The lengthening shadow of ghost towns

Hal Quinn January 21 1985

The lengthening shadow of ghost towns

Hal Quinn January 21 1985

The lengthening shadow of ghost towns


Hal Quinn

Branching off Highway 802, about 150 km west of Thunder Bay, Ont., a side road dips and bends and stops at a chain-link fence. Beyond the fence is an abandoned British-American Oil Co. service station. In the distance, two dozen bungalows line gently curving streets. But no children play in front of the silent houses. The entire community is in suspended animation: Burchell Lake is a ghost town,

one of more than 400 in Canada that have become the casualties of developing a country. The Coldstream copper mine at Burchell Lake became uneconomical and closed in 1966. And the town, like other failed communities across the country, reflects the vulnerability of resource-based economies. It also raises questions about the best methods of obtaining minerals from the earth, timber from the forests and fish from the sea.

The ghost towns dot the landscape from Newfoundland to Vancouver Island, half-forgotten reminders of exhausted ore bodies or shifts in the international price of minerals which rendered the mines too expensive to work. Some were built before Confederation, others have died in the past 30 years. Three years ago Uranium City,

Sask., 750 km northeast of Edmonton, joined the list and now in Schefferville and Gagnon, Que., and in Faro, Yukon, dwindling numbers of residents grimly strive to stay on in their once-thriving towns.

Only four years ago more than 3,000 people lived and worked in Uranium City. Now it is almost abandoned, with a population of 180. More than 600 houses stand vacant, the doors boarded up and the windows shuttered because Eldorado Nuclear Ltd. sounded the death

knell for the isolated town in December, 1981, when the federal Crown corporation announced the closure of the nearby uranium mine. Ironically, nine months later a 40-member federal-provincial task force reported on the special problems of communities dependent on mining. One of its conclusions: governments and companies should found regional centres with diversified economic bases to supply services and workers for nearby projects. One result: governments no longer encourage development of permanent communities around one resource.

But that recommendation came too late for Uranium City residents. Declared Ronald Rosnoski, chairman of the five-member local advisory committee charged with overseeing what is left of the community: “People are coping

with the situation quite well.” Then he added, “They have not had much choice.” The 25-year-old doubles as a maintenance engineer and ambulance driver for the 17-bed local hospital. Said Rosnoski: “Those who could not adjust have left town. The ones who remain would likely leave if the hospital were to close.”

Uranium City has shrunk as the remaining residents have moved into an area one-half-mile square in which hydro and water services are still avail-

able. And contractors bought 400 housing units from Eldorado Nuclear, then loaded them onto flatbed trucks and barges for resale in the still-thriving mining town of Fort McMurray, Alta., 356 km away. But other residents who owned their own homes simply walked away from them, deciding it was too expensive to ship them to another city. Said James Litz, 36, a Fort • McMurray contractor who lived in Uranium City for seven years: “It is really sad and depressing to go back there and see the home you built sitting empty and worthless.”

In Schefferville, Iron Ore Co. officials offered laid-off workers their houses for $1 each, but few were willing to assume responsibility for taxes on the properties in a dying town. Three years ago 2,500 people lived in the town 1,000 km

north of Quebec City. But now neat rows of empty houses stand as mute reminders of the November, 1982, announcement by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, then Iron Ore president, that the mine which had sustained the town for 30 years would close permanently. Said Lynn Ross, 25, the municipal secretarytreasurer and one of Schefferville’s 200 remaining residents: “The town is still there—it is just that hardly anyone is living in it. For most of us who knew Schefferville as it was, there will always be a nostalgia, a sense of loss.”

Such losses are inevitable, according

to Ron Brown, 39, a community planner with the Ontario government and author of the 1983 book Ghost Towns of Ontario. Said Brown: “All that can be done is to recognize in the first place that it will end some day. The companies should move in mobile homes, not build permanent ones, and not fool the people into thinking that it will be permanent.” And in Gagnon, Que., the sense of permanency born of 25 years of iron ore mining for a provincially controlled consortium has also disappeared. More than 3,000 people have left the town on Quebec’s once-thriving North Shore

since the late 1970s. By the end of June the remaining 1,500 residents will also depart; the town will shut down and become the responsibility of the provincial government.

To avoid repeating similar mistakes, provincial and federal governments now move more slowly before establishing new resource-based communities. Said Robert Keyes, 36, a director in the mineral policy sector of the federal ministry of energy, mines and resources: “The days of a community founded upon a single industry are over. We will no longer see the establishment of a community just for the fun of it.” Indeed, one of the recommendations of the 1982 task force has proved successful in northern Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories. There, federal and provincial officials suggest that companies operate on a “fly-in, fly-out” basis, with little permanent construction and an obligatory cleanup of the environment after operations when they close down.

But in established communities now struggling with a mine shutdown, governments, labor unions and companies are still trying to work out ways to share the costs of closures. Severance payments and federal and provincial benefits ease employees’ transition and relocation, but Keyes says he is concerned about businessmen who gambled—and lost—that they could make a living supplying the communities with goods and services. Said Keyes: “How far do you go in spreading the safety net?”

Still, many of the 1,000 people left in Faro, Yukon, feel that the safety net has been ripped away. Their reasoning: Dome Petroleum was scheduled to close the town’s lead and zinc mine on Dec. 31, 1984, but legally locked the workers out at the end of October when contract negotiations broke down. As a result of the lockout, the miners cannot collect unemployment insurance, and miners who earned on average almost $50,000 a year no longer mingle in groups on Hawaiian vacations but, instead, rub shoulders while lining up for free groceries at the local union hall. And the residents say they worry that their home town, which had a population of 2,500 in 1982, will soon become the country’s latest ghost town. They and Michael Nicholson, 37, the mine’s resident manager, are seeking federal assistance. Said Nicholson: “Our power, transportation and labor costs are all higher than competitors’.If those costs can be reduced, I think we can reopen the mine and run it viably.” Otherwise, Faro, like Burchell Lake, Ont., will become nothing more than part of Canada’s past.

Flora Evans

Dale Eisler

Anthony Wilson-Smith

Bruce Wallace

Karen Nicholson