“The need for mining is undeniable when you look around you—everything relates to mining in some way.” This is one of the first sentences visitors can read at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), one of Canada’s most visited museums. On the second floor, surrounded by the crystals, gems, and precious minerals of the Barrick Gold Corporation Gallery and the Teck Suite of Galleries, visitors can further read that … “If you brushed your teeth today, travelled by public transit or car, used a computer or entered a building, you made use of minerals!” The statement appears next to the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame, which celebrates a litany of executives who accrued wealth through the mining of gold, a mineral that holds few practical uses outside marginal cases in dentistry and electronics. These galleries are in fact named after two gold mining companies: Toronto-based Barrick Gold, until 2019 the world’s largest gold mining company, and Teck Resources, a Vancouver-based diversified mining corporation. Opened in 2014, the Barrick Gold Corporation Gallery coincides with the corporation’s $3 million gift to the Royal Ontario Museum.

The ROM is arguably one of the most prominent sites through which Canada’s mining industry–and gold mining industry in particular– displays itself to the general public. Here, some of the world’s largest mining companies have a platform to shape narratives about their industry. While the museum displays task themselves with describing minerals in detail and in material isolation, they widely belie the social, cultural and environmental consequences of mining operations. No mention is made, either, of the methods by which minerals today circle the planet, moving from mines to refineries to markets.

At the ROM, the extraction of minerals is made to appear inescapable. In the Teck Suite of Galleries, the world is represented through the lens of Canada’s mining industry: everything is about mining because the world is represented so as to be mined. 

View of the Barrick Gold Corporation Gallery and Teck Suite of Galleries, Royal Ontario Museum, 2019

Headquartered in Toronto’s financial district, a short walk from the ROM, Barrick Gold has little direct influence on everyday life in the city, since its diversified operations of gold and silver are spread throughout the world. It has, however, contributed considerable sums in donations, either through the corporation itself or its former chairman, Peter Munk.

Toronto is one of the global centres of the mining industry. The world’s most prominent mining companies are listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange and Canada is home to three-quarters of the world’s mining companies. While Vancouver forms a major centre, Toronto retains the largest number of corporate mining headquarters in the country.

Considering the growth of cities in the postwar period alongside the increasing depths by which industrial mining probes the Earth can reveal  the vertical geographies of gold mining companies, and the influence on city life that may otherwise be hard to trace. For architectural historian Gray Brechin, the “high-rises of a modern downtown resemble an inverted minescape and serve much the same purpose for those who own them.” The symbolic inversions between mining company headquarters in urban centres and the distant hinterlands of their mining operations has been commented on by different writers, including Lucy Lippard, and Martín Arboleda. Indeed, the bold symbolic inversion pitting the office tower as the negative space of a mine (or vice versa) powerfully suggests how cities are dependent on subsurface ores in their hinterlands. Brechin has sweepingly addressed these geographies of material and financial inversion:

Alongside the emergence of new networks tying urban centres to distant mining operations, different technologies have made the process of identifying the nodes and flows of such networks increasingly accessible. Today, an important way to consider the gold mining industry’s transnational influences appears through the analysis of air travel—specifically the industry’s extensive use of long-haul flights on luxury jets, the regular flights to and from mine sites, and the way products are transported as air cargo. 

Relatively little critical writing has appeared on the subject of how gold moves through the skies as air cargo. In the study of postwar logistics, air cargo is generally eclipsed by maritime cargo, the primary mode of transportation for goods internationally. More than three quarters of the world’s commercial traffic passes through the sea. Standardized Twenty Foot Equivalent Unit (TEU) cargo containers are ubiquitous sights at ports across the world. While a small volume of air cargo is transported by air service exclusively for freight, the vast majority is transported in the holds of passenger aircraft in unit load devices, or ULDs, the airborne equivalent of the TEU.

Air cargo unloading at Vancouver International Airport, showing ULD containers at left, 2019

Although air cargo accounts for around 10% of global cargo traffic, it corresponds to a very particular niche. It is typically low in volume, since it needs to fit within the relatively constrained parameters of aircraft, high in value and “time-sensitive,” given the relative expense of shipping by air. Cargo transported by plane to and from Canada notably includes perishables such as seafood and pharmaceuticals, as well as electronics, plane and automobile parts, and precious metals. Large amounts of gold mined by Canadian corporations move through the world’s skies.

In Canada’s “central corridor” (which concentrates most of the Canadian population, roughly between Windsor, Ontario and Québec City), the airports of Toronto, Hamilton, Montréal-Trudeau and Montréal Mirabel represented about half of total air cargo traffic in 2019 for Canada, with most of that cargo traffic occurring with the US, the United Kingdom and China.

The most high-value commodity transported by air cargo is gold. By comparing official records for gold imports and exports with the volume of gold transported as air cargo, it becomes clear that the vast majority of imported gold is transported into Canada by air. The precise types of planes transporting such gold (company-owned, charter, etc.) tends to be kept under wraps. The movement of gold is largely inscrutable to the general public but for a few rare occasions of failure. One such moment occurred in 2017, when an airplane operated by Toronto-based gold mining company Kinross Gold lifted off from a rural airfield in Siberia. Shortly after going airborne, its cargo space broke open, raining the snow-covered airfield below with bars of gold and silver.

A detailed analysis of the data regarding how gold moves through the skies shows the growing part of the market represented by Latin America. In 1991, the total imported gold from Latin American countries was roughly CAN$ 25M out of a total of CAN$ 656M. In 2019, this climbed exponentially to reach roughly CAN$ 5 trillion out of 7 trillion of total imported gold. This is why the visualizations of gold imports in the Mining Maps project are focused on the Americas, even though Canadian mining operations led by companies such as Barrick Gold, Goldcorp and First Quantum tend to be dispersed across continents.

Furthermore, the gold mining industry extensively uses planes for its “fly-in/fly-out operations” (FIFO), which are inextricably tied to the development of natural resource extraction in North America. According to scholar Keith Storey, the origins of FIFO can be traced back to offshore oil operations in the Gulf of Mexico in the 1950s, where the distance between work and shore made daily commutes impractical. According to Storey, onshore use of fly-in/fly-out operations gathered momentum “in the 1970s in both Canada and Australia, encouraged by the expansion of mining activity into increasingly remote areas at a time when corporate interests were focusing on lean and flexible modes of production.” Construction, mining and oil production are all sectors that have subsequently adopted FIFO operations in Canada.

Company-owned flights are worth analyzing in aggregate so as to determine patterns, and thus get a better sense of the cultural implications of the use of private aircraft in the gold mining industry. The analysis of such aggregate data—tracing the broad lines of a company flight network—cannot account for the important social and economic implications of regular flights in mine-adjacent communities. However, data concerning the location and frequency of flights reveal what appear to be two very different patterns divided by workers’ roles within a company. From the total of recorded flights, it is quickly visible that Barrick and other prominent gold mining companies, such as Goldcorp, have scheduled regular flights to transport workers to and from mine sites. These are usually short flights under an hour connecting a rural site (mining operation) to a nearby pick-up point, usually a small town or regional centre. On the other hand, records show a contrasting pattern: long-haul flights of four hours or more, connecting one major urban centre to another, often across oceans. These are the flights of a company’s executive class. The pattern of flying into work, it seems, is common in the mining industry.  The hypothesis that executives regularly fly in to work in Toronto is supported by the executives themselves. Mark Bristow, Barrick’s CEO, has at least three residences: in London, Wyoming and Mauritius.

It is clear that Barrick has forged a wide transnational network for air travel, only partly justified through the locations of its mining operations across four continents. Unlike the smaller planes owned by Barrick, such as its fleet of Twin Otter planes, which largely serve to transport workers to and from mine sites in under 40 minutes, the corporation’s fleet of Gulfstream luxury jets are used for considerably longer journeys.

While Toronto-Pearson remains the northernmost destination for most private flights, many connect to airports exclusively catering to the wealthiest, such as Teterboro—for connections to New York— and Biggin Hill, or Farnborough—for connections to London, UK. These airports cater to the rarefied world of travel euphemistically called “general aviation.”

The luxury flights included in the dataset for the “Barrick Gold” visualization are for airplane registration numbers C-FHPM, C-GCPM and C-GGPM. The models are Gulfstream IV for the first, and Gulfstream G550 (GV-SP) for the last two.

The data visualizations addressing Goldcorp and Barrick Gold specifically use maps showing contour lines. In addition to emphasizing the measure of altitude, these contour lines are more specifically meant to evoke a particularity of gold mining operations in the Americas: they are often sited in high-altitude locations (with many operations along the American Cordillera, from Alaska to Chile). The use of contour maps, showing varying degrees of elevation across regions—ranging from 5,000m to 1m interval line maps—were downloaded from Axismaps

The web-based project also addresses air travel through the mining industry’s extensive carbon emissions. Various flight calculators online (such as ICAO Flight Emissions Calculator) allow passengers to glimpse how carbon emissions change based on the length and type of their flights. Other online tools help passengers quantify how personal flights contribute to rising sea levels more directly, for instance by exposing how “the average personal CO2 emissions of several metric tons per year can be directly linked to the loss of tens of square meters of Arctic sea ice in every year.” Such calculations have led to terrifying estimates, for instance that Canadians’ personal carbon emissions contribute, on average, to 47 square meters of Arctic sea ice loss per year, one of the highest such carbon footprints in the world.

Based on these methods of calculation and publicly accessible data, flights of Barrick-Gold-owned aircraft in 2019 contributed, at minimum, to the loss of four square kilometres of Arctic sea ice. Private jets, which are extensively used in the gold mining industry, carry an average of only four people per flight. In 2017, 12% of US residents took a plane six or more times, accounting for two-thirds of all flights by US residents, while in the same year more than half of residents didn’t take a plane at all.

This website includes a detailed list of references and tools used in the visualizations, but it is worth explaining some of them here. Flight data has been partly sourced from the OpenSky Network, a non-profit association based in Switzerland. Started as a research project across European universities in 2012, the network crowdsources global aircraft flight data and shares the data with researchers free of charge. Researchers with OpenSky have estimated capturing close to half of all global flights. Furthermore, the process of calculating fuel consumption for flights emerged as important because the minimum volume could be established, while the many limitations of coverage for flight data prevented a total assessment of flight routes and attendant data. There are accessible tools on the web to establish average fuel consumption data for particular luxury jets, and from there, their carbon emissions.

Mining Maps is an evolving web-based project with an open number of featured visualizations. Please use the email below if you want to get in touch with the site contributors.

—Mining Maps


The research and visualizations on this site are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 Canada License.