In the early 1950s, uranium mining was a highly secretive operation and the warning sign in the above photo warns prospective visitors.
The Nesbitt-LaBine ore body, discovered in 1950, was a hope and a promise that did not last. Investor interest was high as Gilbert LaBine, who had made Canada’s first discovery of uranium on Great Bear Lake, was a major owner. His partner in the venture was Johnnie Nesbitt, a daring and accomplished bush pilot. The mine was nestled beside Eagle Lake near Uranium City, in the famed Beaverlodge District at Lake Athabasca.
As he had done at the Port Radium, Beresford Lake and Long Lake mines run by Gilbert and Charles LaBine, my grandfather was overseeing the construction and my father working as part of the crew. In December 1951, my mother took me, at the tender age of three months, from a warm house in southern Saskatchewan to join my father where we would all live in a tent house.
Forecasts for a home-run were high but neither the Eagle Lake deposit nor other small deposits found by Nesbitt-LaBine yielded much ore and the mine closed in 1956. The partnership between LaBine and Nesbitt would fizzle even earlier, over a controversy involving a new prospect on the Crackingstone Peninsula. A controversy? Of course – it was a mining deal. The new prospect? Gunnar Mines.
The Republic of Mining website includes Gilbert LaBine in a list of Canada’s ten most important mining men. LaBine was often referred to as Canada’s Father of Uranium. You can see the Republic of Mining article here.
In the 1930s photo above (copyright LaBine family), a young Gilbert Labine is on the right. LaBine is the adventurous and determined mine builder who features in Sun Dogs and Yellowcake. He discovered both Port Radium at Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories and my town, Gunnar Mines, on Lake Athabasca. Port Radium produced radium in the 1930s for medical purposes until it was discovered after the start of World War II that its waste product – uranium – had more value. Port Radium’s uranium contributed to the development of the atomic bomb during World War II. Gunnar Mines’ uranium was sold to the United States to support its arms race against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
In a recent interview, I discuss the history of uranium in northern Canada and life in the Athabasca uranium camp that sprang up during the 1950s uranium rush. Clickhere, then choose podcast, then Adam Stirling, and go to the December 1st audio file for Sun Dogs and Yellowcake.
Times have changed. Radio stations are substantially more modern than the one in this photo from the 1950s. My mother Barbara is about to start her weekly program on Radio-Active 660, a local 660-kilocycle broadcast in Gunnar Mines, Saskatchewan.
Never having been someone who has sought the limelight (although people who have met me recently, might question that statement), I am finding out what is like to market a book. Interviews are part of that process and having been a huge fan of radio all my life, ‘appearances’ on this media and online podcasts are a particular treat.
On October 23rd, I was so pleased to appear on Joseph Planta‘s online programthecommentary.ca. Joe has interviewed such literati as Catherine Leroux, Noah Richler, Kevin Patterson, and Gail Anderson-Dargatz, among others. Some comments by Joe Planta about Sun Dogs and Yellowcake:
“It tells us… who live down here in the south, that this country was built on resource extraction, on mining.”
“It’s memories like that… somebody at the end of the book says they dream about the place all the time… and for those of us who haven’t been up there, you take us there in such a beautiful way that I understand why you could want to smell the air up there again.”
“You have done a great service with this book, not only for people like yourself who grew up there and your mom, but for people like us who are Canadian, who want to know more about this country, because you have given us a great insight into this part of Canadian history that’s gone unreported for far too long.”
The previous interview was with CHED radio in Edmonton at 5:55 in the morning, Oct. 20th. Now that was a challenge! I made sure I had my morning coffee and dressed as though I was going to the office. Everything went well until I tried to come up with the word ‘shortwave’, as in shortwave radio. Obviously, I did not consume enough coffee as the word remained hidden. Bruce Bowie was a great host and many thanks to him for inviting me on his program as a warm-up to my November 10th Edmonton launch! Here is the link to the interview.
CBC Blue Sky radio
Next was CBC’s Blue Sky program in Saskatoon on November 2nd, where I started to tell host Garth Materie a funny story but time ran out! Saskatchewan people were clearly tuned in because I heard from a number of them after the show. A Regina woman contacted me to say she remembered speaking with a nurse from a northern mine more than 50 years prior but couldn’t remember her name. That nurse just happens to be my mother! Click below to hear the interview.
Roundhouse Radiowith Janice Ungaro and Cory Ashworthin Vancouver followed the Blue Sky interview just two hours before my Vancouver launch began. What a terrific pair, so friendly and genuinely interested in the story of this little town and the history behind it. And they work in a very hip studio. I was nicely warmed up for the evening presentation! Check out the interview here.
I was ‘on the news,’ as John Gromley interviewed me for his News Talk 980 show in Saskatoon on November 7. This was such a fun interview! We covered the early story of uranium mining and life in our small northern town.
CBC Radio Active
Could it be that the CBC-Edmonton named its Radio Active radio program after Gunnar’s Radio-Active 660? I like to think so! On November 10, I met the delightful host Portia Clark where we discussed all things Gunnar-related – including the funny coincidence with the program’s name. Edmonton, Fort McMurray and Waterways were key players during this Cold War story. You can hear the interview here.
Global TV News
On November 14, at 7 a.m., I presented myself at the Global TV station in Saskatoon. It was 4 a.m. Vancouver time and I hoped I had adjusted somewhat to the time change. Joelle was my host and we had a great time chatting about life in a Cold War uranium mining town. The interview set me up nicely for my book launch that evening at McNally Robinson Books. It was also the day when I felt a little bit like a celebrity. My husband and I were seated in the Prairie Ink Restaurant, about to start our lunch, when a woman walked up to me and said, without any introduction at all, “I just loved loved your book!” I had to wonder if she was mistaking me for someone else! But no, she had done some work up in the area long after Gunnar closed and was curious about the town and the era. She said the book made it all come alive. She thanked me and left. I didn’t even get her name but if she happens to read this, a big thankyou for making my day! Here is the interview.
Re-enter Gilbert LaBine, some twenty years after his radium score and now sixty-two years old. LaBine, in his nominal positions as president and director of Eldorado, was well informed about Eldorado’s moves in the Beaverlodge area. He was also not averse to conducting a little business of his own.
His first foray was with a highly competent, experienced pilot named John “Johnny” Nesbitt, who had spent his life flying in Canada’s north country, including for Eldorado and its Great Bear Lake operations. When Eldorado switched its focus to Lake Athabasca, Nesbitt added the Beaverlodge operation to his flight path.
He had flown the two prospectors St. Louis and Larum to what would later be Eldorado’s Ace mine, and knew the area well. He too had been bitten by the uranium bug and, when not flying, combed the bush looking for his own lucky strike. In 1950, he found and staked a pitchblende prospect on claims that Eldorado had let lapse near Eagle Lake. This prospect would become the Nesbitt-Labine uranium mine.
Johnny Nesbitt wanted to sell the claims to his employer Eldorado; however, he had an unidentified partner who was more interested in a transaction with Gilbert LaBine. Perhaps for LaBine, it was a bit of a poke at the federal government for confiscating Eldorado, and at Eldorado’s president, Bill Bennett, with whom he did not get along.
Whatever the motivation, LaBine promptly resigned from Eldorado’s board of directors to become president of the new Nesbitt-Labine Uranium Mines Limited. Nesbitt did not have much choice but to switch to flying for the new entity. Construction started in 1952 and the small community of Nesbitt-Labine started to grow around the mine.
Alex MacPherson of the Saskatoon StarPhoenix has written a great article about Sun Dogs and Yellowcake.
“The Gunnar uranium mine, located about 800 kilometres north of Saskatoon, was discovered by prospectors working for Gilbert LaBine, the Ontario-born explorer who is widely considered the father of Canada’s uranium industry.”
Sun Dogs and Yellowcake traces Gilbert LaBine’s path from his early discovery of radium on Great Bear Lake to the town of Gunnar Mines, Saskatchewan. Bridging World War II and the Cold War, the book brings life back to the long-abandoned town of Gunnar.
Alex Browne of the Peace Arch News has written a fabulous article about Sun Dogs and Yellowcake. Publication date and purchase information to come! Launch South Surrey Sept.14, details in article. Peace Arch News article
So who knew, certainly not I, just how long and how much work it takes to write and publish a book! But things are shaping up for the publication of Sun Dogs and Yellowcake in early September. My very detail-oriented editor Naomi Pauls has put me through a rigorous review, giving me a new-found and hard-earned respect for the editorial role. The uber-talented Bill Glasgow is shaping the physical design of the book and Neil Klassen has lent his fine creative eye to produce three fabulous maps. And of course, the perfect cover photo is courtesy of artist and photographer Robbie Craig
Woven into the context of the Cold War and post-war immigration, and set against a backdrop of pristine Lake Athabasca with its First Nations and Métis communities, life in an isolated uranium mining town unfolds. Stories of love, loss, and adventure, with much joy and laughter.
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The photo is of me in the early days of Gunnar Mines, Saskatchewan – and in my early days too, of course.
Following upon the previous blog post about Gunnar Mines alumni, Donna Lee’s role as educator can’t be separated from her art. In 2012, she wrote and colourfully illustrated a children’s book Peter Fidler and the Métis. Fidler was an explorer and mapmaker for the Hudson’s Bay Company. He married a Cree woman and Donna Lee is a descendant of this union. The book relates Fidler’s story but is, at the same time, a portrait of the oft-troubled Métis history in Canada and Donna Lee’s personal journey into her Aboriginal heritage. Continue reading “The art of making art, Donna Lee Dumont”
Gilbert LaBine’s first uranium mine helped end the Second World War. His next fed the Cold War. Immigrants fleeing post-war Europe and job-seeking southerners came to Gunnar Mines in northern Saskatchewan, joining the area’s First Nations and Métis. They found adventure, romance, tragedy, and a freedom never again to be equaled. Meanwhile, lamps made of uranium drill core sat in their homes and their children played at the tailings pond. Sun Dogs and Yellowcake is their story. The beautiful cover image is based on a photograph by the very talented Robbie Craig. I am thrilled to announce that Sun Dogs and Yellowcake will be available this September. Stay tuned.
“The most wonderful thing about being Métis is that we come in all colours. My grandmother used to tell me that ‘Métis is how you feel’. I am now part of the culture and have a strong sense of belonging.”
In 1957, one of Canada’s famed Group of Seven painters, A.Y. Jackson, made a surprise visit to the small uranium mining town of Gunnar Mines, on Lake Athabasca in Saskatchewan. He made a few appearances at the local Handicraft club where he gave painting exhibitions and suggestions to the members. Donna Lee was a member of this group and remembers him as being quite blunt, even caustic at times while reviewing paintings. One afternoon, when the club’s members were invited to accompany him on a painting excursion on the rocks, Jackson motioned to her to sit beside him. While they painted, he gave her little tips, such as “use a bigger brush” and “put these little strokes through the water.”