"Gold!" screamed the newspaper headlines in the summer of 1897. Men had built empires, fought wars and died searching for the shiny yellow metal for thousands of years, and in August 1896, along the banks of a tributary of the Klondike River in the Yukon, prospectors discovered one of the richest gold deposits in Canadian history. It took almost a year for the news to work its way from the Klondike, across the Rockies to Fort Fraser and then down the Fraser River to civilization. But when the news finally broke, the rush was on. By 1900 there were more than 30,000 people in and around Dawson City, the boomtown that grew on the foundation of Klondike gold.
For a few years, fortune seekers panned the Klondike and its tributaries, and some became fabulously wealthy almost overnight. Soon, however, the rush came to an end as lone prospectors gave way to scientific mining methods, but the gold remained, and by 1966, when the mines themselves finally closed down, the region had produced almost $380 million of the precious metal.
Gold rushes, silver rushes, oil rushes - throughout history, the road to riches has, more often than not, lead through shafts and tunnels driven through unforgiving rock. Indeed, the civilization we enjoy today simply would not exist had we not harnessed the elemental resources of the earth itself. In the late 19th century petroleum was added to the mix as the first oil wells in Canada, near Sarnia, Ontario, started to pump black gold from the ground.
Our cars run on petroleum. Iron, coal and manganese give us steel. Computers would not exist without gold and platinum and silicates extracted from huge quarries. Every child knows what glories lie in the mineral cores of rocks split open on a summer afternoon. And it's those minerals that today's scientific prospectors and mining engineers seek to extract from the earth.
Mining and other primary resource industries have always been big business in Canada. Many of our cities and towns carry that legacy in their very names. Coppermine, Northwest Territories is self-explanatory. Red Lake, Ontario is named after the colour given off by underwater gold deposits. Timmins, Ontario is named after a mining executive and Cobalt, Ontario is named after, well…cobalt.
The mining, quarrying and oil industries have also been one of the few sectors of the Canadian economy that have continued to grow consistently. Apparently unaffected by economic crises, recessions and the devaluation of the Canadian currency - in fact, a low loonie only helps the business - these industries grew 41.5 percent between 1984 and 1997. And we musn't forget that primary industries do not exist in a vacuum. Every mineshaft sunk into an ore vein and every oil or natural gas well drilled requires whole battalions of technicians and technologists across several disciplines, including Geomatics, Civil, Mechanical, Petroleum and Mineral.
But the business is changing, and this is reflected by the way the number of people employed in mining, quarrying and the oil industry dropped by about five percent in the same period. Since the 1950s, a revolution in resource extraction technologies has resulted in greater volumes of resources being extracted every year by fewer and fewer workers at much reduced costs. Aluminum is a case in point: once more valuable than gold because it was so difficult to extract and refine, the light, strong metal is everywhere today. We use it in our cars, trains, planes and households. It's so inexpensive that we even use it for sandwich wrapping and beverage cans.
The days are long gone when miners equipped with lighted helmets, picks and shovels descended the mines to carve riches from veins of mineral treasure, or when wildcatting oilmen drove shafts willy-nilly through the plains of Alberta. Miners and petroleum workers today are among the most highly trained specialists in the world, and more often than not, they are trained Petroleum and Mineral Technicians and Technologists.
The men and women who work as technicians and technologists in the mining and resource industries are trained in a wide range of skills and occupations. They are the operators of high-tech mining and drilling machines. They are as likely to be experts in the application of geophysics, seismology and organic chemistry.
Our society has come to realize just how finite and precious these resources are. The stakes are higher now than they were in 1897, when it seemed that the Klondike was a river of gold that would never run out, and with that realization has come a greater emphasis on efficiency, precision - and consequently skill.
Equally important has been the resource industries' growing environmental consciousness. And that consciousness has created a whole new class of occupations. The days when a company could strip-mine a mountain without considering the operation's impact on nature and wildlife will never be seen again. The preparation of environmental impact studies and monitoring of waste from slag and runoff have become as central to the industry as the process of mining, quarrying and drilling itself. This is the domain of Environmental Technicians and Technologists.
The future of Canadian resource industries looks bright. Even as we move away from fossil fuels and coal to cleaner energy products, new demands for other minerals and resources will doubtless continue to grow. Canada is the world's second-largest country in terms of area, and it has the largest deposits of raw natural resources of any country in the world, most of which remain untapped.