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“We didn’t leave civilization when we came here; we brought it with us.”Mary Jane Evans, a resident of Flin Flon.
Mining towns tend to begin and end the same way.
First, a prospector stakes the land and then people arrive to work and live. The time spent in a mining community is resource dependent. Once everything deemed valuable is drilled out of the ground, that’s it; the town is abandoned.
Flin Flon, a city located in northern Manitoba, seems to be following the same pattern.
In 1915, David Collins, a Metis trapper, showed prospector Tom Creighton where to find massive copper and zinc ore bodies. A couple of decades later, the town was intentionally filled with teachers, musicians, artists, and entrepreneurs who helped build what’s known as Flin Flon today.
It wasn’t long until Hudbay Minerals Inc., the company that owns the mine, transitioned Flin Flon into Canada’s second-largest zinc refinery and third-largest copper smelter. People moved from all over to start new lives for themselves and their families. The little town grew to around 10,000 people by 1950, and residents enjoyed amenities like the Phantom Lake beach that Hudbay maintained for residents to enjoy.
Hudbay built campgrounds, tennis courts, a merry-go-round, and a dock with a diving board at Phantom Lake beach.
Today, there are less than 5,000 people living in Flin Flon. The mine announced its closure in June 2022, and instead of maintaining the structures and amenities, Hudbay eventually removed things like the dock.
A Symbiotic Relationship
Since the mine’s inception, Flin Flonners have heavily relied on the company for infrastructure investments, community, and other socioeconomic developments. Flin Flon had its own form of government in a way, especially in 1931 when Hudbay pledged to take 50 cents off every man’s cheque to help fund the schools. Finally, after much discussion and letters sent to Premier John Bracken, the first school was built in 1932 and was funded through taxes.
Until then, various classrooms were scattered around the town in any available spaces, like pool halls and churches. To help reduce the cost of the proposed $24,000 Main School, Hudbay donated 9,000 feet of lumber — alongside cement mixers and other equipment. Four hundred students enrolled in the first year, and with job opportunities rising in the company, that number grew and led to the two elementary and two high schools that exist today.
Since its inception, Hudbay has mined over 150 million tonnes of ore through 26 mines in the Flin Flon Greenstone Belt. For years, Hudbay would bring in millions of dollars, sharing profits annually with all employees working at the company.
They also gave an annual Christmas donation to the Lord’s Bounty Food Bank, sponsored the famous Flin Flon Bombers hockey team, and funded support community-based programs for Flin Flonners to turn their ideas for the town into reality.
Hudbay has taken large sums of its earnings in the past and invested it back into Manitoba, donating nearly $1.4 million to organizations like the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and United Way.
Now that Hudbay closed the 777 mine, Flin Flon lost the main driving force of its economy. To help with this, the company has donated thousands of dollars to the Flin Flon, Creighton, and Denare Beach regions to pursue economic opportunities beyond the mining industry, such as tourism.
A Bustlin’ Little Town
Flin Flon is known for many things, such as producing NHL players like Bobby Clarke, Gerry Hart, and Reggie Leach. It’s also known for being named after a science fiction character, Josiah Flintabbatey Flonatin, from a 1905 book found by prospectors called The Sunless City.
The town had its own curling clubs, dance groups, fishing industry, and even a glee club. The town worked hard to bring amenities to Flin Flon for everyone’s enjoyment. Although isolated, Flin Flon has its own hospital, rink, and library.
In the 1950s, Flin Flon had a population of over 10,000 and briefly considered a proposal to form a new province called Pre-Cambria. Flin Flon is a border town right next to Creighton, SK. The new province would have consisted of northern Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta had the proposal gone through.
Originally, Flin Flon was an isolated array of rocks and lakes, and due to the northern weather, it could sometimes reach temperatures pushing 50 degrees below. Building Flin Flon was difficult due to these environmental barriers.
The houses and businesses were built amid the hills and bedrock, and workers realized afterward that a sewage system was needed. It was impossible to blast their way through the whole town to bury a system underneath, so workers built the sewage box on top of the rocks and dragged houses into line with large trucks. They built a wooden casing to cover the pipes, running through town in a snake-like pattern.
Flin Flon is the only city in the world to have their sewage and water lines above the ground due to the impenetrable rock. The casing of the lines worked out to be great sidewalks for Flin Flonners in the 1930s. The boxes were stuffed with wood shavings from the mine to prevent freezing.
Taking a chance to build a life in an isolated northern area couldn’t have been easy, but people made the most out of what they were given.
During the Great Depression, millions of Canadians were left unemployed and often homeless due to market crashes and drops in demand. People were happy with any job they could get, so they gladly went to Flin Flon. The mine offered a steady income, consistent work, and houses for the employees and their families.
World War II
The Great Depression ended around the time the Second World War began. Over one million Canadians joined the military, and women took over jobs at the Flin Flon mine to help account for the 1,380 men leaving Flin Flon to go to war. Two of every five of Hudbay’s employees were women, and they took up roles in the zinc plant. machine shop, casting plant, environment lab, and other areas.
Hudbay created a subsidiary company called Emergency Metals Ltd., which built a mill and concentrator onsite to ship extra production to the United States. Large quantities of metal were required to supply wartime efforts. Hudbay built 50 new homes under the National Housing Act for returning veterans at the war’s end.
Hudbay also held a Welcome Home Parade at Phantom Lake for the veterans, where 11,000 hotdogs were served to the veterans and their families. Children enjoyed the 3,200 free ice cream cones, relay races, and played on the merry-go-round.
The baby boom came soon after.
Since 1927, the mining industry and safety measures have changed drastically. Workers had little to no safety equipment and used less efficient machines than the industry has today. Back then, miners would drill holes, fill them with explosives, and use horses to carry the ore from where it was mined underground to the surface. Although exact fatality and injury statistics haven’t been made public in Canada as a whole, there have been several recorded accidents throughout history.
Today, workers can operate machines remotely from the surface if a job is deemed too high-risk. Horses were replaced with large trucks to carry ore, and many more regulations were implemented for workers’ safety. Unfortunately, many fatal accidents occurred before procedures were adjusted accordingly. Even with improved safety measures, mining remains a high-risk job. In June 2021, a worker at a Hudbay mine near Flin Flon died in an underground accident.
Canada had its worst mining disaster in 1914 at the Hillcrest Mine in Alberta. A pocket of methane gas ignited, which caused an explosion, killing 189 out of 235 coal miners. Ensuring proper airflow underground is essential to dilute any trapped gasses and prevent explosions. In Hillcrest’s case, around 400 children were left fatherless, and widows were left to support their families alone.
After this incident, Workers Compensation Board changed to a no-fault system, and trained mine rescue teams were implemented on every site. World War I broke out nine days after the disaster, so many Canadians don’t know about the incident.
Although sites are now heavily regulated, mining is still considered one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. From 1976-1993, there were over 2,000 casualties in the mining industry across Canada. According to the CDC, fatalities in the states have dropped about 42 per cent since 1984. This is largely due to learning from previous mistakes, holding mandatory safety meetings, and performing extensive safety checks on all machines and equipment.
At Hudbay, routine shutdowns occur to check, repair, and clean equipment. Workers ensure all equipment is turned off and enough time is allotted for the machines to cool down. However, workers’ safety is not guaranteed.
Anne (name changed to protect identity) lost her finger working in the mill due to a coworker’s mistake. She was hooking a winch to move heavy material during a routine procedure. Her co-worker didn’t wait for her signal and began operating the winch, and her finger was immediately crushed.
“My instinct was to rip my hand from the machine, and then I stared in awe, wondering why my glove was stuck in there,” she said.
“That’s when I realized that my finger was missing, and nobody was around. I finally found a radio and called for help.”
When the accident occurred, Anne hadn’t planned on working at the mine for long. She was saving up for college. She received money through workers’ compensation, and the mine held a safety meeting to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future.
In August 2000, one of the worst accidents at the Flin Flon mine occurred, killing one man and injuring 13 others. The role of the smelter was to melt copper and gold into bars through large furnaces that reach temperatures above 1,000 degrees. During a procedure shutdown, the workers were instructed to pour water over the furnaces to cool them down faster. Once the cool water mixed with the molten metal, a massive explosion of steam and bricks blew through the smokestack.
With the escape latch locked, workers had nowhere to run, and people were burned and disfigured. Employees were left puzzled because the company hadn’t used water to speed up the cooling process for years, and then the procedure changed inexplicably in 1997. Ultimately, Hudbay paid a fine of $150,000 for not being diligent in providing a safe workplace. In 2011, Hudbay permanently closed the smelter after 80 years of operations, resulting in almost 300 jobs lost.
After introducing new air regulations, Hudbay realized they had to shut down the smelter sooner rather than later. Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting (HBM&S) became Hudbay Minerals Inc. after a new requirement to cut sulphur dioxide emissions by 25 per cent. This was a huge change for everyone in Flin Flon who was used to seeing smoke plummet out of the stack daily, leaving a chalky taste in their mouths.
In 1974, this smokestack was built to replace two shorter ones due to pollution concerns. Reaching up to 825 feet, it became Canada’s third-largest free-standing structure. Before when the stalks were shorter, people used to walk around with bandanas wrapped around their mouths to avoid coughing. Although the stack was much taller and lessened breathing problems, it was still bothersome. The intense smell of smoke varied, and some days were worse than others. The smoke polluted the air with metals such as mercury, lead, and arsenic, which can cause damage to the central nervous system, cancer, skin lesions, and breathing problems.
Mercury does not degrade in the environment and can travel long distances by air. Arsenic inhibits photosynthesis and contaminates groundwater, and lead has similar effects, also causing neurological effects in animals.
Ross Lake, located in the middle of town, also became a dumping ground for the mine’s waste and sewage. Eventually, people could barely leave their houses without instantly smelling the polluted lake.
Andrew (name changed to protect his identity) worked at the cellhouse in Hudbay in 2019, a place that turns zinc into usable metal through an acid process. The acid exits out of the top of the building with a smoke-like appearance and is supposed to be diluted so it doesn’t harm the environment.
“I tested the acid levels as a part of a routine procedure, but sometimes the levels were over the allowed environmental limit,” said Andrew.
“I was told to write lower numbers because the auditors would shut down the building otherwise.”
The cost to implement a better dilution system would cost the company millions of dollars, and since workers were expected to transition to Snow Lake within the next few years, the people who knew kept quiet. Andrew was told that the reality is that hundreds of people would be out of jobs if it shut down too soon, so the priority was profit over the environment.
Manitoba Conservation performed a surface soil study in 2007 that detected high levels of arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, selenium, and thallium. Much of the pollution was from the smelter and freshwater run-off from the tailings pond. Year after year, many people also used the lake as a way to discard unwanted items, including cars and refrigerators. Although a beautifully made boardwalk surrounds the lake, it’s not as pleasant to walk on due to the smell, especially on windy days.
Flin Flonners have discussed repairing the lake over the years and held meetings over what it would take to return it to health. Similar ideas were explored in the past when Flin Flon schools had children spreading limestone to help grow back trees. The smelter made it difficult for trees to grow.
Keeping contaminants contained is not easy, as all parts of the Earth are connected and feed off one another. Although all mining operations in Flin Flon have ceased, Hudbay estimates they will still be cleaning up Flin Flon in the year 2100 and beyond.
Mine Restoration Process
Demolition is a significant historical point for Flin Flon, and it’s already begun. After 70 years as one of the most prominent landmarks in the area, the Flin Flon water tower was torn down in October 2022. Although it hadn’t been used since 2010, the sky is rather empty for Flin Flonners now.
Mining companies have an obligation to plan for closure before beginning operations, and they must prove they have appropriate funding to do so. This means that even though the mine isn’t running in Flin Flon, employees in the environment department will be regularly testing and guarding the site for many years to come. Hudbay is required to tear down the large facilities, smokestack, and other infrastructure.
The tailings pond, a large land area where the waste is stored, must also be returned to its original state. It stores over 100 million tonnes of material waste. Originally, the tailings were dumped into the Flin Flon Lake before the company built several containment dams broken into a series of polishing and clarifications ponds to hold the waste.
Certain areas of the town were becoming contaminated due to the wind blowing the waste into the area, so workers would spread material like straw or chemical dust suppressants across the land to weigh it down.
Restoring all the mine sites in Flin Flon, including the tailings pond, will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. A large portion will be spent on demolition and water management, but another large amount needs to be allocated for when the Lalor mine, also owned by Hudbay and located two-and-a-half hours away in Snow Lake, MB, ceases operations.
Based on current resources, Lalor mine is expected to shut down in 2037.
For years, rumours of the company shutting down mines in Flin Flon came and went like seasons. Many hopeful employees and residents still speculate that Hudbay will find more mining resources in the area, just like they did in the past.
It wasn’t until September 2022 that the company officially announced its closure plan, laying off approximately 280 workers. The remaining employees were offered jobs at the Lalor mine and the New Britannia gold processing plant in Snow Lake. Hudbay accommodates this commute as best as possible by offering workers schedules like seven days on and seven days off, but the change is hard on families.
Peter (name changed to protect identity) works a four-on-four-off schedule and has a wife and child living in Flin Flon.
“I don’t mind the schedule, but driving two-and-a-half hours there and back is boring. Hudbay doesn’t compensate for our gas, but I don’t mind the work I’m doing in Snow Lake,” said Peter.
“I used to really enjoy walking to work every day in Flin Flon, so that’s probably the biggest change for me. My wife has had to change her schedule to be a single parent while I’m gone, so that’s definitely hard on her.”
Even if lack of resources wasn’t an issue, building a life in a mining town always poses a risk. If the economy plummets and the mine isn’t meeting profit standards, then there’s a chance of abandonment sooner than expected.
Kitsault, a town in British Columbia, was abandoned in 1983 after the price of silvery-white metal crashed. Like Flin Flon, prospectors brought in a ton of money and quickly built a town to house all the residents. Only two years after construction was complete, people had no choice but to leave their homes and look for work elsewhere.
Due to the unexpected nature of the mining industry, Hudbay has always reminded employees not to rely on forward-looking information. Although ceasing operations isn’t unprecedented, it has still shocked workers.
Snow Lake is much smaller than Flin Flon, with a population of approximately 900. The idea that the Snow Lake operations could shut down in approximately 15 years has people already looking elsewhere.
It is not common for a town like Kitsault to be built around a mine anymore; most mines are located hours away from the nearest residence. Unless another industry develops, such as tourism, there is no driving force for the economy or community support.
Strikes and Disputes
Hudbay’s employees went on strike in 1934, 1971, and 2015, demanding they be paid properly for their work. In the end, Hudbay always compromised, offering more incentives to keep workers on the job.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the reality in countries outside of Canada. Many Canadian companies, like Hudbay, that own mines in other countries like Guatemala have had multiple lawsuits against them for alleged abuses and mistreatment.
These scenarios can be compared to the Canadian government interference, where colonizers killed, evicted Indigenous groups, and destroyed the land around them for profit.
This hard truth is this is still happening today despite the many strikes and pleas.
A Different Life
Much like when Flin Flon started, nobody knew exactly what the future held. However, now that resources have run out and people are slowly migrating to find work elsewhere, the future is more uncertain now than ever. In past years, many people never believed Hudbay’s estimated closure date, and some Flin Flonners are still hopeful they’ll find more ore in the area.
It’s unknown if or when Hudbay will find more resources, and the people of Flin Flon must adapt.
Flin Flonners have done well to distinguish themselves from the company by building large art, hockey, music, and tourism industries that carry on today. With Flin Flon, Creighton, and the many other reservations and surrounding communities, it’s hard to determine whether Flin Flon will be a ghost town in the future or not.
It will depend entirely on a new kind of resiliency, one without assurance, similar to when prospectors and workers first started Flin Flon.
Because Flin Flon is isolated and six hours away from the nearest city, people are used to adapting with few resources. Medical appointments take longer, travelling long distances for necessities is second nature, and when Flin Flon wants something, the people have had to get creative and work together to achieve it.
Now with the mine closed, Flin Flonners will have to adapt again and find new ways to live in a place that is no longer a “company town.”