Searching for Timmins’s heart of gold

TVO.org speaks with director Catie Lamer about her new documentary, “Northern Gold” — and about how the precious metal has shaped the city’s past and present
By Claude Sharma - Published on March 6, 2019

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Timmins is known as the “city with a heart of gold.” And for good reason: the precious metal has shaped the city from its very beginnings. The Porcupine Gold Rush, which started in 1909 and involved legendary prospectors Benny Hollinger, Jack Wilson, and Sandy McIntyre, brought thousands of miners to northern Ontario; in 1912, the settlement was named after Noah Timmins, the president of Hollinger Mines.

Since the end of 2017, the mines of Timmins have produced 74 million ounces of gold. Four gold mines currently operate within city boundaries, according to the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines: in 2018, they yielded more than 400,000 ounces.

A new two-part TVO Original documentary, Northern Gold, explores the rich history of the area through the eyes of locals — historians, miners, experts, and families — who have a deep connection to the industry that put Timmins on the map.

TVO.org spoke with Catie Lamer, the director, producer, and writer of Northern Gold, about the series and the role mining has played in developing Ontario’s north.

Why did you want to tell this story?

TVO was looking to do a story on gold in northern Ontario. Once we started digging, I connected with Karen Bachman from the Timmins Museum, and we started getting more and more into the history.

I realized the history was just so rich and really quite unknown to the rest of Canada. I felt it was something that me, coming from the south, would have loved to have known about growing up. So I thought it was a great way to explore a little bit of unknown Canadian history for a wider audience.

What was one of the most surprising things you discovered while making this documentary?

High grading came as a big surprise to me. It’s “the act of stealing gold out of a gold mine,” which is a direct quote from the documentary. I think in the early days, visible gold, as they called it, was more available to miners. I think that conditions were hard in the mine, and people wanted to make an extra bit of coin, so they would take out gold from the mine and bring it up top, and then it would get into the hands of other people. Sometimes it was bootleggers from down south who would also have a high-grading business up north, and then it would be essentially brought back down south, sometimes across the border, sometimes ending up in Toronto. It was a huge thing in northern Ontario for quite some time.

What role did women play during the early stages of mining in Timmins?

It was the women who really shaped the town into what it became. It wasn't just a gold-rush camp — it became a town really quickly, and that was all through the women who were coming from all different parts of the world. They would gather based around food, sharing recipes. The church played a really big role — different types of churches, too. Local MP Charlie Angus says he always had a big pasta Sunday dinner growing up because he had Italian neighbours. We tried to highlight in the documentary the role that women played and just how important they were.

You interviewed Bobby Cyr, an Indigenous miner, as well as Chad Boissoneau, chief of Mattagami First Nation. How important was it to include an Indigenous perspective in this documentary?

You can't really tell a Canadian story without having an Indigenous perspective in there. It was really important to interview Indigenous communities around Timmins and see what their interaction with mining has been, both in a historical and a contemporary context. Chief Boissoneau did an incredible job of telling the hardships that they face because of the mining industries in northern Ontario. He was also great at illuminating some of the ways in which his community is trying to work with or determine the resource industries on their own terms.

Does the documentary explore any of mining’s potentially negative impacts?

There's always good and bad that can come out of something. As for negative impacts, mining isn't a sustainable industry — Chief Boissoneau mentions that. So what do we do moving forward with that knowledge? How do we shift the way we do things? And that's a conversation that needs to be had. And I think people are starting to talk about that. Also, when you create a town that's based on a single resource and that resource starts to run out, what's next? You know, that's a big question. Worldwide, as we are learning right now, mining doesn’t have the greatest reputation, because there are safety and environmental consequences that are quite pronounced. In Canada, because of the work unions have done over the last century, we have much stricter regulations in terms of safety protocols. The environmental impact is something that people are consistently exploring. It's something that we really need to take into consideration considering the climate and climate change that we are experiencing today.

What happens to a town like Timmins when a mine closes?

One thing that we're seeing with mining as technological advancements increase is that some mines are essentially getting mined out. What we're seeing is mines moving farther and farther north into areas that were previously inhospitable or inaccessible. So for people in the younger generation and probably the generations to come, I think what people will see is more remote jobs — flying into a mining area, working a couple of weeks, and flying back. Shane Turcotte [a young miner featured in part two of Northern Gold] says in the documentary that he is prepared to do that if that’s what he needs to do, but it would a shame to leave his town, his home, and his family. That is something we might see: more mines will spring up, but they will be farther and farther afield.

What does the future of mining look like?

I found out that the future of mining will look very, very different. It's already shifting today. When mines first started, it was a pickaxe and a bucket. Now, it’s huge machines that are remotely controlled and that will shift how we mine. There is also the social cost: there is potential for more and more jobs to be replaced by machines.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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