MEMOIR. Draft Prologue. When Gold Was Worth $37 An Ounce.

Come to Val d’Or for your first million.*My father went to the golden valley because of gold, but I don’t think he thought it would lead to his first million. I'm quite sure he never reached a million. But it was certainly because of the gold that he, a mechanical engineer, was hired by Sigma Mines to design the hoist and to oversee the technical aspects of its operation. It was the first home of my parents who were married in 1935, the same year they moved into a company house built for the first residents at that mine in northwestern Quebec. Here they lived for thirty years and this is the town where they raised three children.

The impact of this town, and others like it across the north in that era, was to create a tribe of northerners, something that remains in one’s blood for a lifetime. Yet other factors and themes are the basis of whatever myths sustained our family. Myths that are likely at the very root of what created the life trajectories of each of the three children, my two younger siblings and me. Each of us might answer differently the question of how and why we’ve followed particular paths, yet there would be some commonalities drawn from the themes of the isolation of a mining camp in those days — the sound of the whistle at the mine as well as the blasting underground, the French language surrounding us, the family silver, the focus on reading in our lives, the English dictionary, the fireplace. Or could it have been mainly the experience of our father going to war that formed us? Was it his focus on overseas as well as on ancestors and family trees? Perhaps it was our father’s alcoholism. And our mother’s joy in good company, good food and dancing.

I knew early and only too well the impact of the alcoholism, but I wasn’t aware of the importance of most of these other themes except as underlying refrains. And even underlying that perhaps it was after all the gold that had the greatest impact on all of us. The gold about which we knew so much more than we were even aware of knowing. For we children of the company houses all knew the price of it. $37 an ounce. We knew that it was melted in a hot furnace and poured out in a liquid stream into rectangular pans to create gold bars that were then hidden away somewhere none of us knew about. We knew it was because of it the miners went underground to that dark place where only men were allowed to hack and dig into the rock, looking for it. We knew these things, but we ignored them as we played games, went to school, made friends who came and went in our lives when their fathers moved from one mine to ours and then away again.

Some of the men probably did make their first million in the frontier era of the gold mines. Probably not by mining. More likely on the stock market or by high-grading. There were always men who brought out bits of gold from underground, hidden in their mouths, in their clothing, in their lunch buckets. High grade gold it was called because it was of the highest grade and consequently the most valuable. And there were ways of selling this stolen gold down the line through mob contacts in places as far away as Montreal, Buffalo and New York City. Like so many things children know, this was something we overheard the adults talk about. We knew who was suspected of high grading and who had put money into the stock of some penny mine that had gone into production and created wealth for owners off in some city, but also for them as a result of that.

I don’t know about my father’s success on the stock market, but he did invest in some of the larger gold producers. He tended to his finances, but in reality he left most of that to my mother. It was his job to draft and design and to go underground to check on how the equipment worked down there. And in 1942, after his third child was born, he went off to join the army. I do know that he was proud of his family, particularly of his antecedents. And it was my father who showed us family trees and how to read the hallmarks on silver. 

Most of this held no interest for me, or only peripheral interest. Except, I suppose, for the gold that was not possible to ignore. Until I went to a writing studio in Banff in 1992 long after my father died and discovered a story there about someone known to us as our maternal grandmother’s Uncle Billy. Of course, we had been told this story but never in as vivid a form as I found it there in a manuscript in the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.

As children we had only known this ancestor of my mother’s as Uncle Billy and the story told about him was that he had discovered the Banff Springs. Like gold, another discovery of something of the earth. But it was more than that that struck me as I read from his manuscript. It was in those moments, sitting quietly with his huge, unpublished material that I began to realize ways in which all the different branches of our family had a role in the creation of our country. From the grandfather who worked in gold mines in South Africa before emigrating to the gold mines of northern Ontario. From the discoveries of Uncle Billy in western Canada of the hot springs and apparently also of oil. From the ancestor who settled on the banks of the St. Lawrence, who was the first settler in Canada. And it was at Banff I realized I wanted to explore more the small role of the nuclear family to which I belong in this wider picture. And these themes began to resonate as I delved into my own life and history, tying it to that of a family and a country.

Everyone has their own story, of course, and every Canadian’s story is part of the larger whole that is our country. I just hadn’t thought of it that way before going to Banff and it is because of that discovery that I began to write this memoir.

*“Dans son rapport annuel de 1934, le Service des mines du Quebec rapporte que ‘la ville connue sous le nom de Val-d’Or, située sur les lots 61 et 62 du canton de Dubuisson, et sur le bloc 14 du canton de Bourlamaque, a déja une population considerable.’
A l’été1944, un vaste panneau apparait a l’angle de la 3e Avenue et de l’Avenue Centrale.
On peut y lire:
‘Val d’Or , Québec.
La croissance de population la plus rapide au monde
1934, population: 5 prospecteurs
1944, 7,500 personne prospères.
Une augmentation de 1,500 %
Venez a Val d’Or, pour votre premier million.’”
(*Société  d'histoire de Val-d'Or)

Posted on October 29, 2011 .