HISTORICAL: The stuff of dreams in Kirkland Lake – Bill Twatio (Toronto Star – January 16, 1998)

The Toronto Star, has the largest circulation in Canada, primarily in the Greater Toronto Area and Ontario. The paper has an enormous impact on federal and Ontario politics as well as shaping public opinion.

The Tech-Hughes ore conveyor used to pass over the road into town proudly bearing the slogan, “Welcome To Kirkland Lake – On The Mile of Gold.”

The conveyor and the mine are gone now, along with the Lake Shore Mine, Wright-Hargreaves, Sylvanite, Toburn, Tough-Oaks, and most of the gold. Hard times have come to this once-flourishing mining town 600 km north of Toronto. Recently, the town has been reduced to promoting a plan that would see millions of tones of Toronto garbage dumped into an abandoned mine pit. The old-timers would weep.

They were a feisty lot with a common contempt for things southern. Toronto-bashing was endemic. There was Harry Oaks, who arrived broke after prospecting around the world, struck gold, and brought in the Lake Shore Mine which made him the richest man in Canada. As Sir Harry, the most taxed, he moved on to the Bahamas, where he was spectacularly murdered in 1943.

Bill Wright was a former butcher’s apprentice who staked claims adjacent to Oakes. He later bought The Globe and Mail, where he kept his prospecting gear in an office corner as a reminder of where he came form in case the newspaper business didn’t pan out.

Roza Brown was a pungent Hungarian entrepreneur who helped grubstake Hargreaves and Oakes. Dressed in rags and a fur coat in all seasons and surrounded by a pack of feral dogs, she roamed the town haranguing passerby on the issues of the day. When town council condemned some shanties she owned which were being used as brothels, Roza, an avid monarchist, simply draped then with bunting and Union Jacks and announced that they were gifts to the crown. Council was not amused. Her neighbour, the Chinese immigrant Charlie Chow, once loaned the Royal Bank $250,000 in small bills to meet a mine payroll. Except for banks, money was seldom a problem in a town where the mines produced $8 billion over the years.

In addition to gold and wealthy eccentrics, the town turned out more NHL hockey players pr capita than any other place in Canada. A cenotaph-like monument listing their names stands near Government Road, the town’s main street.

Government Road is a tad ragged now, with boarded-up storefronts and empty lots dotting the street. The town’s population, at 10,000, is less than half what it once was, unemployment is running at 30 per cent and welfare is a growth industry. Only one gold producer remains, and in the spring of 1990, the Adams iron ore mine closed, putting 325 out of work. Metro Toronto politicians, faced with a world-class garbage problem, were soon casting, covetous glances northward at the gigantic open pits.

A marriage of convenience was arranged, with Metro spending $2.4 million on an option to buy the mine site. The town, in turn, held a referendum with 69 per cent voting in favour of conducting a study into the feasibility of using the pits as a dump. Under the terms of the agreement, 1.5 million tones of garbage a year would be shipped directly to the site on the Ontario Northland Railway, which would recoup revenue lost due to the closure of the mine. Kirkland Lake would receive an estimated $50 million over 20 years n tonnage fees, $600,000 a year in lieu of taxes, free garbage disposal worth $10 million, 150 full-time jobs, and a recycling plant worth $40 million.

Local wags were quick to revise the town slogan, with predictable result. Others, for the first time, were heard to speak favourably of Toronto. A few were known to cheer for the Leafs.

The newly elected NDP government immediately scuttled the agreement. Environment Minister Ruth Grier, obsessed with the idea that waste must be disposed of where it is produced, set up a $17.4 million Greater Toronto Interim Waste Authority to scour regional backyards for likely sites. In June, 1992, the authority identified 57 potential sites in York, Durham, and Peel regions, infuriating environmentalists and politicians.

Metro Chairman Alan Tonks fumed that the “rail haul to Kirkland Lake is going to look awfully good by the time the public is done with this government.” At Winter Carnival in Kirkland Lake, the centerpiece was an 8-metre high ice sculpture of Ruth Grier, dubbed “Ruthless,” depicting the minister riding a broom.

Now the Tories have given the scheme a new lease on life. With the Keele Valley landfill reaching capacity and slated to close in 2002, Environment Minister Norm Sterling has ordered an environmental assessment hearing. A report is expected by May 30, focusing on concerns about leachate runoff from the pits.

Local residents have mixed feelings about the scheme. For the old-timers though, Kirkland Lake will always be a mining town. Wistfully, they talk of gold and diamond prospects in the nearby townships. Now there’s the stuff of dreams.

Bill Twatio is an Ottawa-based freelance writer. He grew up in Kirkland Lake.