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Blog Entry

Breaking Cycles of Harm in Canada’s Mining Communities

By Mica Jorgenson and Dave Jorgenson*

In a regulatory system that evaluates individual proposals on their own merit, decision-makers at the provincial and federal levels have long struggled to account for the complexity of history. Mining on previously disturbed sites is often framed as a way of lowering mining’s impact, but in practice it exacerbates existing environmental issues and places the burden of damage on already-taxed communities. 

Osisko’s proposed Cariboo Gold Project, now under Environmental Assessment with the Province of British Columbia, cites the Cariboo’s strong mining heritage as evidence of its viability in Wells. A quick look at mining’s legacy, and at Osisko’s track record in particular, suggests the company should be careful about invoking the past to support its new agenda.

In 1862, the Cariboo Gold Rush left tailings piles along the length of the Fraser River. At the rush’s apex in Barkerville, near Osisko’s new mine site, mining cleared the hillsides of trees and made Williams Creek into a mess of rocks and mud. By the turn of the century, it was mostly over. Most people left, and only a few with gold in their pockets. Even the town’s namesake Billy Barker died in poverty.

In the 1930s, the cycle began again. American-born Fred Wells came to the Cariboo mountains encouraged by the legendary nineteenth century finds, the rising price of gold, and wealthy American investors. Wells’ industrial mining company extracted hardrock gold by tunnelling, crushing and extracting gold with the relatively new cyanide extraction process.  When the mine closed just thirty years later, the local population was reduced to a few hundred people living next to a collection of crumbling mills, crushers, and waste heaps.

As the mining companies retreated, Wells built a tourism economy around our mining heritage and an art scene unique in the otherwise heavily resource-industry-based Cariboo region. Fred Wells’ industrial mine is now orphaned, and taxpayers of the Province of British Columbia are on the hook for clean up at this contaminated site. It is actively leaching heavy metals into the Willow River and the Jack of Clubs Lake - tributaries of the Fraser River.

Starting in the early 2000s, Barkerville Gold Mines slowly consolidated claims on the mountain sides above the community. A modest open pit operation began production in 2014, followed by an exploration and drilling program. In 2017 Quebec mining giant Osisko absorbed Barkerville Gold Mines, and in 2019 it began the Environmental Assessment process for a major mine within Wells. In 2020 Osisko became the sole shareholder of the Cariboo Gold Project.

In conversations between the province, community members, and the mine, Wells’ status as a historic mining community looms large.

Osisko pitted those lured by promises of jobs and dollars for fixing Wells’ ageing infrastructure against those justifiably sceptical of its long term benefits. Indeed, despite Osisko’s on-paper enthusiasm for ‘sustainable’ mining, its actual behaviour on the land reveals little interest in community or environmental well-being. As of this writing, the company continues to contravene Wells’ noise bylaws, failed to comply with the terms of its fuel storage permit, has been fined multiple times for failure to abide by the terms of its Provincial tenure agreements, and remains on the Federal Environmental Offenders registry (under its previous name, Barkerville Gold Mines). Osisko’s proposal to the British Columbia Environmental Assessment Office does not acknowledge or include any plans for correcting this behaviour, despite the fact that its proposed operations will bring it into even closer contact with the community over the sixteen year life of the mine – the primary surface infrastructure is within a few hundred metres of homes.

Osisko’s role as community saviour rings especially hollow given the sizeable gap between its rhetoric and reality elsewhere in Canada. Nearly 4000 kilometres to the east, the community at Malartic, Quebec has gone through a similar odyssey. Malartic is part of the Abitibi gold belt and saw gold rushes in the 1920s and 1930s before the mines closed in the 1960s. Osisko showed up in 2008 to mine the 348 tonnes of gold estimated to lie directly underneath the community. In 2016, community members in Malartic launched a class action lawsuit (eventually settled out of court) citing, among other complaints, environmental contamination and impacts to health. A key element to their claim was a damning study from the region’s Health Authority, documenting the harm of locating a major industrial complex in a municipal zone.

Even if Osisko had an environmental record testifying to strong community and ecological interests, enduring sixteen years of extraction in exchange for clean-up of the old tailings in Wells remains a fraught bargain. Osisko’s remediation plan involves capping the historic tailings under its immediate footprint, constituting only a small portion of the existing waste. Crucially, their plans exclude contaminated tailings that leach into the Willow River. Meanwhile, it will leave new waste heaps up the Quesnel River and at Bonanza Ledge.

The reasoning goes that building a mine on previously disturbed land minimises disturbance to people and the environment while providing a net benefit at the end of the project through clean-up of a legacy site. Places like Wells and Malartic are framed as sacrifice zones, where new interventions on the land will be mitigated by the fact that the area is already polluted. Such cost/benefit balancing are common in natural resource applications, despite their failure to account for the way mine waste accumulates on the land.

On its concept maps, the proposed gold mine crouches over Wells like a grizzly over a spring moose corpse. Its great arms stretch across the valley from my family’s favourite huckleberry patch to the community’s winter ski trails. The sixteen year life of the mine will exclude an entire generation from these important spaces without providing long term economic and social stability to replace the arts, history, and tourism infrastructure the community built in the sixty years since the last mine closed. Mining on previously disturbed sites does not reduce impact. It multiplies it. The repetitive cycles of mining history constitute a kind of re-traumatization for both the landscape and its inhabitants.

The shortcomings of Osisko’s proposal contains lessons for Environmental Assessment that apply beyond Osisko and Wells. The past behaviour of companies and the environmental history of the land should inform impact assessments. Without accounting for the past, the mining industry is destined to repeat the same mistakes that trap communities in toxic cycles of boom and bust.

* Mica Jorgenson has a PhD in environmental history and specializes in Canadian gold mining and forestry. Dave Jorgenson is her father, and has lived and worked in Wells since 1997.