He took samples in which the content of metallic iron ran as high as fifty-four percent. He noted that its mode of occurrence was like the enormous ore beds of Michigan and Wisconsin. "The amount of ore in sight,” he reported, "must be reckoned by hundreds of millions of tons, certainly an almost inexhaustible supply of high-grade ore.”

These deposits, Low remarked soberly, "may at some future time be of economic importance.”

An Old Report Held the Key

Another observation that turned out to be of economic importance at a future time was made in 1900 by a geologist named James McIntosh Bell. Bell was surveying Great Bear Lake with a young assistant, Charlie Camsell—the same Charles Camsell who recently retired after nearly thirty years as deputy minister of mines and natural resources. In Bell’s report was this sentence:

"In the greenstones east of McTavish Bay occur numerous interrupted stringers of calcspar containing chalcopyrite, and the steep rocky shores which here present themselves to the lake are often stained with cobalt blue and copper green.”

Thirty years later Gilbert LaBine, browsing through old Geological Survey reports as good prospectors do in the wintertime, ran across this sentence and made up his mind. He’d been north of Great Bear Lake the previous summer, looking for the copper that had prompted Samuel Hearne’s trek across the northwest in 1772. LaBine found the copper but couldn’t see any economic way of getting it to market. Flying home, though, he had passed over McTavish Bay and his eye had been caught by the spot of color just where Bell and Camsell had camped three decades before. Bell’s report confirmed the hope he had conceived then.

LaBine came from Cobalt, Ont., and he knew the relationship between cobalt bloom and silver. In the spring of 1930 he and a partner flew to Great Bear Lake before the ice was out, and set off on snowshoes to find again the rock face Bell had described.

LaBine was looking for silver. He found pitchblende, the ore of radium and uranium. In 1900 neither would have been of any use, for Madame Curie’s work was still to be done. Even in 1930 it was only the radium that was valuable; uranium was merely an ingredient in certain types of crockery. But it was the uranium strike which, when another dozen years had gone by, made Canada one of the "atomic powers” in World War II and in the United Nations.

What uranium is worth to Canada now, in dollars, is treated as a secret, but the best guesses put it at about one hundred millions by 1957. The new Uranium City in northern Saskatchewan, the big investments at Blind River, Ont., and Lake Athabaska are proof enough that it's a major new natural resource. Uranium is the fuel of the atomic age and Canada has uranium to burn.

It too comes from the Shield. So do other metals and rare earths like titanium and lithium and columbium tantalum—stuff of the new alloys that have only now been invented. More and still more reasons why the Canadian Shield had to wait for "Canada’s century” before it could be put to full use.

Even its forests are a relatively recent harvest. In the heyday of lumbering a hundred years ago these scrubby little spruces were hardly worth cutting, not when the noble white pine was still a "limitless resource.” The growth of the modern newspaper and its insatiable demand for newsprint brought the Shield’s forest into its own. It’s now the mainstay of Canada’s largest single industry, both employer and dollar earner.

But the Shield’s forests are unlikely ever to produce more wealth than they are earning now. They’ll do well to grow fast enough to keep up the present rate of exploitation, for in the more northerly parts of the Shield growth is difficult and slow. Camsell once cut down a spruce on the shore of Great Bear Lake; it was only about a foot in diameter but it had growth rings for two hundred and eighty years of life.

Nor will any discoveries of agricultural science, no matter how utopian, ever make good farming country of the Canadian Shield. The new wealth is in the rocks, in the patches of greenstone that dot the geological maps a little more thickly with each year’s patient surveying. And this is good news in more ways than the material.

No matter how carefully it is searched, we know the Shield is mostly grey tombstone rock—not even fine enough for tombstones, in competition with the better Swedish and Norwegian granite. No matter how many rich mines may be brought in here and there on its two million square miles, we know the Shield will always be mostly empty.

This too is important to Canada—more important in some people’s eyes than the wealth itself.

One of the things that make this country what it is, a little different from all other countries however similar and however friendly, is the fact and the awareness of the fact that the wilderness is not far away. However urban we become, however soft and fat and civilized, we still have the cleansing wild within a hundred miles more or less. It’s pleasant to know that no matter how much richer and stronger we may grow, Canada will still be the same kind of country.

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