Rare rocks could start new Nunavut industry



Step inside the Government of Canada building in Iqaluit and you’ll pass through an entrance built from smooth white tiles that are translucent enough to let a soft glow of sunlight inside.

The material is easy to mistake for plastic. But in fact, it’s half-inch thick marble, cut from a quarry near Kimmirut.

The brown, flame-finished granite floor tiles, and the matching granite reception desk, were also quarried locally.

“The potential is huge. We have some really neat stones here,” said Mike Hyne, a resource development advisor with the federal government, as he led a handful of residents through an urban rock walk through the city’s downtown last Thursday.

But while the stone interior is attractive, the tiles aren’t much different from other, far less expensive to get at granite sources. That means it’s hard to make money from it.

“That’s part of the issue here. It’s not really unique,” said Hyne.

In comparison, Hyne points to a granite quarry near Nain, operated by the business arm of the Labrador Inuit Association, that he says is one of the most valuable in the world. In 2005, he said the quarry shipped some 2,000 cubic metres of the rock, employing about 120 workers.

What makes Labrador’s rock so lucrative? It contains labradorite, a rare, grayish mineral that shimmers brilliant blue when held up to light at the right angle.

That means the labradorite granite sells at $40 a square foot, mostly to customers in Italy. That’s more than four times the value of local granite found in South Baffin.

Hyne said there’s probably commercially viable granite in the area – it’s just a matter of finding it.

“We just need to get more geologists out looking for granite, because it’s a huge market,” Hyne said.

And they’ll need to find a quarry site that’s near the coast, to make shipping the product to southern markets affordable.

Over at the Legislative Assembly, more examples of odd and interesting minerals can be found, collected from around Nunavut, as far away as Grise Fiord, and as close as the City of Iqaluit’s sewage lagoon and abandoned metal dump.

Of particular interest is a vibrant blue stone attached to the stone figure who holds the ceremonial mace inside the chambers while the house is in session. The stone is a piece of lapis lazuli, once highly prized by the pharaohs of ancient Egypt.

The stone’s intense colour can fetch prices of $400 square/foot, Hyne said.

And this summer, Hyne said geologists from the University of British Columbia discovered a new site containing the precious stone, about seven kilometres from Kimmirut, on land owned by the Qikiqtani Inuit Association.

There are only four or five producers of lapis lazuli in the world. Currently, Afghanistan and Chile are the two main global suppliers of the rock. But with Afghanistan shaken by civil war, and Chile’s main quarry located on top of a mountain, it’s possible that Nunavut could become a rival contender, Hyne said.

“The potential is huge. It’s just going to take a lot of work to develop the site,” Hyne said.

Nearby, attached to the seat of the Speaker of the Assembly, is a piece of bright orange marble, also found outside Kimmirut. It’s unusual enough that it caught the attention of a buyer in Qatar, but there wasn’t enough material available to make the sale, Hyne said.

Another reminder that much of Nunavut’s hopes lie in mineral exploration can be found in the stands that hold up the seal-skin ropes that divide the public from the members inside the legislative chambers. Those stands are in fact core samples, also collected around Nunavut.

South Baffin’s precious minerals are a product of a continental mash-up that occurred some 1.8 billion years ago. In the case of the federal building’s marble, it was created when pressure and heat from this collision baked limestone into white marble.

That continental collision is very similar to what created the Himalayas, said Dan Utting, a researcher with the Nunavut Geoscience Office. “The main difference is the amount of time since then, so the mountains here all eroded away millions of years ago,” he said in an email.

More recently, today’s rock formations were also sculpted by glaciers that retreated some 8,000 years ago.

And to this day, you can trace the retreat of the glaciers by examining rockfaces around town for striations – long scratches left from glaciers as they crept north.

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