Chapter VIII: For Future Reference
Revival of these old mines and prospects, and the discovery and development of new ones, were attributable in part to the one feature that above all characterized post-Confederation mining in Newfoundland: direct and intimate government involvement in the mining industry. In an effort to transform the new province into a haven for mining investors, Premier Joseph R. Smallwood (1949-72) had his government pass a veritable sheaf of acts designed to encourage mineral exploration in Newfoundland and Labrador. More mining-related legislation emerged from the House of Assembly between 1950 and 1960 than in the preceding century of the House's existence!
Many of the acts concerned ratification of concession agreements with mining companies and individuals. The agreements varied in detail, but in general gave recipients exclusive exploration rights to specific areas of the province for terms ranging from two to twenty years, during which period the recipient could obtain a lease or development license for part of the property. Although the practice of granting mineral concessions had some precedent in Newfoundland - the Reid and telegraph lots and the A.N.D. Co. concession, for example - it reached a peak between 1950 and 1970; in those years, 28 companies or individuals acquired mineral concessions covering much of Newfoundland and Labrador.
The generosity of area and terms of the concession agreements received (and continue to receive) criticism. Detractors insisted that time spans allotted for most of the agreements were too long and too readily extended. They also pointed out that agreements usually required concession owners to spend only a few cents per acre on the ground and that some concessions were so immense as to preclude the possibility of recipients' performing efficient and thorough exploration on even a fraction of the territory. Supporters of the concession system enumerated the mines opened in Newfoundland during the concession decades. The 1950s and '60s, however, were times of increased mining activity right across Canada. Considering this over-all mining renewal plus the fact that Newfoundland's entrance into Canada brought about a rise in Canadian investment in Newfoundland and Labrador, it might well be argued that the province's mining industry would have picked up after 1949 in any case, with or without the concession program.
One of the most significant concession agreements regarding insular Newfoundland was the M. James Boylen (Confirmation of Agreement) Act, passed in 1955, giving Matthew James Boylen of New Brunswick a concession to most of the Baie Verte Peninsula in northern Newfoundland. Boylen was a 48-year-old mining magnate who had prospected in his youth, made a fortune in his middle age and come to own a range of mining companies. A book could, and some day probably will, be written on M.J. Boylen and his business exploits; but for present purposes it is sufficient to say that he and his grandiose approach to mining appealed to the Newfoundland government, through whose direct and indirect influences Boylen was able to open (or reopen) the Tile Cove, Little Bay, Rambler and Gull Pond copper mines and the Advocate asbestos mine.
The Newfoundland government also tried to advance mining in the province by passing a bill in 1952 that provoked as much controversy as did the concession agreements: the Undeveloped Mineral Areas Act. The act gave the government the right to repossess mineral land such as fee-simple grants if, in its opinion, insufficient money or exploration activity had been expanded upon the property within the previous ten years. The application of the act was arbitrary. Numerous fee-simple grant owners remained in possession of their holdings despite having spent negligible sums on their development; and yet others lost their property to the government, only to see it given shortly thereafter to a third party. The government's actions under the auspices of the Undeveloped Mineral Areas Act undoubtedly hastened the opening of several mineral deposits that otherwise might have lain fallow for years; but in the process of implementing the act the government incurred the wrath of factions of the local and national mining community.
Chart 1 lists the mines developed in insular Newfoundland during the concession era and outlines the government's role, through concessions and other means, in their initiation. Two-thirds of these operations are still active. Some of the others, although now inactive, may yet revive should prices of copper and gold rise sufficiently.
The story of the mines in Chart 1 is far from over. An historian working 50 years from now will hopefully have access to information that is now confidential or otherwise unavailable. Then it may be possible to write in detail - and with temporal immunity from libel suits - of the deals and intrigues surrounding the more recent phase of mining in Newfoundland.
Perhaps the most consistent theme to emerge from this account of Newfoundland's mining history is a variation on George Bernard Shaw's belief that: "We learn from history that we learn nothing from history." Time and again, mining companies spent thousands of dollars on surface outlay with only a modicum of knowledge about the mineral deposits that they so earnestly hoped would yield their fortunes. Share-holders suffered continuously from mining promoters with little geological training and fewer scruples. It is no coincidence that the times of least mining activity in Newfoundland were the times of least geological surveying.
The problem of incomplete geological data is less prevalent now due to the battery of sophisticated instruments and techniques available to the modern mining company and prospector. However, a more perplexing problem that surfaced repeatedly in the past is one that still continues today: how can a government tread the fine line between encouraging and discouraging mineral exploration without succumbing to companies or individuals prone to bluffing their way, through threat of closure or retreat, into obtaining concessions, tax waivals and similar deals? Or, putting it more simply, how can a government derive the maximum amount of revenue from the mining industry without taxing or regulating it into oblivion?
A look at the record of the previous 120 years of Newfoundland's history shows that the government has had great difficulty in striking this balance. Regulations have been either so strict as to hinder exploration or so generous to certain companies as to lay the government open to charges of favouritism or weakfitedness.
However, such is the nature of industrial development in a region like Newfoundland in which high unemployment and a low standard of living have been the norm. An average government wants to remain in power, an average company wants to make maximum profits and an average man wants a job. These three desires combine to create the dilemma wherein a government has to concede to company demands so that the company will provide the jobs that help to keep the government in power.
Until Newfoundland manages to reduce the economic disadvantages of its people, the dilemma will continue. A prime means of improving the economy is by having a thriving mining industry. The resources are there, labour is there and expertise is available. Whether or not the government will learn from past errors and use wisely the powers vested in it to do justice to the resources, labour and expertise remains to be seen.