A Brief History of Copper Mining in British Columbia



British Columbia is Canada’s largest producer of copper. The province hosts multiple operating mines and several projects at varying stages of exploration.  

The Mining Industry of British Columbia 

The mining industry is central to the province’s economy. Besides being the largest producer of copper and steelmaking coal, BC is Canada’s only producer of molybdenum and the second largest producer of silver. In 2020, the province continued to invest in the mining industry despite the pandemic. The industry directly employed 11,708 people in 2020, compared to 11,784 in 2019. In British Columbia, the mining sector is also the largest private sector employer of Indigenous people in Canada, employing over two thirds of all Indigenous people working in the extractives sector. 

Copper Mining in BC – The Past 

By the turn of the 19th century, small copper mines had already begun to operate throughout BC. Britannia Mine (1904) of the Howe Sound Company was the largest copper mine in the British Empire for many years. The Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company’s Copper Mountain Mine and Cominco’s Sullivan Mine were the other notable operations of the time. However, during the early and mid-1900s, low-grade ore bodies and high costs made copper mining unprofitable. The situation worsened when copper porphyry mining took off in the United States, further reducing margins for BC copper producers. 

The Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company of Canada became the top metal producer in British Columbia by 1939. The company later became Cominco and in 2001 became Teck-Cominco after it was acquired by Teck Corporation. Today, the company operates as Teck Resources, one of the world leaders in mining still present in BC.   

By the mid-1900s, a group of American copper companies began coming to BC with the expertise of building profitable copper porphyry mines. In 1963, the Bethlehem Copper Corporation’s Bethlehem mine started production, and in 1972 production started at four copper porphyry mines—Lornex, Bell Copper, Ingerbelle, and Gibraltar—as advances in technology and engineering spurred growth in BC copper porphyry deposits.  

Most of the mines operating during this era were located in south central and central BC. These projects were more successful because there was electricity and road infrastructure as well as a skilled workforce.  

Since the early 1980s, copper exploration in British Columbia has experienced great highs and steep declines through recessions, resource booms, and trade crises. Economic recession in the early to mid-1980s hit the base metals industry in BC harder than any other sector and saw copper producers initiating long-term closure plans or reducing cost structures. However, the discovery of gold-enriched copper porphyry deposits in the late 1980s led to a revival of the industry as gold companies became interested in the deposits.* 

Copper Mining in BC – The Present 

In 2020, Canadian mines produced about 476,000 tonnes of copper in concentrate form. Mines in BC were responsible for 53.7% of the total production or over 255,000 tonnes. Ontario was a distant second with 26% or over 123,000 tonnes. Canada’s total trade exports and imports in copper and copper-based products were 10.8 billion in 2020, with $7.3 billion in exports and $3.46 billion in imports. 

In terms of net revenue by product, in 2020, with 28% of the total revenue, copper was in second place to only metallurgical coal, which was responsible for 34% of the total revenue. Other important products included gold (18%), zinc (11%), and silver (5%). In 2021, Canada was the 10th largest copper producer in the world, with Chile being the leader. 

5 Copper Stocks with Operations in BC 

1. Teck Resources Ltd. (TSX:TECK.A) 

Teck Resources is one of Canada’s leading mining companies with operations and projects in Canada, the United States, Chile, and Peru. In Canada, the company has four steelmaking coal operations in the Elk Valley of BC, a zinc and lead smelting and refining complex in southern BC, and an oil sands mining and processing operation in the Athabasca region of Alberta in addition to its copper mine in BC. 

The Highland Valley Copper mine, located near Logan Lake in BC, is the largest open pit type mine in Canada, exploring for copper and molybdenum. The Highland Valley Copper mine produced 131,000 tonnes of copper in 2021, and by 2025 is expected to produce between 130,000 and 160,000 tonnes of copper per year. The mine reported $1.4 billion in revenue in 2021, an increase over $993 million in 2020 and just over $1 billion in 2019. 

Teck has a current market capitalisation of $24.27 billion. It is currently trading at $45.84 per share (as of October 14, 2022), lower than its year high of $62.75 in April but still seeing an overall 19.94% increase since January 2022 ($38.218). 

2. Copper Mountain Mining Corporation (TSX:CMMC) 

Copper Mountain Mining Corp is a Vancouver-based copper producer, developer, and explorer. Its flagship asset is the Copper Mountain Mine located near Princeton in southern BC. Owned by Copper Mountain Mining (75%) and Mitsubishi Materials Corporation (25%), Copper Mountain hosts an open pit copper-gold porphyry deposit.  

In 2021, the mine reported an output of over 90 million pounds of copper and with a future mill expansion and integration of New Ingerbelle, the Copper Mountain Mine is expected to produce 138 million pounds of copper equivalent per year over the first 20 years of its 32-year mine life (based on reserves). In Q4 2021, Copper Mountain reported revenue of $136.8 million and $578.2 million for the full year. 

Copper Mountain has a current market cap of $408.34 million and is currently trading at $1.91 per share (as of October 14, 2022). The share price reached a 52-week high of $4.38 in February and a low of $1.23 in July.  

3. Taseko Mines Ltd. (TSX:TKO) 

Taseko Mines is a Canadian mining company with operations in Canada (British Columbia) and the United States (Arizona). Headquartered in Vancouver, Taseko operates the state-of-the-art Gibraltar Mine, the second largest open pit copper mine in Canada, with a nearly 700-person workforce producing an average of 130 million pounds of copper and 2.5 million pounds of molybdenum per year. 

The Gibraltar Mine contains proven and probable reserves of 509 million (0.27% copper equivalent) and 191 million (0.24% copper equivalent), respectively.  

Currently, Taseko Mines has a market cap of $420.97 million. It is currently trading at $1.47 per share (as of October 14, 2022), up from its 52-week low of $1.15 in July.  

4. Amarc Resources Ltd. (TSXV:AHR) 

Amarc is a mineral exploration and development company focused on developing a new generation of long-life, high-value porphyry copper-gold mines in BC. Amarc is associated with HDI, a diversified, global mining company with a 30-year history of porphyry discovery and development success. Previous and current HDI projects include some of BC’s and the world’s most important porphyry deposits – such as Pebble, Mount Milligan, and more.  

Amarc is advancing its 100%-owned IKE, DUKE and JOY porphyry copper-gold districts located in different prolific porphyry regions of southern, central and northern BC, respectively. The company recently completed a successful $14 million 2022 exploration program at the JOY District with its earn-in partner Freeport-McMoRan Mineral Properties Canada Inc.  

Amarc has a current market cap of $27.99 million. The company is currently trading at $0.15 per share (as of October 14, 2022), only slightly lower than its 52-week high of $0.17 reached earlier this month. Today’s share price represents a 36.36% increase YTD for the company.  

5. NorthWest Copper Corp. (TSXV:NWST) 

NorthWest Copper is a new copper-gold explorer and developer with an exciting pipeline of projects in British Columbia. Its projects include the advanced, high-grade Kwanika/Stardust project, the extensive Lorraine project with existing high-grade resources, and East Niv, a brand-new copper-gold porphyry system discovered in 2021.   

The Kwanika Project is held by Kwanika Copper Corp, which is jointly owned by NorthWest Copper Corp. (66.96%) and Posco International Corp. (33.04%). A 2019 mineral resource estimate included Measured and Indicated resources containing 1.32 billion pounds of copper and 1.83 million ounces of gold.  

NWST has a current market cap of $42.91 million and is currently trading at $0.26 per share as of October 14, 2022.  

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*Source for this section: Jacqueline L. Nelsen. 2015. British Columbia Copper Mining Development: A Sixty-Year Economic and Political Retrospective. https://open.library.ubc.ca/soa/cIRcle/collections/ubctheses/24/items/1.0167712. Accessed: 09.26.2022.