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Striking gold in Quebec

Will the gold rush bring with it wealth and opportunity for locals in Malartic? Or will history repeat itself once again?

MALARTIC, Canada — Canada’s gold rush is in full swing. It’s boom time in Malartic, a sleepy, one-horse town in northwestern Quebec. Prospectors have struck gold and are digging an open-pit mine of monster proportions.

With demand for the precious metal hitting new highs, the mine is expected to bring jobs, people and life to the depressed town (population 4,000). People who were sitting on billions of dollars worth of gold have been uprooted to a new residential area.

The Osisko Mining Corporation speaks of a “win-win” scenario. Yet, the mood in the so-called boom town seems decidedly downbeat. Locals trudge past shabby corrugated iron buildings with grim resolve, seemingly oblivious to the untold wealth beneath their feet.

In this hard-bitten mining town, history repeats itself. At first, locals resisted the project, mindful of previous prospectors who came, saw and conquered, only to leave them in the lurch when the mines ran dry. It’s a pattern that goes back decades.

In the end, however, they relocated quietly, agreeing to a settlement of CA$5,000 to leave behind their homes … and memories. It seems that Osisko is the best — albeit the only — bet in town right now, a golden opportunity for the lackluster local economy.

One man refused to budge. Ken Masse’s house stands defiantly on a lunar landscape cleared for the big dig, surrounded by a wire fence festooned with red danger signs. He doesn’t want to leave the home where he grew up and is refusing to negotiate with the company.

Bryan Coates, vice-president of the Osisko Mining Corporation, is confident that he will eventually reach a deal with the last man standing in the way of Eldorado. But, seconds later, he mentions legal proceedings to seize the land. A demolition crew could be called in before the year is out.

It’s a likely outcome. Ultimately, the law is on the company’s side. Quebec’s mining legislation places access to natural resources above individual property rights, a North American legal relic that goes back to the 19th century Californian gold rush.

Osisko has spent tens of millions equipping the town’s new residential area with gleaming institutions, roads and fixtures. But, relocation has been a harrowing experience. “People were really marked. Some haven’t got over it,” says Robert Charron, a local priest.

The scale of the project alarms residents. Fifty-five thousand tons of rock will be wrenched daily from a pit stretching two kilometers over a period of at least 10 years. Many feel that the town is yet again being raided, only this time at a faster and more furious pace.