Understanding Red Lake

Snow is on the ground, and the temperature continues to drop. One thing I've noticed about the weather here is that there always seems to be little flurries flying through the air, keeping a pristine layer of snow covering the ground, but there is never much accumulation. It's a lovely thing to look out your window and see while you're snuggled in a blanket with a cup of green chai tea.

Recently I did an interview with a former Red Lake resident turned Toronto filmmaker about his documentary on Red Lake entitled A Rock and a Hardplace. Cliff returned to Red Lake in 2010 after hearing that a mining company was doing feasibility testing for an open pit mine right in the heart of Balmertown, one of the small sub-communities of Red Lake, where he grew up. This would mean that all of the residents in that area would have to relocate. 

There are tons of documentaries out there that focus on the political and environmental impacts of mining, but what Cliff created is a documentary about the social and cultural impacts of living in a town that would not exist if the mines were not here. One day Red Lake could very well be a ghost town like the ones I've driven by in Nevada. Though the open pit mine plans never went anywhere, the film morphed into a riveting portrait of the community.

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The documentary follows the production of gold from 7,000 feet underground all the way to the surface, but focuses on giving a voice to the people who call this place home. What happens to a community whose survival depends on the boom and bust cycles of mining?

Through my job I've had the opportunity to speak with people who have seen Red Lake through its ups and downs as a mining community. Every day I meet people who have lived such different lives than my own. 

Last month I sat in the pastel-coloured home of a spunky woman named Florence who was celebrating her 100th birthday and 70 years of living in Red Lake. She moved to Red Lake in 1945 when there was no highway to get here and almost no one had a car. She told me her first memory of Red Lake was seeing women trudge through the mud in rubber boots (which she vowed not to wear, but eventually succumbed). She remembers going outside with her husband to collect snow to melt down into water because there was no indoor plumbing. She remembers how thrilled she was when they actually got indoor plumbing.

The other day the mayor said to me, "Back in the day, we used to shit outside and smoke inside." Yes, the mayor said that. He is a pretty cool guy. 

On more than one occasion, I've sat in a booth at The Lakeview--a historic diner that makes you feel like you've stepped back in time--and listened as the unofficial men's club talks about the state of things in present day Red Lake: the vacant buildings, the fly-in-fly-out mine workers living in camps, and the relationship with the First Nation tribes--our neighbours to the north.

They talk about the way things used to be, too. About the days when the downtown was bustling, housing was affordable, and the price of gold was a dream. There is a dogged determination among these men to see Red Lake into the future, mining be damned. 

The conversation had by the younger generation of Red Lake is much different. For most of the people I've met, Red Lake is a temporary stop on their career path as a geologist or engineer. It's a springboard. 

After being here over four months, I'm still wrapping my head around the way of life here. Last night we went out to a bar/restaurant down the street, and I think I was one of five women in the entire packed place. The tables were filled with men in neon yellow and orange gear, the tell-tale sign of a mine worker, and boots. These are mostly guys who work 12 hour shifts for 15 days, or some variation of that, then fly home to their family and their real home. 

I don't quite know how to describe the tone of the town. It's a culture of miners, anglers and hunters. Of people who complain about the harsh winters, but survive them proudly. If I don't have a book in me after living here for a few years, I don't think I ever will.