The May Twenty Four: Québec’s rise as a global mining powerhouse

The next instalment of The May Twenty Four series focuses on the second main mining region in Canada – Québec, which holds the mantle for being one of very few producers of niobium, titanium dioxide, cobalt and platinum in the world.

The former French colony is home to around 8.7 million people, of which 25,500 are directly employed in the mining sector – accounting for 10% of Canada’s mining workforce. Another nearly 25,000 are employed indirectly. 

The history of mining can be traced back as far as the 1530s, when French explorer Jacques Cartier thought he spied diamonds and gold on the slopes of Cap Diamant. Turns out those supposed diamonds and gold were actually quartz and pyrite. 

In 1686, the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region became the site of the first lead discovery when Pierre de Troyes, captain of one of New France’s autonomous infantry units, uncovered traces of the metal on the eastern shore of Lac Témiscamingue.

Nothing ever came of the discovery until two centuries later, when it was rediscovered in the 1850s and mined in the 1890s for lead, zinc and silver. 

However, Québec is credited for establishing Canada’s heavy industry back in the 18th century, with the emergence of an iron mine at Forges du Saint-Maurice near Trois-Rivières in Québec – which remained as a going concern from 1738 to 1883.

Despite so many early discoveries, the first “true” mines — according to Québec’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forests — did not start to emerge in Québec until the 1840s when several major deposits were uncovered, mainly in the south.

Meanwhile, a gold rush was ignited by the discovery of a 2.5-ounce gold nugget (described as hen-egg sized) in 1846 in a shallow river in the Beauce region by 20-year-old Clothilde Gilbert. The first gold deposit was found in 1906 in the Rouyn-Noranda region, on the shores of Lac Fortune.

However, Québec’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forests says mining did not really become established in the region until the early 1920s.

Québec’s mining industry has come a long way since then, with Canada’s largest province by area ranking in the Top 10 for investment in the Fraser Institute’s recently released 2023 Survey of Mining Companies. The region moved up to fifth spot, from eighth place in the previous year.  

The key commodities mined are gold, iron, nickel, titanium, niobium, copper and zinc. This comes from just 1% of the 1.7 million square kilometres, while mining rights cover only 5% of the vast territory. 

A fifth of Canada’s mining output comes from the region and the Québec and Canadian governments collectively bank over $2 billion in revenue each year from the sector. Revenues paid to the Québec government from mining increased over 77% between 2014 and 2020.  

While the majority of Canada’s iron ore mines are located in Québec, Nunavut, and Newfoundland and Labrador, Québec is the country’s largest producer of iron concentrate. It is also Canada’s largest producer of zinc and second-largest producer of gold.

Québec, which is home to over 200 operations, is also highly prospective for critical minerals such as lithium, graphite, rare earths and tantalum. 

Over half of Canada’s lithium mines reside in Québec, while most of the projects that report cobalt as a primary commodity can also be found in Québec or Ontario.

Total mining investment spend in 2022 climbed nearly 11% to C$4.76 billion ($5.25 billion), with the Nord-du-Québec, Abitibi-Témiscamingue and Côte-Nord regions accounting for 94.3% of that spend. 

The Québec Statistics Institute says precious metals, particularly gold, top the list of the most sought-after commodities, accounting for 64.1%, or $585 million, of exploration and deposit appraisal work expenditures in 2022. 

Base metals represented 19.5%, or $179 million, while graphite, lithium and rare earths accounted for 12%, or $110 million.

However, exploration and deposit appraisal work dipped 7.7% to C$914 million in 2022. According to the Government of Canada, Québec had the third highest exploration spend that year, after Ontario and British Columbia.

Mining titans, rising stars

Major mining companies in the region include C$46.76 billion Agnico Eagle Mines (TSX:AEM), C$2.99 billion Iamgold (TSX:IMG), US$3.38 billion ($3.73 billion) Hecla Mining (NYSE:HL) and C$1.10 billion Osisko Mining (TSX:OSK).

Agnico Eagle has three operating gold and silver mines in Québec – the Canadian Malarctic Complex, Goldex in Val-d’Or and the La Ronde Complex in the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region. 

Iamgold operates the Westwood Mine, 80km west of Val d’Or in southwestern Québec, which in 2023 produced 93,000 ounces of gold. The company also has two exploration projects in the province. 

Hecla owns the Casa Berardi mine, which is an underground and open-pit gold operation located in western Québec. In 2023, the mine produced 90,363 ounces of gold and 22,415 ounces of silver. The company also has an exploration project, Opinaca-Wildcat, in James Bay. 

Osisko, meanwhile, has three gold exploration projects in the Eeyou Istchee James Bay territory. 

On the junior exploration front, Power Nickel (TSX-V:PNPN) is advancing its ‘high-grade’ Nisk Project, also in the Eeyou Istchee James Bay territory, towards becoming Canada’s first carbon neutral nickel mine. 

The company revealed recently it had made a fresh near-surface, high-grade polymetallic discovery 5km northeast of the main Nisk deposit.

Meanwhile, Q2 Metals (TSX-V:QTWO) has three lithium exploration projects in Eeyou Istchee James Bay – Cisco, Mia and Stellar. 

The company plans to begin a detailed mapping and sampling program at its Cisco Project after the re-assaying of initial core samples confirmed historic lithium and tantalum drill results.

Green power, strategic investments fuel growth

Power Nickel CEO Terry Lynch says jurisdiction is becoming increasingly a key factor in the exploration space. 

Québec specifically and Canada generally are consistently marketed at or near top places to have a mine, particularly critical minerals of which Québec is well-endowed.

“Canada in general and Québec in specific have a high-quality and low CO₂ energy grid. Access to power and green power is increasingly a highly sought after characteristic for mine development,” he says. 

Lynch says Power Nickel is exploring accessing various multi-million-dollar grants and loan programs, which are available to help with infrastructure development (roads, power etcetera), as well as for metallurgical work and community development.

Q2 Metals Head of Corporate Communications Jason McBride tells Mining.com.au Québec continually makes infrastructure investments, and it has created a strong, modern infrastructure including energy costs among the lowest of G7 nations.

The provincial government has also thrown its support behind the creation of a battery supply hub.

“They have announced billions of dollars of investments from major companies to build the ecosystem necessary to be a global battery sector leader. Lithium mined in Québec should play a major role in this,” McBride says. 

In January 2024, Minister of Natural Resources and Forests Maïté Blanchette Vézina released the provincial government’s updated 2023-2025 plan for the development of critical and strategic minerals (CSMs). At the time, the list of CSMs was updated to include manganese, aluminium, apatite, germanium, high-grade silica and high-grade iron.

“Additionally, the government of Québec has several investment arms that are investing directly into junior mining companies that they believe have potential,” McBride says. 

James Bay in particular has been capturing headlines in recent times. 

“The James Bay Region is gaining attention globally as a lithium hot spot due to the favorable geology and several major lithium discoveries over the past couple years,” McBride says.  

“Not only is Canada a great country to work in, but Québec has also proven to be a great mining jurisdiction.  

Both the provincial and Cree governments are extremely proactive, there are already some major discoveries in the James Bay region, and our team knows the area well.”

Power Nickel’s Lynch believes both Canada and Australia are best in class locations from a rule of law perspective. 

“Investors rightly feel safe investing in these countries. Canada’s fiscal incentives in general and Québec specifically, I believe, are quite unique in the world,” he says. 

At Power Nickel we have been able to raise money at two and sometimes three times our share price due to the tax benefits we can ascribe to front end investors. This process allows investors from Australia, Europe, Asia and the USA to take advantage of this form of investment.”

Canada-listed companies can issue flow-through shares that allow investors to claim tax credits for the amount they invest. Shares offered under this mechanism are usually issued at a premium to the price of a company’s shares at the time. 

The North American country adopted the system back in the early 1990s to encourage greater investment in its resources sector.  

Write to Angela East at Mining.com.au 

Images: Québec Statistics Institute & Q2 Metals
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Written By Angela East
Managing Editor Angela East is an experienced business journalist and editor with over 15 years spent covering the resources and construction sectors and more recently working as a communications specialist handling media relations for junior resources companies.