Natural Resources

Resources are those aspects of the natural environment that humans value and from which we produce goods and services.

Resources are those aspects of the natural environment that humans value and from which we produce goods and services. This definition demonstrates that, although natural resources originate in the natural environment, they are in a very real sense "created" by humans. Human values and abilities determine which parts of the environment societies use and benefit from. Resource and environmental systems are highly interconnected and both continually change in character. Change is usually accelerated by human use. Because of the interconnections, impacts beyond the particular resource being used are common. In fact, use of some resources may preclude use of others. Human decisions, as well as natural processes, cause resources to change over time (see Biogeography). These changes may decrease or increase resource supply and may be rapid or slow.

Resources may be classified according to various criteria, including both information and availability, and the temporal, spatial and ownership characteristics.

Information and Availability

Three general classes of resources (potential, conditional and current) are distinguished on the basis of information known about them and their availability. A potential resource is one which is only thought to exist (i.e., positive information is still lacking); a conditional resource is known to exist but its availability for use depends upon a number of conditions; a current resource has met all conditions and is in use and yielding benefits. Progression of a resource from potential to current status occurs as information about it increases and as preproduction conditions are met. This transformation may take a long time and, until it is complete, few benefits flow to society. For example, initial information from geological and geophysical surveying may indicate that a particular area has mineral potential. More information may suggest that a deposit exists, and further elaborate and expensive exploration may confirm the deposit. A potential resource has become a conditional one. Additional information is needed to determine the extent and quality of the deposit; then other specific conditions must be met before production can begin.

The first condition is that suitable technology is available to produce and process the mineral in marketable form. Next, a decision must be made as to whether production is economically feasible, i.e., whether economic benefits outweigh costs sufficiently to warrant financial risks. At this stage, production, processing and transport costs are assessed in relation to the expected market price. Political and legal conditions must also be met. These arise from nonmarket concerns and the relative importance different governments place upon them.

Recent concerns have included environmental degradation, health hazards and financial returns to governments (see Social Impact Assessment). If these conditions are fulfilled, production may commence, thus creating a current resource. The process is reversible. The resource will revert from current to conditional status if preproduction conditions change sufficiently to make use no longer feasible.

Temporal Characteristics

Resources that regenerate in short periods of time (e.g., months, years, decades) or that are characterized by repeated occurrence are classed as renewable. Water, plants and animals are generally considered renewable resources; their regenerative capabilities are measured in months for water supply, years for animal stocks and decades for forest stands. These varied time periods pose different management problems for users.

Furthermore, the regenerative capacity of some renewable resources can be partially or completely removed by changes in habitat (e.g., fish, as the result of water pollution), harvesting to the point of extinction (e.g., overhunting of game species) or habitat destruction resulting from poor harvesting techniques (e.g., erosion caused by the overcutting of a forest).

Most renewable energy resources rely upon atmospheric processes that occur repeatedly but are subject to cycles and periodical changes; thus, the potential for regeneration is not always met. Solar radiation, for example, is "renewable" in the sense that, except at very high latitudes, the sun rises and sets daily, but direct solar radiation is available only intermittently, between night and day and between cloudy and clear periods. Similarly, wind blows only intermittently. Thus, although these two resources occur repeatedly and are thus attractive as potential energy sources, they pose management problems (see Solar Energy; Wind Energy).

The great advantage of renewable resources is that they can yield continual benefits if managed properly, a process requiring a high degree of knowledge of life cycles, controlled harvesting and habitat protection. For example, once an oceanic fish stock is discovered, data must be obtained about its size and life cycle and the distance over which it moves, although the information-gathering process is difficult and time consuming. Such information is necessary because fish are mobile and are regarded as common property, and therefore catch limits are needed to ensure the stock's ability to reproduce itself. Establishment of some limits requires detailed information on population dynamics, movement patterns and habitat characteristics. Poor management can convert a renewable resource to non-renewable status, or can necessitate intensive rehabilitation efforts.

Non-renewable resources are those that cannot be regenerated in a human life span. Minerals are the best example of this class, but there are others. Land, for example, is not used consumptively as minerals are, but on balance the land area of Canada is not likely to be increased, except for possible reclamation of wetlands. Soil is also non-renewable in that it forms slowly and some uses are consumptive (e.g., when it is removed to make way for buildings or transportation facilities). When managed well, soil can sustain biomass production for long periods.

Spatial Characteristics

The two spatial aspects of resources which influence their use are mobility and concentration. Mobile resources include air, water and wildlife. Control over the use and management of mobile resources is complicated because they may move widely and be subject to many influences. They may cross jurisdictional boundaries (e.g., national or provincial borders) or move into areas of no specific jurisdiction (e.g., oceans). Concentrated resources such as minerals and rivers occupy relatively confined spaces in comparison with dispersed resources such as forests and agricultural land. The degree of concentration sometimes determines whether a resource moves from conditional to current status because the costs of use increase according to wider dispersion.

Ownership Characteristics

Some resources are privately owned by individuals or firms (e.g., farmland); others are owned by governments, and rights to their use are allocated by licence, permit, etc. (e.g., forests, minerals and water). Others, which are usually called common property resources, are not owned at all (e.g., fish and atmospheric elements). Common property resources attract users, each of whom tries to maximize benefits from them; consequently, they may quickly become degraded or even exhausted. This class of resource raises special management problems. Access to common resources through private property may also be contentious.

British Columbia

British Columbia has rich and varied resources. Most notable are the coniferous forests of the coast and central interior, the dispersed base-metal deposits and the coal and natural-gas resources of the east and northeast. The Peace and Columbia rivers have been developed for hydroelectricity and considerable potential remains, particularly in the north (e.g., Liard and Stikine rivers). Other major rivers (e.g., Fraser, Skeena) and many smaller streams are the spawning grounds of salmon which, with herring, groundfish and crustaceans, support a large fishing industry.

Mountainous landforms and an extensive coastline provide habitats suitable for a variety of wildlife and considerable opportunity for outdoor recreation of many kinds. High-quality agricultural land is limited to the southwest corner of the province and in valley locations in the interior.

Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut

Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, covering almost 40 per cent of Canada (and constituting most of Canada's North), have a harsh winter climate and short summers, resulting in limited plant growth. The eastern parts contain tundra; some of the mountains are permanently ice covered. South of the treeline, particularly in the Yukon and in the Mackenzie River Basin, extensive areas are covered with forests of low productivity. Despite limiting environmental conditions, the territories support large populations of terrestrial and marine wildlife.

Wildlife stocks are important sources of food and fur for the native populations. Many special areas of unique environmental character afford valuable recreational and scientific opportunities. Much of the resource base (especially in minerals) is classed as potential or, at best, conditional. Base-metal resources have been developed in western sections and geological conditions suggest considerable potential. Most attention, however, is being given to exploration for petroleum in the Mackenzie Delta, Beaufort Sea and the northwestern arctic islands.


Alberta consists mainly of two major geological areas, the Western Sedimentary Basin and the Rocky Mountains. Large resources of fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) exist beneath the surface of the former, while substantial areas of high-quality agricultural land cover the surface in the southern half of the province. Aridity limits agricultural productivity in the southeast. The Rocky Mountains contain large coal resources, the headwaters of many rivers and spectacular mountain and lake scenery, offering dramatic opportunities for outdoor recreation. Forested areas across central Alberta provide a modest forest resource.

Alberta's resources of conventional oil (low-viscosity oil that flows to the surface in its natural condition) have been heavily used and production is declining. There are also very large deposits of heavy oil (ie, oil too viscous to come to the surface without special production techniques) and, in the oil sands, bitumen. These expensive "conditional" oil resources are in production to some extent, but large-scale development depends on economic and technological factors. Collectively, these energy resources make Alberta the fossil-fuel storehouse of Canada.


The natural-resource base of Saskatchewan consists of the largest area of high-quality agricultural land in Canada, extensive and productive wildlife habitat (particularly for waterfowl), major deposits of potash and uranium, and significant supplies of petroleum and coal. Saskatchewan is Canada's primary wheat-growing area and a major producer of other grains and field crops.

Boreal and mixed forest areas provide a modest forest resource. After 1962 Saskatchewan became the world's largest exporter and second-largest producer of potash. Large uranium resources in northern areas make the province the second-largest producer in Canada, while in the S strip-mined lignite coal is used extensively for thermal-power generation. Saskatchewan shares with Alberta a portion of the Lloydminster heavy and conventional oil fields.


Manitoba has a mixed resource base, including a variety of metallic minerals, hydroelectric power potential, and a significant area of good quality agricultural land. Nickel is the major mineral produced, with copper, lead, zinc and precious metals mined locally in significant quantities. Some northward-flowing rivers have already been developed for hydroelectricity (e.g., Nelson River); others have large potential for development (e.g., Churchill River). Manitoba's current production of oil is small, but a promising hydrocarbon area has been identified along the southern border. The fish stocks of Lakes Winnipeg and Manitoba, significant areas of wildlife habitat and locally important forest resources all add to the variety of Manitoba's resource base.


Ontario is the largest market for resource-based goods and services in Canada. However, with the important exception of fossil fuels, the province's own renewable and non-renewable resources are large. The province ranks third, after Saskatchewan and Alberta, in area suitable for agriculture; however, southern Ontario alone has over 50 per cent of Canada's Class 1 agricultural land, which, coupled with favourable climate, provides a resource base for productive and varied crops and livestock. In central and northern Ontario the forest cover contributes almost 25 per cent of the national allowable cut and supports a major forest-product industry. Many of the more accessible forested areas and numerous lakes and streams afford extensive opportunities for outdoor recreation.

The outstanding water resources of the Great Lakes and the St Lawrence River offer major transportation routes, sources of hydroelectricity and recreational opportunities. Ontario lacks significant amounts of conventional fossil fuels and is only moderately endowed with industrial minerals (except salt); however, northern Ontario is a storehouse of other minerals. The province leads Canada in production of nickel, uranium, zinc, gold and silver, and is second to BC in production of copper.


Québec has the greatest developed and potential hydroelectric resources in Canada. Many rivers running off the Canadian Shield into the St Lawrence Lowlands and James Bay have been harnessed to provide a large renewable source of energy, which helps compensate for the lack of fossil fuels.

The St Lawrence River affords an important transportation route. Extensive areas of fresh water (in lakes and rivers) offer considerable opportunity for both outdoor recreation and wildlife habitat. Good quality agricultural soils are limited, but Québec ranks third (after BC and Ontario) in the productivity of its extensive forested area. Important mineral resources include asbestos, iron, gold and some base metals.

The Atlantic Provinces

Even with the relatively large size of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Atlantic provinces collectively cover a land area that is less than any of the remaining six provinces. Much of the area is made up of islands and peninsulas, which give easy access to the fish and crustacean resources of the Gulf of St Lawrence and the Continental Shelf of the western Atlantic, the location of Canada's largest fishing industry (see Coastal Waters; Fisheries; Ocean Industries). Other important renewable resources include forests (particularly in New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador), relatively small areas of productive land (e.g., PEI, the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia) and hydroelectric resources, particularly in Labrador and in the Bay of Fundy (see Tidal Energy). The extensive coastlines provide many opportunities for seasonal outdoor recreation. The mineral-resource base may be divided into onshore and offshore. Onshore there is a large base-metal resource in northern New Brunswick, iron in Newfoundland and Gypsum and salt in Nova Scotia. The only significant onshore fossil-fuel resources are coal deposits in Nova Scotia's Cape Breton area. Offshore, the Continental Shelf has a significant potential for oil (particularly off Newfoundland) and gas (off Nova Scotia).

Opportunities and Challenges

The economic development of Canada has been based to a great extent upon a large and varied endowment of resources, the availability of foreign capital and access to export markets (see Foreign Investment). When compared with other countries, both the magnitude and variety of resources available remain a major national advantage. Large stocks of many wildlife species and major freshwater and marine fish populations exist. Canada has a large volume of standing softwood timber and the area of land suitable for agriculture is extensive. Similarly, the volume of water is greater than in most countries. Because of Canada's vast landmass and the variety of geological conditions, many and varied mineral deposits await discovery. In addition, many areas with special environmental characteristics offer opportunities for a variety of outdoor recreational, educational and scientific activities. All of these resources, with the important exception of minerals, are renewable.

Some emerging challenges must be addressed if Canada is to continue to benefit from this large and varied resource base. First, heavy use has been made of the most accessible and highest-quality resources. For example, the best agricultural lands have been cultivated for many decades; the best timber has been harvested; the most accessible oil fields have passed their peak output. Consequently, attention must be directed to maintaining productivity of the land, replacing harvested trees and finding other supplies of oil (see Soil Conservation). For renewable resources, this process will require significant improvements in the knowledge of the processes that control plant growth so that an intensive-regenerative style of resource management will replace extensive extraction. For non-renewable resources, active exploration programs must be maintained and new technologies developed. Such technologies are required to increase the efficiency of resource extraction and use, and for work in areas that are relatively inaccessible with hostile, but often sensitive, environments.

A second challenge is an increasing competition among resource uses, resulting from population growth and a widening variety of potential uses, particularly near urban centres. For example, a tract of forestland may have logging potential or mining capability, or may be suitable for a park or wildlife preserve. Similarly, an area of Class 1 agricultural land near an urban centre could be used for agriculture, as the site of an airport or for a housing development. Conflicts about uses of resource complexes are growing and, if full benefits are to be derived, ways must be found to resolve such conflicts quickly and fairly. In particular, risk to human welfare and environmental quality must be assessed thoroughly and levels established in which the costs are both acceptable and realistic.

Third, if resources are to continue to contribute substantially to Canadian economic development, they must be able to compete in world markets. Access to these markets depends on price, quality and reliability of supply. Thus, some aspects of export marketing, such as a transportation infrastructure, must be provided at high efficiency. But perhaps of greatest importance is the need for a balance between competitiveness, on the one hand, and the maintenance of a high income level, social services and environmental quality on the other.

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