Will uranium mining ruin cottage country?

A primer on mining's history & its effects on our favourite getaways

By Peter GorriePeter Gorrie

uranium mining

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Picture yourself on a sultry July evening,” Roger Young tells fellow property owners at a joint meeting of the Glamor Lake and Little Glamor Lake cottagers’ associations. “You’re on your deck. The air’s finally freshening after a swampy day. Stars are twinkling and loons call. Maybe you’ve got a cold beer at hand.”

Then, he shifts his tone: “There’s noise from the east end of the lake—banging and grinding from a rock crusher; the snorting of giant earthmovers. You look toward it: That open-pit mine people talked about? Well, it’s in business.”

After Young’s talk, a jar at his side fills with $5, $10, and $20 bills. The contributions are in response to what he’s described: Three mining companies have staked claims to thousands of hectares in this region of forest, rocks, and lakes, two and a half hours northeast of Toronto.

And with these donations, the new battle over uranium exploration in Ontario’s Haliburton cottage country is joined.

A history of mining in cottage country

Geologists first discovered uranium in Haliburton in 1922; work began on the initial mine, known as Bicroft, 31 years later. Three others soon followed. Between 1956 and 1982, almost 7,000 tonnes of uranium oxide, or “yellowcake,” was extracted from the four mines. Local people welcomed those mines, which brought hundreds of jobs to the poor, thinly populated area. The main centre, Bancroft, in next-door Hastings County, proudly proclaimed itself the “Mineral Capital of Canada.”

As the mines’ brief heyday ended in the mid-1960s, a cottage boom began. First in a trickle, then in a flood, city dwellers erected ¬summer retreats on Haliburton’s 65 pristine lakes. The cottagers, in summer now vastly outnumbering the permanent population of about 16,000, came to escape work and industry and prized the area’s natural beauty. So the new mining companies—Bancroft Uranium of Scottsdale, Ariz., and El Niño Ventures and Abitibi Mining, both based in Vancouver—entered a radically altered landscape when, four years ago, with uranium prices soaring amid worldwide plans for nuclear power plants, they arrived to resurrect the industry.

Their activity caused little stir until the spring of 2007, when Roger Young’s friends Robin Simpson and Christine Atrill, hiking their picturesque 40 hectares, stumbled across claim stakes. Taking advantage of the “free entry” provision of Ontario’s Mining Act—similar to laws in every province and territory—a prospector had entered the private property, unannounced, and carved it into 16-hectare claim blocks. Simpson, a full-time resident, grew enraged as he researched the situation. He established the group Fight Uranium Mining and Exploration (FUME) to warn others about the threat to their tranquility, health, environment, and property rights. Largely funded by the contribution jars, FUME became the spearhead of growing opposition. It now has more than 1,000 members; others are entering the fray through the increasing involvement of cottagers’ associations. A similar battle, involving mainly full-time residents and aboriginal groups, is underway in Frontenac and Lanark counties, southeast of Haliburton. The main lobby group there, the Community Coalition Against Mining Uranium, won moratorium endorsements from local councils as well as those in nearby Kingston and Ottawa.

The fuel for the campaign is Haliburton’s second identity, forged in the last half of the 20th century. The area is no longer either remote or wilderness. The lake-filled region boasts more than 14,000 recreational homes, and villages with city-size supermarkets, cute cafés, and weekend traffic jams dot the landscape. Despite a growing “quaintification,” though, the area is a vacation gem, where many have made substantial financial and emotional investments.

“Our soul resides at the cottage,” says Susanne Lauten, who with her husband has owned an island retreat on Gull Lake since 1996. “We work in the city so that we can afford to go there. Our whole future is in it.” Lauten recently launched her own group, Cottagers Against Uranium Mining and Exploration. In talking to fellow cottagers about the cause, she found everyone was keen on learning more and cottagers are becoming increasingly engaged. “Every time I talk to someone, they open another door,” she says. “We’ve got some crazy momentum.”

This article was originally published on May 14, 2009

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Peter Gorrie