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GUEST OPINION: Canadian TV ignores Ontario’s rich mining history

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,...


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.

Unfairly, the Klondike did have the benefit of terrific public relations due to famous writers like Jack London, Robert W. Service and Pierre Burton, but 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 to 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 – the richest mining city in North America – whose mines have been producing nickel, copper and platinum group metals for over 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 nancings 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 cliché 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 Street in Toronto.

Unlike the Discovery Channel’s 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.

From the selling of strategic nickel to the Germans during the First World War which almost led to nationalization of Inco, and extensive gold smuggling out of the rich Timmins gold mines to the mystery of who killed gold magnate Harry Oakes and one of the biggest claim jumping scandals in Canada at Hemlo in the early 1980s, Ontario’s mining history has enough thrills, chills and drama to captivate anyone.

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.

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.

Needless to say, this is not an easy task with over 150 years of astonishing history to choose from. The list encompasses traditional discoveries as well as certain events or the creation of institutions that have had long-lasting provincial or global impact.

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.

Ontario’s Top Ten Mining Events: Ring of Fire Honorary Mention

Before we get to the top ten 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.

Although there are many problems to resolve including transportation and power infrastructure and First Nations issues, the Ring of Fire is so enormously rich – most mining experts believe this world-class camp will have at least a century of production if not longer even though we have just “scratched the proverbial surface” – that this event had to be included in the list.

This mining camp contains chromite – the fourth largest reserves in the world after South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kazakhstan – plus nickel, copper, platinum group elements, gold, zinc and vanadium, estimated to be worth at least $60 billion according to the Ontario Ministry of Northern Development and Mines.

Unfortunately, Cliffs Natural Resources’ decided to indefinitely suspend its Ring of Fire operations (Black Thor chromite deposit) in November, 2013 primarily due to the global econ
omic slump in metal demand, the company’s current financial problems and the provincial government’s inaction on a number of critical issues.

However, there are two other juniors – Noront Resources (Eagle’s Nest nickel/copper/PGM project) and KWG Resources (Black Horse(80% owned) and Big Daddy(30% owned) chromite deposits) – with major proposals and a host of other companies with good exploration potential that will eventually see the development of this enormously rich mining region once metal demand recovers.

To read the remainder of this column that includes the top 10 list, please click here, RepublicOfMining.com/2014/03/02. Readers are free to agree or disagree with the author’s ranking.


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1 Comment » for GUEST OPINION: Canadian TV ignores Ontario’s rich mining history
  1. nerniner says:

    The thing about the Klondike though, is that it’s about more than gold (the metal). As Robert Service put it:

    “Yet it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting
    So much as just finding the gold.”

    From the Spell of the Yukon… which is very much a real thing, just as potent now as it ever was, as anyone who visits, knows. Service got it right in so many ways.

    (And I would argue the Discovery mini-series would have been MUCH more entertaining if they’d used the real stories – like Ontario, the truth is much more amazing and interesting than the cliche’d nonsense they turned Gray’s excellent book into. As I watched, I could definitely hear Fr. Judge, Bill Haskell, Sam Steele, Belinda Mulroney and other amazing people spinning in their graves!)

    🙂 I understand your frustration, but the most amazing stories from the Klondike have yet to get a wide telling…

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