Striking gold in Quebec

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.

Dynamiting is also a concern, this being a town which has hosted a succession of underground mines. Gaetane Turgeon, the owner of a local restaurant on the main drag — Le Restaurant Sel et Poivre — says that explosions have cracked her tiles. Next year, when the mine opens for business, the heavy-duty explosions will begin.

She has joined a local group to monitor the environmental impact of the mine. In addition to the dynamite, there is talk of cyanide and dust in the air. A previous mining company left behind a crater of poisonous waste, which Osisko promises to cover with its own non-toxic side-products. Still, it’s a legacy that hasn’t inspired trust among locals.

In Malartic, “everyone is smiling”, says Andre Vezeau, the local mayor. He seems to speak of a different place. Asked about residents’ fears that the town will die a death when the company leaves, he mentions a sustainable development fund and industries — most notably a local welding business currently employing around 60 people — that will sustain blood flow to the economy.

He leads a tour around the town’s area for relocated residents. Guy Carbonneau is shoveling snow outside his house. With the mayor present, he says that he is happy with the move. Nursing a beer at a local bar later on, however, he tells a very different story. He felt he had no choice but to ship out. It was a difficult experience, he says.

If a significant number is resisting the dream, it is because they feel their concerns were ignored. A consultation group set up with the authorities and the company turned out to be a paper tiger, according to Jacques Saucier, a local school coordinator and activist. Locals lost confidence after a neutral delegate from out of town went to work as Osisko’s communications director.

Coates is adamant that the mine is a good news story. “Everyone’s trying to write the story of the big guy versus the little guy. It’s never been like that here and it will never be,” he says. “Go to the cafes and the supermarket round here and tell me if we haven’t brought economic regeneration to the town.”

The Chateau Malartic, supposedly the life and soul of the community is nearly empty, the beer and salad half frozen. Locals shrug when asked how they feel about the gold rush. Previous booms didn’t change much. They see no reason to believe that this modern-day shareholder-driven gold rush should be any different.