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Snow Lake's got its groove back

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SNOW LAKE -- Businesses are roaring with transactions unimaginable just a couple of years ago. Once-quiet streets buzz with ever-increasing traffic. Apartment blocks are jam-packed and homeowners are renting out spare rooms.

As it prepares to welcome one of Manitoba's largest mines, with other smaller mineral projects anticipated, Snow Lake exemplifies a boom town.

But amid all the hype and excitement lingers a question: After years of decline and stagnation, will Snow Lake grow or merely become a transient worksite?

Carved out of wilderness about 200 road kilometres northeast of Flin Flon, Snow Lake is a tight-knit community of nearly 1,000. Its inhabitants know as well as anyone the fiercely cyclical nature of mining. The population has see-sawed as new mines open and old ones dry up.

Now times they are a-changin'.

The largest of Snow Lake's mineral projects is the Lalor mine owned by HudBay Minerals. Construction at the site is progressing at a breakneck pace, with pre-production to start in 2012 and full production in 2014.

At its peak, Lalor is expected to employ about 350 people, though the number of new jobs will be more like 250. That's because employees from HudBay's only active mine in Snow Lake, Chisel North, will shift over to Lalor once their fast-depleting mine is shuttered.

The assumption is all or most of the remaining Lalor labour force will consist of workers displaced from HudBay's shrinking base in Flin Flon. But there would appear to be just as much potential for workers to make the commute from Thompson, The Pas and Cranberry Portage, assuming Lalor operates on a schedule of so many days in, so many days out.

Moreover, David Harper, Grand Chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, wants to ensure the vast underemployed aboriginal population of northern Manitoba benefits from Lalor.

HudBay is willing to listen to what he has to say, having invited Harper to help detonate the ceremonial "first blast" at Lalor in October 2010.

Lalor may be the focal point, but it is not the only promising Snow Lake-area project in the works. Junior miner Alexis Minerals Corp. has been talking about restarting the town's idle gold mine, and HudBay is a partner in another deposit in the area, Reed Lake.

Even toxic tailings left over from the defunct gold mine present an opportunity, as BacTech Mining Corp. prepares to build a bioleaching plant that will neutralize the mine waste while extracting the valuable gold still trapped inside.

Several other junior miners are active in the area, though it is an open question as to how many of their projects will materialize. Despite all of the technology at a geologist's disposal, mineral exploration remains something of a crapshoot.

At this point, even with Lalor not yet in production, Snow Lake is a different community.

"There certainly are a lot more unfamiliar faces," says Marc Jackson, a longtime resident and publisher of the town newspaper.

Jackson notes there aren't many new families, however, just loads of contractors working for a multitude of companies, mostly at the Lalor site.

"Most businesses within the town have seen a positive effect from the influx, as have the curling and hockey rinks," he says.

When word of Lalor first surfaced in 2007, speculation was it would operate as a mining camp, similar to the fly-in gold mines of the northernmost points of Canada. Since then, HudBay has made it clear they are not in the camp business and its preference is for Lalor employees to live in Snow Lake.

Jackson believes many workers who initially commute to Snow Lake will find it difficult to maintain two residences and, just as importantly, become enamoured with the town.

"Snow Lake is a safe, secure and beautiful little community," he says. "I personally don't think it will be long before most who come to work at Lalor realize this."

Of course, with growth comes consequences. If Snow Lake swells by a few hundred or thousand people, newcomers would no doubt face the same sort of exorbitant rents and housing prices that plague the boom towns of Alberta.

Even if Snow Lake's population remains more or less stable, there are still concerns. How do you foster a sense of community when so many of your residents are part-time?

But Jackson, who has called Snow Lake home for 41 years, is not one to view the future through grim-coloured glasses.

"We have had two decades of uncertainty in Snow Lake," he says. "To know that we not only have a future, but that it will also take us 20 to 30 years down the road, is looked upon by many as a blessing."

 

Jonathon Naylor is editor of the Reminder newspaper in Flin Flon.

jonathon_naylor@hotmail.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 1, 2011 A12

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