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‘Going Down the Road’ to Red Lake


Part I


It was the spring of 1961 and I was in the process of finishing my first year in geology at Nova Scotia ’s, Acadia University . I badly needed a summer job if I was to return to University next fall, but the industry was in a slump and jobs were few and far between. After sending out some 230 applications to any company in the Canadian Mines Handbook that looked the least bit active, I was finally rewarded with my one and only offer from Madsen Red Lake Gold Mines in Ontario ’s Red Lake camp. For a young lad from a small, sleepy Waspy town in south western Nova Scotia, the thought of finally getting out of province (in spite of what some of my Cape Breton friends would say, my one trip to “The Isle” really didn’t count!) and half way across the Dominion was an exciting event in itself. But in many ways it was to be a culture shock.


In the cookery the night I arrived my attention was drawn to the fact that I had been transplanted into a mini united nations. Red Lake, like many of the Canadian gold mining camps, had been a focus for immigration over the previous three decades. The first wave saw an influx of Canadians from across the country, including even a few Nova Scotians, but particularly people of Ukrainian, Polish, Scandinavian, and British decent uprooted from western Canada and seeking relief from the dust bowl years of impossible prairie agriculture. The second wave consisted of central and western Europeans, all of whom were looking to Canada to improve upon their fortunes after suffering the devastating adversity of World War II and the hardships of reconstruction. This group included people of German, Polish, and Italian decent, along with a few Central Europeans who had managed to make it to the West before the Iron Curtain was drawn closed. By the time I arrived on the scene these two groups were the backbone of mine operations. Although the subsequent transmigration of a large segment of this population from the bush to the cities of Southern Ontario had begun, those that stayed behind provided a lasting legacy in that their children today continue to form the backbone of Ontario’s, and perhaps even Canada’s, operational mining industry.


The third group was small when compared with the above two groups, but none the less important. They had seized on the opportunity to exchange their labour for relatively high Canadian mining wages for a period of a few years. Their open intent was to eventually go back home to their families in Italy , Spain, Portugal , or the Azores , buy a small vineyard, and become a gentlemen farmer. They were good underground and, I assume, in the vineyard. Many succeeded!


The last group was the smallest and consisted of a few political refugees who had escaped from Iron Curtain countries as a result of, and sometimes in spite of, post WW II anti-Communist uprisings. A vivid memory remains of one of my roommates of that summer, a young lad of about 24 who five years earlier had participated in the futile attempt to change the Hungarian political structure, had managed to escape via a machine gun under his arm, and made his way to Canada and Red Lake with effectively nothing more that the shirt on his back.


Was the kid from the Waspy small town in south western Nova Scotia impressed with his introduction to the real world? You bet!! There is no doubt that this first experience in Canadian mining forever enriched my life. And to paraphrase the guy from the razor company, I was so impressed I married into it!!


“Going Down the Road” to Red Lake


Part II


As a summer student from a small Nova Scotia town, my exposure to the ethnic mosaic in Red Lake , Ontario in 1961 had had a major positive long term influence on the rest of my life. However, there was another major pervasive influence in Red Lake that likewise had a major influence on my enjoyment of the community during that summer and since.


The first morning on the job at Madsen Red Lake Gold Mines I was sent into Red Lake to the Red Cross hospital for a chest x-ray for my Ontario miner’s card. I had briefly driven through the community the previous Sunday afternoon but had seen nothing that particularly caught my attention, simply a town site nestled on bedrock immediately adjacent to a water body  - shades of the Maritimes. But Monday morning provided me with a totally different perspective.... there were a host of float-equipped airplanes taking off and landing on the bay within 200 yards of the main street. This was exciting!!


Red Lake of the early ‘60’s, and to some extent even today, was a frontier town at the end of the road. If one wanted to go further north one flew, paddled, or walked, and by 1960 most opted to fly in the host of bush planes available from bases along the main street. The planes were focused on providing service to three main clientele - first, the mining exploration industry which had been the backbone of the expansion of air service into the area in the mid-1920’s; secondly, a host of tourist camps providing hunting and fishing experiences to US sportsmen; and thirdly, the Aboriginal communities to the north. 


Being at the end of the road had given Red Lake a frontier ethic - people worked hard and played hard. Wages were good and people had money to spend. The liquor store, and yes, even a few bootleggers, were well patronized. Parties were still often weekend affairs. The last house of ill repute was still in place, and it’s retired, aging madam had become a pillar in the community. Payday table stakes poker games were still to be found, and the odd newcomer caught cheating was likely to find himself being helped out of the muck pile after being tossed off the second story veranda.


Citizens were aware of the fact they were at the end of the road and family vacations were directed at “going out”, while the unattached with vehicles often “went out” to the neon lights of Winnipeg for the weekend. A newcomer in town had only to smile and be friendly and was assured of readily being drawn into the activities of the community.  Many of the newcomers from other parts of Canada came to Red Lake to make some fast money and move back home to the better life. While a few did, most moved out after a few years with little more to show for it than some good memories and a few more candles on their cake. A few decided to stay!


Prospectors, some still active from the thirties, moved freely but stealthily in and out of town, still enjoying the thrill of the hunt and trying to cook up deals with any exploration company that might darken the Mining Recorder’s door. The Ontario Provincial Police high grading squad was still actively attempting to keep the miners honest. Baseball flourished in the summer with each mine having a team; summer staff was often recruited based on their ball playing abilities. Government officials were frequently moving through the community as they carried out their assigned responsibilities in the isolated northern communities. New pilots came from across the country looking for their chance to move into the left hand seat of a Cessna 180 or, for the more experienced, a Norseman. They would work from dawn to dark for ten days straight until the weather gave them a chance to blow off some of the built up stress during a two day party. Many moved on to regional and national airlines. Saturday morning in the summer would see the local restaurants filled to over flowing with drawl-accented fishermen from Iowa or Illinois waiting for their turn to fly out to some remote lodge or outpost camp. Many returned next year!


The times were busy, everyone was optimistic, and, remarkably, no one was old!