30 Years of Diamonds in Canada

The discovery of economic diamond deposits in the Lac de Gras area of the Northwest Territories is a story of dedicated commitment and perseverance. The search began in 1981 with an investigation of the Mountain Diatreme located in the Mackenzie Mountains, southwest of Norman Wells, NWT. In 1982, Charles Fipke and Stewart Blusson of Diamet Minerals, with assistance from Hugo Dummett of Superior Oil sampled areas around Blackwater Lake 490 km west of Yellowknife and recovered kimberlite indicator minerals with compositions consistent with diamond-bearing source rocks. This led to a systematic tracking of a trail of indicator minerals during the following ten summers over a distance of six hundred kilometres to the east.

By 1990, Fipke and Blusson had established that the likely source for the indicator minerals was in the Lac de Gras region and staking of a large land package was initiated. Later that year, an exploration agreement was negotiated with Hugo Dummett who had since joined BHP Minerals. In early 1991, while investigating a lake in the southeastern part of the claim block that Fipke thought was crater-like in appearance, his son Mark discovered a large bright green Cr-diopside crystal on a ridge immediately down-ice from the lake. This critical piece of evidence added confidence to Fipke’s theory that Point Lake hosted a kimberlite pipe, which prompted an immediate ground magnetic survey by geophysicists from BHP. When a compelling magnetic anomaly was evident, the target was immediately tested. In September 1991, an angled core hole drilled from the eastern shore of Point Lake intersected kimberlite at a depth of 137 meters downhole. The subsequent announcement by BHP and Dia Met to the Vancouver Stock Exchange in November 1991 that 81 diamonds had been recovered from a 59-kilogram sample of kimberlite core from the discovery hole, triggered the largest staking rush in Canadian history. Within a few months of the announcement, most of the area between Yellowknife and the Arctic coast was blanket staked by exploration and mining companies, prospectors and stock market entrepreneurs eager to discover Canada’s first diamond mine.

financial post october 1993 Chuck Fipke
Financial Post Magazine Front Cover for October 1993 showing Dia Met’s Chuck Fipke.

By December 1993, BHP had signalled its commitment to develop Canada’s first diamond mine by submitting a Project Description Report to the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs. Final approval to build a mine was received from the federal cabinet in November 1996 following a full Environmental Impact Statement, a thorough review process involving the NWT Water Board, the Federal Department of Fisheries and Ocean, extensive public hearings and the negotiation of Impact and Benefits Agreements with the local indigenous groups. After an intense construction period, Canada’s first diamond mine, Ekati, was officially opened on 14 October 1998.

Ekati, Canada’s first diamond mine, Northwest Territories. Open pits in foreground from back left to right: Koala, Koala North, Panda and Beartooth kimberlite pipes.
Copyright © Arctic Canadian Diamond Company

One of the first companies to respond to the Point Lake announcement was a small private company run by Lee Barker and Gren Thomas called West Viking Exploration. Barker and Thomas immediately started staking in the area to the south of the BHP/Dia Met claims block and were successful in securing the ground where the Diavik Diamond Mine was subsequently developed. With a good land position secured, West Viking merged into Aber Resources which subsequently signed an option agreement to explore the claims with Kennecott Canada Inc, a subsidiary of Rio Tinto plc.

The Kennecott/Aber team got to work quickly and soon found more that 30 kimberlite pipes, but none had any significant quantities of diamonds. The first major discovery was made in March 1993, with a kimberlite pipe called A21. However, an even more exciting discovery was to come the following year. Just before the ice started to break up in 1994, after about 10 days of unsuccessful drilling on a promising looking target, the team decided to gamble with one last hole for the season. They moved the rig about 15 metres to the south and finally hit kimberlite just as the ice was failing and they were forced to pull the rig off of Lac de Gras. Later that night when Aber geologists Robin Hopkins and Eira Thomas were inspecting the newly discovered kimberlite core, they broke a piece of kimberlite along a natural fracture. On one side of the core they saw a large indentation and on the other side was a two and a half carat gem quality diamond! The target they drilled that day was A154, which was subsequently developed into one of the richest kimberlites ever to be mined in the world, one of the pipes mined by Diavik Diamond Mine. After the discovery of A154 in 1994, the Aber/Kennecott joint venture arrangements were assigned into the Diavik Diamond Mines joint venture, which went on to successfully complete a feasibility study to mine the A154N, A154S, A418 and A21 pipes. After a similar review process to that undertaken for Ekati, the Diavik Mine was successfully constructed and commenced commercial production in January 2003.

Gren Thomas in the early days of the Diavik Diamond Mine, Northwest Territories.

In 1987-1988, before the historic 1991 Point Lake announcement, the De Beers Group using systematic sediment sampling and geophysics discovered the Attawapiskat Kimberlite Province in the James Bay Lowlands of northern Ontario, approximately 90 km west of the coastal community of Attawapiskat First Nation. Within this province the largest kimberlite was shown to be economic and the Victor Mine, Ontario’s first diamond mine, opened in 2008. The open pit mine will complete mining and processing activities in Q1 2019, and then move into the formal closure phase. It is estimated that De Beers Victor Mine will contribute C$6.7 billion cumulative GDP impact for all of Ontario during the life of the mine.

Victor Mine Ontario
Victor Mine, northern Ontario, May 2019. Courtesy: De Beers Group.

At the same time Victor was found in northern Ontario, the De Beers Group following up other systematic sampling discovered the first kimberlite in the Canadian Prairies. The Sturgeon Lake 01 kimberlite is located 35 km west of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. This and a second kimberlite found nearby were determined not to be in situ pipes but glacially transported megablocks. In 1989 Uranerz Exploration and Mining Limited discovered the Fort à la Corne kimberlite province approximately 60 km east of Prince Albert.

Fort à la Corne Diamond Field in Saskatchewan
The first representation of the Fort à la Corne Diamond Field in Saskatchewan by George Strnad, 1988.

Since then, exploration at Fort à la Corne has been ongoing with the following different joint venture partners including Cameco Corporation, De Beers Canada Inc. and Kensington Resources Ltd. In 2005 Shore Gold Inc., with participation from Newmont Mining Corporation, gained control of the Fort à la Corne Joint Venture and focussed on the evaluation of the Star and Orion South kimberlites. In mid 2017, Star Diamond Corporation (formerly Shore Gold Inc.) announced an agreement with Newmont, converting their project interest to an equity interest, thereby Star Diamond held 100 percent of the mineral dispositions covering the Fort à la Corne kimberlites. Simultaneously Star Diamond announced an option to joint venture agreement with Rio Tinto Canada Exploration Inc. to earn up to a 60 percent in, what is now referred to as, Project FalCon. Rio Tinto aims to earn their interest in Project FalCon by conducting additional bulk sampling programs on the Star and Orion South kimberlites, in addition to Brownfields exploration on the other kimberlites in the province.

Diamond exploration work in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut in the early 1990’s resulted in other significant discoveries. Approximately 160 km north of Ekati and Diavik, the Jericho Kimberlite was discovered in 1994 by Canamera Geological Ltd. Tahera Diamond Corporation operated the Jericho Mine in 2006-2007. Canamera Geological Ltd in 1995 also discovered the 5034 kimberlite at Kennady Lake, approximately 280 km northeast of Yellowknife. A joint venture between De Beers Group, Mountain Province Mining and Camphor Ventures Canada continued exploration and discovered and evaluated additional kimberlites leading to the opening of the Gahcho Kué Mine in 2016. This mine is a joint venture between De Beers Canada Inc. (51%) and Mountain Province Diamonds Inc. (49%). Gahcho Kué is an open pit operation, mining three kimberlite pipes in sequence: 5034, Hearne and Tuzo, with approximately a 12 year life of mine.

Gahcho Kué Mine, Northwest Territories, March 2018.

In 1996 Aber Resources Ltd and Winspear Resources Ltd discovered the Snap Lake kimberlite 220 kilometres northeast of Yellowknife. The project was acquired by De Beers Canada in 2000 and the Snap Lake Mine opened in 2008 becoming the first De Beers Group mine outside Africa and Canada’s first all-underground diamond mine. The Snap Lake ore body is a 2.5 metre thick dyke that dips an average of 12° to 15°. The Mine operated until December 2015 when it was placed into care and maintenance.

In 2001 the Ashton Mining of Canada Inc. – SOQUEM Inc. joint venture discovered the Renard kimberlites in the Otish Mountains area, approximately 250 km north of the Cree community of Mistissini and 350 km north of Chibougamau in the James Bay region of north-central Québec. The Renard Diamond Mine, now wholly owned by Stornoway Diamond Corporation, is Quebec’s first and only diamond mine. Its official opening was celebrated on 19 October 2016 and commercial production was declared on 01 January 2017.

Process Plant, Renard Mine, Quebec.

In 2008 the first kimberlite of the Chidliak Province was found by Peregrine Diamonds Ltd on the Cumberland Peninsula, Baffin Island, Nunavut Territory, about 120 km from the territorial capital, Iqaluit. Further exploration through 2014 defined an 80 km by 60 km province of 71 kimberlites on the Chidliak claim and an additional three on the adjacent Qilaq claim. De Beers Canada acquired the Chidliak Project in September 2018 as part of the purchase of Peregrine Diamonds Ltd. To date, 51 kimberlites have been tested for the presence of diamonds and 41 of these have showed positive results. Two kimberlites were prioritized for advanced exploration and are estimated to contain the following (i) CH6: about 18 million carats in about 7.5 million tonnes of kimberlite, an estimated grade of about 2.41 carats per tonne to a depth of 525 metres below surface (and (ii) CH-7: about 4.2 million carats in about 5.0 million tonnes of kimberlite; an average grade of 0.85 carats per tonne to a depth of 240 metres.

12 IKC is celebrating the ‘30 Years of Diamonds in Canada’ outlined above during which hundreds of kimberlites were discovered across Canada leading to the opening of seven mines and Canada becoming one of the top three diamond producers in the world (by value). Five mines are currently operating although in 2019 Victor will complete mining and processing activities in Q1 and start its planned closure phase.