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Where Have All The Mining Towns Gone?

Where Have All The Mining Towns Gone?

They're toxic and deserted wastelands - but to those who once lived there, the remains of mining communities are worth holding on to.
By Ashleigh Gaul
Sep 29
From the September 2013 Issue

Lasts 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.

“There was a powerful sense of solidarity and cultural identity among the people living in the towns. Overwhelmingly, the experiences I saw at some of these towns was really, really positive. I’ve never heard people talk about loving to live in a place so much.”

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. 

They were dirty – green films of asbestos clung to clothes on the line, and heavy metals and acid leached into the lakes and rivers around them. But they were also comfortable, close-knit and sometimes surreally luxurious. They were some of the first Northern towns to have electricity, plumbing and sewage systems. They had the North’s first swimming pools. Pine Point, which had between 2,000 and 2,500 residents at its peak, had a municipal system, a mayor and a golf and country club. Each year, families were supplied with 20 kilograms of fertilizer to keep their lawns electric green, in spite of the boreal climate.

As communities, they were wildly successful, says Sandlos. “There was a powerful sense of solidarity and cultural identity among the people living in the towns,” he says. They shared common goals and a purpose, and however temporary, the possibility for development. “Overwhelmingly,” says Sandlos, “the experiences I saw at some of these towns was really, really positive. I’ve never heard people talk about loving to live in a place so much.”

Ken Hall grew up in the Giant Mine townsite - and, despite the asbestos, would move back in an instant. Photo by Angela Gzowski

Gordon Karaloff is looking for a rock, a memento – “A clump of lead crystals. When you smash them they shatter into a thousand heavy little shards.” He clambers up a small rubble mound where the crusher once stood at the Pine Point lead-zinc mine 90 kilometres east of Hay River, NWT. He takes a minute to find his bearings. The crusher was beside the mill, where he worked for a few summers mixing chemicals to separate ore bodies. Ahead, beyond a rock berm across a Martian landscape, the main tailings pond stretches to the shore of Great Slave Lake. There are bright blue ponds at the base of 48 open pits dotting the surrounding land. 

Behind him lie the ruins of a very different scene. Nothing remains of the old townsite, rapidly erected in 1963 and torn down in 1988, but a serpentine network of cul-de-sacs and sidewalks. Speed bumps mark the old strip mall parking lot and a small hole in the ground leads into the hotel’s old cellar, where residents’ final supper bills pile up on the floor. 

It’s early August in Pine Point. Twenty-five years after the mine closed and a whole municipality moved out, Karaloff, now in his 50s, and about 250 former residents are back in the old townsite. They park their RVs in the strip mall parking lots and the tree-covered foundations of their old houses. Miners aren’t generally known as a sentimental lot, but most cry when they get here. For many, it’s the first time back.

Over the weekend, they hold a fish fry, a family dance and a craft sale. They organize a small parade and march it down the overgrown streets. They remember the town’s last days, when the mayor hired consultants to make a case for why Pine Point didn’t need to be destroyed, how it could create a secondary economy. But Cominco, the mine’s owner, said it was losing profits fast and barely covered remediation costs – clearing the townsite and filling in the tailings pond. The houses were sold privately and moved out of the territory; the school and rec hall were donated to nearby towns like Fort Resolution, and the rest was demolished. 

Pine Point marked a turning point for the Northern suburbs. Cominco bought a 30 percent stake in Polaris, Nunavut’s pioneering fly-in, fly-out mine. Mining towns had become too costly and too short-lived. They were also heartbreaking: They inevitably became ghost towns. Today, the very idea of a mining community is a relic of the past. 

Karaloff is stoic. “That’s history,” he says. Stooping down to pick up a piece of quartz – not lead, but it’ll do – he adds, “A glorious history.”

“Are these contaminated sites or cultural sites? It seems like a lot of people just want to tear them down and forget.”

Mather, like Karaloff, looks for some memento of her life in the mining town. Before going into the Giant site, she stops at an unmarked, white tin building on the side of the road: Giant’s old food commissary. Inside, she meets Ryan Silke, a 31-year-old historian and the most active member of the NWT Mining Heritage Society. 

He’s only met Mather once before, but Silke knows what date her family moved into town (1940), that Mather was the first baby born into the townsite in 1946, that she moved a few doors down at Giant with her first husband and moved out again after a workers strike turned violent and an explosion in B-shaft killed nine people in 1993. Silke has been documenting the human experience of mining in the NWT since he was 16. Today, he’s helping the NWT Mining Heritage Society build up a collection for a future mining museum.

As a hobby, Silke has hiked, canoed, snowmobiled and chartered bush planes into tens of mine sites and old camps, tagging machinery, surveying the land and assessing the state of some of the buildings and headframes left behind. Ironically, he says, his best finds have been in the leftover dumps of the Ptarmigan, Negus and Burwash sites around Yellowknife. He shows off a China teacup he pieced together from Ptarmigan and stores in a curio cabinet, across the room from a shelf of binders where he’s documented every site visit he’s conducted, along with hand-drawn maps, in pencil, since 1999. The commissary is packed with hardhats from all eras, baseball trophies, old magazines and a slew of other trinkets. 

“It’s all part of the story on human activity and what people were doing at a certain time,” he says. “I don’t want just two hardhats, or slag pots. I want the whole evolution of them because there’s a story there of how our practices have evolved.” 

The Mining Heritage Society also wants to save Giant’s old recreation centre for a museum and a few buildings to serve as an example of a typical mining town, but the city’s still deciding whether the arsenic permeating the soil below is too toxic. “And that’s the conundrum,” says Silke. “Are these contaminated sites or cultural sites?” He adds, “It seems like a lot of people just want to tear them down and forget.”

Tom Hoefer, executive director of the NWT and Nunavut Chamber of Mines, agrees. Having grown up at Con mine, Yellowknife’s other major gold deposit and demolished townsite, he regularly passes the site of his old house on the shores of Great Slave Lake. To look at Yellowknife, he says, no one would know it was a mining town. “There is a current attitude that these sites are blights on the landscape and so we have to get rid of them,” he says. “But that kind of approach, ‘Let’s erase them off the landscape and no one will ever know they were there,’ that denies history too. The fact is, as we take these apart, we lose something – part of our past. Do we care?”

Once home to about 30 families, the Giant Mine townsite is now contaminated, boarded up and off-limits. NWT archives/Henry Busse/N-1979-052: 1947

In her living room in Igloolik, Nunavut, Nancy Amalualik traces out a map of Nanisivik from memory. She starts with the road that leads into town from the airport past the commissary and bar, and talks more as she gets closer to her own home. “When you walked inside for the first time,” she says, “there was a card on the table that said, ‘Welcome to Nanisivik,’ and everything was there – furniture, free food in the cafeteria, and Newfies brought over some dishes.”

Nanisivik, which operated from 1976 to 2002, was the site of Canada’s first Arctic mine and last big mining town. The townsite was truly science-fiction to Inuit and non-Inuit workers alike. While the surrounding communities made do with honeybuckets and CB radio, some Nanisivikers were experiencing flush toilets and telephones for the first time. 

Of course, problems with the mining town rarely appear when the mine is operational, when lines of trucks stream out with ore and return with food and supplies. They come when a mine shuts down and the town dissolves as abruptly and unnaturally as it sprouted from its permafrost base. Amarualik remembers the day she learned she was leaving Nanisivik after 15 years there, working in the commissary kitchen. “The mine manager said, ‘The Inuit will go first and then five bosses.’ They were the last to leave.” The whole process took between two and three years. 

Her return to Hall Beach, where she grew up, in 2002, was far less idyllic. Her children’s grades – A’s and B’s in French and English in Nanisivik – plummeted. Their Inuktitut was rusty. Amarualik’s common-law husband became depressed looking for nonexistent work, drank a lot and sometimes hit her. After three years in a women’s shelter in Iqaluit, Amarualik moved to Igloolik where she now lives with three cousins. She hasn’t seen her sons in seven years. 

In Nunavut, as in the Yukon and NWT, mining’s new model resembles Meadowbank in Baker Lake, where workers fly in from the nearby communities, southern Canada and sometimes overseas for two-week rotations. It’s less personal than a greeting card on the kitchen table, and some argue workers don’t “buy in” to the North, either literally (taxes and spending revenues leave the North with the workers) or figuratively (many ex-mining town families remained in the North). 

Perhaps the new model is less painful than abrupt evacuation. On the other hand, when Meadowbank experienced high turnover rates and absenteeism last year, it improved, in part, by adding in elements of a community – weekly square dances, a music room, traditional Inuit foods. Clearly, balancing human lives and industry is still a work in progress.

On her mantelpiece, Amarualik keeps a zinc rock about the size of a gumball, and a silver Thermos with a scratched decal that reads “NANISIVIK MINES.” There are other ex-Nanisivik workers in town but she says they don’t reminisce much. She doesn’t connect the mine’s closure with its aftermath. She only smiles and looks distant. “That was my home. It’s the only place I think of as my home."