Toronto’s buried history: the dark story of how mining built a city

Even most residents don’t know Toronto is the global headquarters of the mining industry – but scratch the surface and some uncomfortable truths are revealed

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Miners drill for silver in Cobalt, Ontario
Miners drill for silver in Cobalt, Ontario, which became the world’s fourth biggest source for the metal and solidified Toronto’s connection to the mining industry / © Berni Schoenfield/Getty Images

This coming Sunday, the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) will host its 85th annual conference in downtown Toronto. With more than 20,000 attendees and 900 exhibitors, the conference is the largest of its kind in the world. During those four days, delegates take over 20 of Toronto’s downtown hotels and spend millions of dollars in its restaurants and bars.

By day they meet in the caverns of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre – an underground pavilion larger than 10 football fields – to make deals. When I attended the conference in 2013, by the end of day one my satchel contained several business cards, glossy brochures and a branded water bottle. I had an overview of mining prospects in Nunavut; surveys of global exploration and investment trends; a guide to investment in China’s mineral industry; maps of every gold-mining project in Alaska and the Yukon; and a series of brochures from the Mongolian ministry of mining promoting the emergence of large-scale coal extraction there.

The most striking find came from the booth of the US Geological Survey, whose material was entirely about extractive prospects in Afghanistan. A message on the back of the reports expressed appreciation for the generous support of both USAid and the Department of Defence.

The next evening in post-conference drinks at the Royal York hotel, I met a young woman who had spent the previous summer prospecting a gold formation in north-western Ontario. When I asked how much her company expected to sell it for, she shrugged and said, without smugness or irony: “Probably for hundreds of millions of dollars.”

On the third day, I left the conference to visit an aboriginal community centre in the east end of Toronto. A lecture was being delivered by a Mayan Q’eqchi’ woman from eastern Guatemala named Angelica Choc, who had initiated a lawsuit against Toronto-based Hudbay Minerals in the Ontario Superior Court. […]