A worker poses beside a heavy truck at the Gunnar Mines site in Northern Saskatchewan in the 1950s.

A worker poses beside a heavy truck at the Gunnar Mines site in Northern Saskatchewan in the 1950s.

Story of a forgotten town

South Surrey author Patricia Sandberg pens a missing chapter of Canadian history with her portrait of the mining community of Gunnar

South Surrey writer Patricia Sandberg admits she has mining in her blood – although she claims her former career as a securities lawyer for mining companies came about more as a matter of accident, than design.

The fact remains that both her grandfather, Fred, and father Jack, were both deeply involved in the construction end of the mining industry and had an extended working relationship with 20th century Canadian prospector and mining pioneer Gilbert LaBine, first president of Eldorado Mining and Refining from the late 1920s until 1947.

The uranium boom of the late 1940s led LaBine to discover deposits of the metal on the shores of Lake Athabaska in Northern Saskatchewan. In the early 1950s he established Gunnar Mines there – and the company town that was built around it.

And that’s where Sandberg grandparents and parents – and Sandberg herself – moved in 1954, and stayed for some 10 years until mining operations, and the town, wound down in 1964.

It’s a connection that makes Sandberg particularly suited to write the story of the short-lived, yet vital community.

And her forthcoming book, Sun Dogs and Yellowcake, supplies not only a missing, and particularly Canadian, chapter of history, but celebrates and memorializes a vanished way of life.

Set for publication early next month, the book will have its official launch Sept. 14 at 7 p.m. at the Turnbull Gallery, 14601 20 Ave. (in the South Surrey Recreation and Arts Centre).

Sandberg explains that the ‘sun dogs’ referred to in the title are optical illusions in the northern atmosphere that create multiple mirror images of the sun on the horizon, while ‘yellowcake’ is uranium in its purest, refined powder form.

Sandberg is keenly aware of some of the ironies of the account she has woven – much of it told in the words of some 150 former Gunnar residents she interviewed.

The huge dollar value of uranium and the resulting rush to prospect for it in Canada’s north was the subject of great excitement and even humour during the era – Sandberg noted that a whole show by radio and television comedian Jack Benny was built around his miserly desire to get in on the boom.

At the same time little thought was given to the fact that uranium was being produced and stockpiled for only one real reason – to build the U.S.’ arsenal of nuclear weapons.

The close-knit community of Gunnar was almost the quintessential 1950s crew-cut and bobby-sox environment  – a mixture of post-war exuberance and naive innocence – transplanted to a remote and rugged region not reachable by roads, and four hours by air to the nearest exit point, Edmonton, Alta.

There was no television reception, but there were movies in the community centre that also served as a church for different services each Sunday, and curling was a daily activity during the winter.

The town had its own volunteer radio station, a Hudson’s Bay store, a bank, modern houses and two apartment buildings – and what may have been the first covered mall in North America, Sandberg said.

And while a two-room school provided adequate education for the children (“I didn’t do too badly by it,” Sandberg said) they also had an unparalleled freedom to explore the wilds.

Environmental regulations didn’t exist and nobody considered the health aspects of ongoing exposure to uranium to workers and families, Sandberg said, adding that souvenir lamps made of uranium ‘drill core’ sat in many Gunnar living rooms, along with coffee-table mementos of the first production in 1955 that included plastic-covered inserts of genuine yellowcake.

“We were all exposed to uranium in so many ways. All the kids were playing in the tailings ponds. The tailing ponds were located above the residences of the managers and the hospital. Nobody thought there was any chance of harm.”

But – while suspicions still linger among past Gunnar residents that some miners’ lives were shortened by exposure to the metal – the book is not fashioned as an indictment, Sandberg said.

More, it is an attempt to recapture the atmosphere of a lively community that, at any one time, included between 800 and 900 people, from miners, engineers and construction workers, to teachers, clerical workers, nurses and teachers, and their families.

“Many people who came to the community were refugees, from Germany, Italy, Scotland and Ireland and later on Hungary – a huge mix of different people and a relatively small group of Metis and First Nations, and they all seemed to get along.

“There were exceptions but the sense of community that little town had was kind of remarkable. When I was phoning up people I knew from more than 50 years ago, almost to a person they said it was the best place they ever lived.”

Sandberg said the original inspiration of the book was a desire to get down on paper some of the Gunnar-era stories of her mother, Barbara (“she’s still very much with us and has a far better memory than I ever had or will have.”)

Serendipitously, it expanded as more and more people volunteered memories and help.

“It all kind of fell into place,” Sandberg said, adding that what was originally intended as a story of the town’s residents grew naturally to include background history of the mining industry – and a postscript tracing the current Saskatchewan government’s efforts to remedy the environmental effects of the abandoned Gunnar mine and community.

“I think this is a really important mining story,” she said, adding that an understanding of the role of mining is vital to understanding Canadian history.

“Whether you like uranium or not, we need to celebrate Canada’s mining and what Gilbert LaBine and many other prospectors did, and the ingenuity, daring and foresight they brought to the endeavour.”

For more information of Sun Dogs and Yellowcake, visit www.PatriciaSandberg.com

 

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Family and friends of Hudson Brooks marched as part of a call for answers from an IIO investigation into his 2015 death. (Black Press Media files)
Inquest to look into RCMP shooting death of Hudson Brooks

Charges agains the RCMP officer who shot Brooks were stayed in 2019

A little brown bat, which has become endangered due to white-nose syndrome. (Greg Michalowski photo)
Bat sightings on Semiahmoo Peninsula spark worries of white-nose syndrome

Fungal disease is deadly for local bat populations: BC Community Bat Program

The old Rickshaw sign today, with the former restaurant location in the building behind it. (Photo: Tom Zillich)
SURREY NOW & THEN: Rickshaw sign stands as a reminder of Jung family’s restaurant days

A weekly look back at Surrey-area landmark sites and events

Mike LeSage. (submitted photo)
LeSage to head Community Policing Bureau of new Surrey police force

Second of three Deputy Chief Constables to be hired by fledgling force

White Rock Evergreen Baptist Society had 46 COVID-19 cases as of Jan. 13, according to a recent report released by the province. (Peace Arch News photo)
White Rock care home’s COVID-19 cases jump 50 per cent in a week: report

Three White Rock/South Surrey care facilities among B.C. sites with active outbreaks

An animated Gordie Hogg introduces his 'Community Connections' videos. (YouTube screenshot)
Community Connections: Gordie Hogg speaks with Scott Ackles

Former mayor, MP began posting conversations on YouTube in June

Powell River-Sunshine Coast MLA Nicholas Simons was appointed to the NDP cabinet as minister of social development and poverty reduction after the October 2020 B.C. election. (Hansard TV)
B.C. job training fund increased for developmentally disabled

COVID-19 has affected 1,100 ‘precariously employed’ people

B.C. driver’s licence and identity cards incorporate medical services, but the passport option for land crossings is being phased out. (B.C. government)
B.C. abandons border ID cards built into driver’s licence

$35 option costing ICBC millions as demand dwindles

BC Emergency Health Services has deployed the Major Incident Response Team (MIRRT) as COVID-19 positive cases rise in the Williams Lake region. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
B.C.’s rapid response paramedics deployed to Williams Lake as COVID-19 cases climb

BC Emergency Health Services has sent a Major Incident Rapid Response Team to the lakecity

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

(Phil McLachlan - Black Press Media)
RCMP say ice climber seriously injured after reportedly falling 12 metres near Abraham Lake

Police say man’s injuries were serious but not life-threatening

The RCMP was called to a condo complex in Langley City in the early hours of Jan. 18, 2021, for a shooting. (Shane Mackichan/Special to the Langley Advance Times)
27-year-old taken to hospital after overnight targeted shooting in Langley

RCMP have not confirmed the incident is link to the Lower Mainland gang conflict

U.S. military units march in front of the Capitol, Monday, Jan. 18, 2021 in Washington, as they rehearse for President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony, which will be held at the Capitol on Wednesday. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Biden aims for unifying speech at daunting moment for U.S.

President Donald Trump won’t be there to hear it

Williams Lake physician Dr. Ivan Scrooby and medical graduate student Vionarica Gusti hold up the COSMIC Bubble Helmet. Both are part of the non-profit organization COSMIC Medical which has come together to develop devices for treating patients with COVID-19. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
Group of B.C. doctors, engineers developing ‘bubble helmet’ for COVID-19 patients

The helmet could support several patients at once, says the group

Most Read