Accent: Celebrating Northern Ontario’s mining history [Part 1 of 2] – by Stan Sudol (Sudbury Star – May 30, 2014)

The Sudbury Star is the City of Greater Sudbury’s daily newspaper.

Note: this is the first of two parts.

For part-two, click here:

For crying out loud, I continue to be astonished with our collective Canadian obsession over the Klondike Gold Rush while Northern Ontario’s rich and vibrant mining history is completely ignored by the Toronto media establishment, especially the CBC.

Discovery Channel’s recent six-hour mini-series on the Klondike – vaguely based on Charlotte Gray’s book, Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike – once again highlighted this glaring snub.

While, the Klondike did have the benefit of terrific public relations due to famous writers like Jack London, Robert W. Service and Pierre Berton, I still don’t understand how this brief mining boom continues to dominate the “historical oxygen” in our national psyche.

At its peak, the Klondike only lasted a few years – 1896-1899 – and produced about 12.5 million ounces of gold. And unlike the California gold rush that created one of the largest and richest states in the union, the entire Yukon Territory’s population today is about 36,000. Contrast that with booming Timmins with 45,000 hardy souls who have dug out of the ground about 68 million ounces and counting of the precious metal, since the Porcupine Gold rush of 1909.

It’s enough to make to make Benny Hollinger, Jack Wilson and Sandy MacIntyre – the founders of this extraordinary deposit – spin in their collective graves.

Before I continue, I will come clean with readers as I have a certain bias on this topic, being born and raised in Sudbury – which is the richest hard rock mining district in North America – whose mines have been producing nickel, copper and platinum group metals for more than 130 years.

And Timmins and Sudbury are only two of many world-class mineral discoveries that have established Ontario as this country’s largest metals producer and contributed enormously to the province’s international reputation as a mining powerhouse.

Let’s not forget, the great 1903 silver boom in Cobalt, the gold rushes in Kirkland Lake (1911), Red Lake (1925), Hemlo (1981) and a host of base metal camps that all provided Ontario history with a wide range of saints, sinners, dubious politicians and hard working men and women, native born and immigrants from around the world. Under isolated and primitive conditions, these individuals populated much of Ontario’s harsh, unforgiving northern frontier and built prosperous and thriving communities.

And if you think this is just a Northern Ontario story, you would be very wrong. Toronto’s much vaunted financial sector is based on those enormously rich mineral deposits. In 2012, 70% of all global mining equity financings were done on the TSX/TSXV stock exchanges, while thousands of financial analysts, bankers, geologists, and other technical people have historically and today make a good living from this sector.

So why has the CBC, CTV, Global and other cultural bodies, including book publishing, ignored such an integral part of this province’s business, regional and cultural fabric?

This is an industry populated with multi-generational families involved in prospecting, underground mining and company building and financing. As cliche as it may sound, there are millions of stories in the vast land north of the Matawa and French Rivers that make up roughly 90% of Ontario’s geography as well as in the towers around Bay and King streets in Toronto.

Unlike the Discovery Klondike series, we don’t really need to fictionalize Northern Ontario’s mining history as the truth is more than compelling.

For instance, the union battles between Mine Mill and Steelworkers in Sudbury during the early 1960s saw car bombs and riots, the failed gold miners strike in Kirkland Lake in 1941 helped start the massive unionization of industry during Second World War, while the secretive uranium staking rush of the 1950s created enormous wealth and jobs during the terrifying cold war, but also saw the tragedy of silicosis in Elliot Lake miners in the 1970s.

While the Klondike series was entertaining, one historian commented that the producer basically took a typical American western and grafted it on the Yukon with lots of gun fights, murders, mayhem, ineffective Mounties and “Indian” bad guys. But this is what we get when we allow Canadian history to be produced by Hollywood.

In reality, the RCMP was very effective in keeping law and order in the Yukon Territory. And the initial discovery was made by three aboriginals, an American and a Canadian – Skookum Jim, Tagish Charley, Kate Carmack (not officially recognized but many feel she deserves credit) George Washington Carmack (Kate’s husband) and Robert Henderson, respectively.

Parts of Ontario’s mining history are brutal and tragic, but it is also filled with stories of hope, courage and sacrifice, of enormous wealth creation and technical and social innovation. Ontario’s modern 21st century mining sector is the culmination of this amazing past that helped forge a distinct regional culture in the province’s north and contributed enormously to the wealth of the entire province and country.

CBC’s mandate is supposed to “be predominately and distinctively Canadian, reflect Canada and its “regions” to national and regional audiences …” They seem to be failing miserably in “reflecting” Northern Ontario’s unique hardrock mining culture.

In the interest of enlightening the leadership at CBC television’s entertainment division, which might translate into some future programming about my part of the country, I thought a list of the top 10 mining events in Ontario’s history is in order.

Northern Ontario’s Top Ten Mining Events:

Ring of Fire Honorary Mention

Before we get to the top 10 most significant mining events in Ontario history, I have to make an honorary mention of the Ring of Fire, located about 500 miles northeast of Thunder Bay in the isolated swamplands of James Bay.

In 2007, an interesting mix of six geologists and junior mining executives – Richard Nemis, Mac Watson, Neil Novack, Frank Smeenk, John Harvey and Don Hoy – collectively found the most significant mineral discovery in Canada since the Sudbury Basin in 1883 and the Timmins gold camp in 1909.

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One Response to Accent: Celebrating Northern Ontario’s mining history [Part 1 of 2] – by Stan Sudol (Sudbury Star – May 30, 2014)

  1. Tom Hoefer June 1, 2014 at 12:38 pm #

    A very good observation. Let me also cite the experience in the Northwest Territories that saw two persistent geologists discover diamonds in 1991 where no one expected them to be found. The result was a staking rush that saw over 50 million acres started, and the hunt for diamonds was on. The result today is 3 diamond mines that operate to very high standards – environmentally, safety, and socio-economically – and that generate significant value to Canada, provinces and of course, to the territories. The biggest step change from the mines was the creation of significant new Aboriginal opportunities and benefits where virtually none existed before. From 1998, when the first mine began production, to 2012, the three diamond mines have created over 19,000 person years of new jobs, over $9.3 billion in northern spending of which over 40% is with new Aboriginal businesses, and over $100 million in community payments. Government has shared nearly $40 million in diamond royalties with settled Aboriginal land claimant groups. As a result, we are seeing the development of a new generation of northern, Aboriginal miners and businesses creating much-needed opportunities for their families and communities. It’s also a story worth telling.