Northern Ontario has many exciting mining stories – by Dieter Buse

Dr. Dieter K. Buse, Professor Emeritus, History, Laurentian University

Thanks to Stan Sudol for presenting “Klondike gets the glory” (Sudbury Star May 30-31) on the main mining stories and the rich history of northern Ontario. Who could disagree with his claim about the “collective obsession over the Klondike Gold Rush while Northern Ontario’s rich and vibrant mining history is completely ignored by the Toronto media establishment”? Perhaps not completely, because at least one such outlet, the Toronto Star (Aug 11, 2013; reprinted in Sudbury Living Fall 2013) published my lengthy piece “The Hole in Canadian History.”

In it I argued, very similar to Sudol, that the Yukon and Newfoundland have six taxpayer-funded national historical interpretive sites while northeastern Ontario has only two. I also pointed out that the special aspects of Ontario’s northeastern history have been recognized by only a few commemorative plaques.

Indeed, many of the stories and some of the information that Sudol presents can be found in the book I co-authored with Dr. Graeme S. Mount, Come on Over: Northeastern Ontario, A to Z (Scrivener Press). In the Afterword to that book one can read “Arguably, Cobalt’s history is as exciting as that of Dawson City, and its silver rush led to the Porcupine gold rush which was far more important. In all, the Porcupine Camp has produced over 70 million ounces of gold and continues to add to that total while the Klondike produced all of 12 million ounces.”

However, I would suggest that Sudol has missed some important mining stories and does not give enough credit to those who have sought to publicize Northern Ontario’s rich history. Even if the southerners have not been listening, should we not acknowledge those who have tried to provide stories to help adjust the national narrative?

For example, Joanna Rowe has created a wonderfully written and well illustrated Heart of a Mountain, Soul of a Town: The Story of Algoma Ore and the Town of Wawa. From 1900 to 1918 the Helen Mine at Wawa was the most productive iron mine in Canada. Not only is that missing from Sudol’s account, but so is the attempt by Francis Clergue to build an empire at the Sault combining a monopoly of hydro power, lumbering, shipping and mineral refining. James Dunn continued Clergue’s pattern of obtaining state aid for Sault enterprises, in particular Algoma Steel.

Ironically, that story has been well told by a southerner Duncan McDowall in Steel at the Sault: Francis H. Clergue, Sir James Dunn and the Algoma Steel Corporation, 1901-1956 (published by University of Toronto Press in 1984). So some southerners have shown an interest. Similarly, the Long Lake gold mine on the southern edge of Sudbury was Canada’s most productive gold mine from 1909 to 1916. The attempts to refind the lost mother lode at the end of Long Lake is a story covering nearly a century.

Among the other authors who have tried to tell northeastern Ontario’s stories related to mines and mining, surely one must acknowledge the prolific (if repetitious) works of Michael Barnes. He did much research on Cobalt, Timmins, and Sudbury in order to present readable works illustrating the entrepreneurship that made the mineral resources accessible.

My colleagues at Laurentian University have researched many aspects of single industry towns, including women in strikes, for instance, Mercedes Steedman. Guy Gaudreau in particular has written extensively on miners, especially their job mobility, and will soon publish a book showing workers’ culture in Kirkland Lake. I could extend the list but in general I agree with Sudol that the stories and materials are there and hence he is right to issue the challenge calling for the Toronto media to pay attention.

Perhaps the just published engaging historical novel by Mick Lowe, The Raids, about the Mine Mill-Steelworkers’ conflict will help nudge them in the right direction.