They’re toxic and deserted wastelands – but to those who once lived there, the remains of mining communities are worth holding onto.
In July Susan Mather packed her family into a motor home. She drove north from Calgary, four kilometres past Yellowknife, to a skeletal timber headframe so rickety that cranes can’t set demolition workers on top to assess just how rickety it is. At its base, a yellow-and black-painted board reads, “Giant Mines Yellowknife, Ltd. Last injury: May 1999.”
That was six months before the last gold brick was poured in Yellowknife, and three years after Mather left her first home. These days, when she wants to visit, she books in advance. A mine manager escorts the family through a line of buildings in various states of disrepair.
They’re given hardhats, safety glasses, reflective vests and a rundown of safety precautions, then asked to log in. When Susan fills out a single line on behalf of the whole family, her son Karl jokes, “This isn’t a guest book, mom, it’s a log. This is a worksite.”
Estimated to cost between $500 million and $1 billion, Giant Mine and the townsite it built to house its workers might be the single largest industrial cleanup in Canadian history. But Mather and her sister remember biking freely through Giant Mine on pipe boxes (plywood insulators for water and gas mains) waving to neighbours at work as they passed by.
Sometimes they’d taste a bitter dust in the air that stayed in their mouths all day. Wandering through their old neighbourhood, Susan looks for her raspberry garden, while her sister finds the trees their dad planted and stayed long enough to watch grow. Karl, now 43, clambers up the hill to find the grave he dug for his dog in 1984. It’s still there.
They keep up with the news. They know there are 237,000 tons of uncontained arsenic beneath the houses where they once lived, and asbestos flaps freely from their boarded-up walls. But like hundreds of former mine town residents across the North, their memories of mining’s most disastrous mistakes also include company-sponsored baseball tournaments, barbecues, community centres, picnics and visits from Santa Claus.
Many of the North’s major townsites were destroyed with their mother mines. But bound up with statistics on contamination and preposterous reclamation costs, there are rich histories and lessons learned that some say the government has overlooked on its quest to make things right. And those who lived there say there’s a culture worth preserving from mining’s dirty past.
Mention the glory days of mining and most conjure the Klondike, when 100,000 overnight prospectors set up
ramshackle tents along the Alaska-Yukon border in pursuit of fast gold. But to a generation of miners, many of whom are still working in the North, the golden age exists within our living memory, when whole families packed up everything and headed North, often for the first time, in a similar pursuit of a better life.
The Giant Mine townsite represents a transition between the mostly organic outpost camps of the Klondike and the manufactured town. From 1945 to 1953, Giant Mines Ltd. built 30 houses for its first fulltime workers and subsidized additions – porches, gardens, playhouses in the rock walls, a freestanding sauna in the birches beside the community beach. Shortly after came the Cold War, the question of Arctic sovereignty, and a renewed push for resource development with a concerted purpose – “the idea that Canada ought to move North,” says John Sandlos, a geography professor at Newfoundland’s Memorial University, who’s studying the effect of Northern mines on First Nations communities.
“In other words, not to just have outposts, but to try and physically settle this area through resource development.” Right along with the DEW Line and the relocation of Inuit families from Northern Quebec to the High Arctic came another phenomenon: the creation of Northern suburbs, places like Uranium City in northern Saskatchewan, Tungsten, on the border of the Yukon and Northwest Territories, and Pine Point on the southern shore of Great Slave Lake.
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