My grandfather Johan Ferdinand (Fred) Sandberg’s immigrant journey from Sweden took him to Canada’s east and west coasts and from southern Manitoba to Great Bear Lake in the far north.
Fred’s early work included delivering mail by dogsled. His construction skills contributed to Canada’s wartime activities, including at secret uranium projects to supply the Manhattan Project during WWII and during the Cold War. You can read about his journey here.
Fred’s story is like that of most immigrants, a decision by a man or woman to leave their home and family in search of a new and better life. It takes courage to make such a decision. It requires luck, resolve and the support of others to succeed. My grandfather had all of these qualities and received such support. Along the way, he participated by chance in significant developments in the early 20th century.
Extracted with permission from The Swedish Press. “My grandparents were passionate Canadians. They chose to fully contribute and assimilate into Canadian society while maintaining their core attachment to Sweden. Fred was only able to visit his family once, which must have been very difficult for all. Although I heard Swedish on records that Fred and Freda played on their turntable, I heard never heard them speak it. None of their children spoke Swedish. My grandparents showcased their heritage in their love of entertaining, the lavish Christmas table weighted down with pickled herring and pigs’ feet, and my grandmother’s famous meatballs.”
The Swedish Press is a very fine magazine about – you guessed it – all things Swedish. Their exquisite judgement is shown in their very positive review of Sun Dogs and Yellowcake which you can see here and which I wrote about here.
Gunnar’s reclamation woes means that I focus a lot of attention on its current state. When I lived in Gunnar Mines in the 1950s and ’60s on the banks of St. Mary’s Channel (off Lake Athabasca by a pinch), it was a halcyon world. Forty years later, I learned that it – my home town – was a contaminated site.
The objective of the Gunnar reclamation is to eliminate or reduce human and ecological impact so that traditional use of resources next to the site can continue safely.
Full disclosure: I earned my living as a mining and securities lawyer. Second full disclosure: mining makes this world go round. Try to think of one thing you possess or do that is not connected to mining. Everything is made with, made of, transported by or otherwise involves minerals. And no mining occurs without some impact on the earth. Unless we go back to the stone age, we are going to mine.
I wrote Sun Dogs and Yellowcake to celebrate the magical life that most people enjoyed in Gunnar. But I knew I could not write it without discussing the aftermath of the uranium mining conducted there.
Here are the bare facts. The mining was conducted in great haste and under considerable secrecy. The federal government promoted the mining in order to supply the United States with uranium during the Cold War. Northern Saskatchewan was wilderness and Canada had a lot of wilderness – what did a mine and its residue matter in such a remote area? No significant environmental rules governed the mine’s operation or closing save one decision regarding the open pit which did more harm than good.
At closing, the mine moved out or sold only some houses, machinery, the Johnny B tug and barges, and the DC-3 plane. Subsequent visitors found coffee cups left on tables, clothing in drawers, personnel information in office cabinets. Mine buildings, machinery, the school, recreation centre and hospital remained to slowly deteriorate over the years. The headframe stood as monument to the town until demolished in 2011.
In the early 2000s, Saskatchewan undertook the reclamation of the site as the company that owned the mine ceased to exist decades prior. Saskatchewan is now suing the federal government for not paying its share of costs. The original agreement between them contemplated costs of just under $25 million. Costs are now estimated at $280 million.
Gunnar reclamation woes
The site will never be perfect but the reclamation can achieve its objective and reasonable success. Why can’t they just get it done? Here is my interview on the John Gormley Live show regarding this.
I have been reflecting on the two years that have passed since publishing Sun Dogs and Yellowcake – two years today.
Publishing your first book is an incredible joy. What you don’t realize when that moment arrives is that a book has a much larger life than what it contains within its pages.
Here is what Sun Dogs and Yellowcake has delivered for me.
Re-connection to a ‘time and place’ and to the people who resided in Gunnar. People who had lost contact with their friends for more than fifty years have rekindled their friendships and memories. I have had the joy of reuniting with old friends and making many new ones.
Preservation of the history of the small northern town of Gunnar Mines and honouring a former way of life. Its history was told best through the words of its inhabitants. And people with no connection to the area have shared and appreciated this history because of what it reveals about who we are as Canadians.
Recognition of the significance of mining, an industry that helped form this country. Mining, including the production of uranium, continues to be a key part of Canada’s growth.
Realization that the Canadian mining industry has a treasure chest of fabulous tales that unfortunately are being lost to time. I recall a dinner following the closing of a financing. The president and chief executive officer regaled us with adventures from a lifetime in mining. This was only a small sampling of stories that will likely never be told.
Celebration of the small stories that together chronicle our lives. A narrative that shows where we have come from so we understand where we are.
I did not have many expectations for this book about a little town in the middle of nowhere, in a time no one remembers. I initially thought it would appeal only to its former residents. It has surprised everyone. It has won awards, received significant publicity, and been appreciated by a broad audience.
What a journey!
The headframe in the photo above marked Gunnar’s existence and its passing. I like to think publishing Sun Dogs and Yellowcake has brought not just the town, which closed its doors in 1964, back to life, but also the era. For me personally, publishing has opened up a new world, for which I am very grateful.
The stories continue to roll in. Tomorrow, a man who lived in the neighbouring community of Uranium City shares his adventures.
Sun Dogs and Yellowcake, my book about Gunnar Mines, contains over 180 photos and three custom maps. But in the course of writing the story, I collected many hundreds more.
I thought it would be fun to tell the story of this long-abandoned, now-demolished but much-loved uranium mining town in northern Saskatchewan again, but this time in new photos.
You can find the first album of photoshere. More will be added later.
Gunnar Mines was at the centre of Canada’s uranium history-with ties to the production of uranium for the atomic bomb in WWII, and as a producer of uranium for the Cold War. For its residents, it was the best place they ever lived.
So thrilled to have received this super positive review of Sun Dogs and Yellowcake by BC BookLook‘s Ormsby Review!
You’ve likely never heard of it, but maybe you should have.
It’s one of those independently-published books that won’t sell a ton of copies, and yet a strong argument can be made that its appearance is vitally important. It recognizes an epoch of Canadian history that would otherwise have been buried–literally.
Not many books get written about the Cold War era of instant towns in isolated places…. it is a scarce research pool into which one dives in search of on-the-ground remembrances, analysis, history, or celebration. Herein lies a major value of this book: it provides a singular document telling, largely in the voices of those who were there, of a place and time unlikely to be retold, repeated anywhere else, or revived once forgotten.
Patricia Sandberg deserves a great [deal] of credit for resurrecting Gunnar Mines with a very readable, thorough and–best of all–memorable book.
Please check out the full version here and let me know what you think!
The Ormsby Review is a journal of serious non-fiction. BC BookLook states that its internet presence is to provide as much useful information as possible, about as many B.C. books and authors as possible, to as many people as possible, on a daily basis, via the internet.
The Ormsby Review recognizes excellence in writing and story-telling by independent authors. It is an honour to have received this recognition of the value of Sun Dogs, a book that resurrects the uranium mining town of Gunnar, celebrates miners and northern pioneers, and puts it all into the context of the Cold War and the Arms Race.
I was so honoured to be invited to speak this past week in Regina at the Saskatchewan Geological Society meeting. The topic was the Gunnar uranium mine up on Lake Athabasca, the subject of my book Sun Dogs and Yellowcake. The weather was chilly but bearable because I rushed from car to building and back again!
Regina hospitality is the best! As a sample, in the two days I wined and dined with good friends and was given a book, art and city tour by another special friend. And I was thrilled to receive the gift of a beautiful painting of Gunnar Mines done by the talented former Uranium City resident Ileana Parkes.
An early morning interview on the CTV Morning Live program and a book signing at Chapters completed my trip. You can listen to the interview here.
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.