ArtsWells Festival

Between a rock and an arts place: can a B.C. town survive another gold rush?

Wells, B.C., was built around gold mining, but a proposed project has the community debating the pros and cons of a return to its foundations

On a brisk December day, Judy Campbell walks down Pooley Street in Wells, B.C., a tiny community 80 kilometres east of Quesnel on Highway 26. Cold snow squeaks underfoot and the snow banks are piling high. Campbell turns left and opens the door to the education and cultural centre, Island Mountain Arts. A rush of warm air flushes her face.

The town of Wells and the surrounding region have gone through multiple transformations since miners and prospectors first moved in, more than 150 years ago.

In 1862, William “Billy” Barker struck paydirt on Williams Creek. The gold strike triggered the Cariboo Gold Rush and the town of Barkerville sprung from the wilderness. Sixty-five years later, miner and prospector Fred Wells started the Cariboo Gold Quartz Mining Co. in his namesake town, seven kilometres away.

By the early 1940s the population had ballooned, peaking at around 4,500, according to the Wells Historical Society. The town grew around the mine. The bars were hopping, hotels thrived. When the mine closed for good in 1967, jobs went with it. The vacuum left behind would be slowly filled with creatives like Campbell and others seeking affordable small-town life. 

Campbell and her then-husband arrived in Wells six years after the last gold bar was poured at the long-running Cariboo Gold Quartz mine. It was a -20 C winter day but the locals were kind and welcoming, and you could rent a cabin for $20 a month. Campbell embraced Wells. Four years after arriving in town she helped launch Island Mountain Arts, a centre for education in the arts that would put this remote town in the Cariboo Mountain foothills on the map. From the centre grew ArtsWells, a popular summertime festival.

During her time in this community of just over 200 people, Campbell has been CEO of Barkerville Historic Town and Park and served on the District of Wells council for 16 years. Not much ruffles her feathers. However, the Cariboo Gold Project, an underground gold mine being proposed by Montreal-based Osisko Development Corporation, has her fearing for the future of the town she loves.   

Mining around here isn’t exactly a shocker. The landscape between Wells and Barkerville bears the historic scars of gold dredging and placer mining. 

Wells, B.C.
The town of Wells, B.C., is a major tourist draw for both its artsy community, mining history and natural surroundings. Photo: Government of British Columbia / Flickr

But Wells has changed; tourism and the arts are as important as resource extraction, despite the fact that a lot of local tourism has been built on the lore and legends of gold mining. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, 65,000 tourists a year visited Barkerville, now a historic mining town with no permanent residents, injecting $11 million into the regional economy. Thousands more come to Wells for the ArtsWells festival or to explore Bowron Lake Provincial Park and other local attractions. But gold fever is not just a thing of the past. Many miners live in Wells and work at Osisko’s existing gold mine, Bonanza Ledge, an old claim on Barkerville Mountain overlooking the town. Osisko has been mining there since 2016 under its subsidiary Barkerville Gold Mines. And despite being a relatively small mine, it’s a major employer in the area. According to Osisko’s December newsletter, 192 people work at the mine, and it employs another 119 contractors. 

Now Osisko wants to go big and is pushing for a third gold rush with its proposed Cariboo Gold Project. The mine, which according to the company’s project description would cost an estimated $400 to $450 million to build, employ 460 people and operate for roughly 16 years within the municipal boundaries, has got people talking once again about how a town and a hard rock mine can live together.

Mine development plays into local politics

Since it took over mining at Bonanza Ledge, Osisko has firmly established its presence in Wells and among local First Nations. In many ways, it’s been a good neighbour. 

In October 2020, the company signed a life of project agreement with the Lhtako Dené Nation, the main titleholder in the region, that provides “economic benefits, business, education and training opportunities,” Alex Callahan, spokesperson for Osisko, wrote in an emailed statement to The Narwhal. Chief Clifford Lebrun of the Lhtako Dené Nation worked closely with Osisko on its application to expand mining at Bonanza Ledge. 

In a statement released last October by the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation, Lebrun was quoted as saying the partnership proved First Nations and industry “can work together in a good way.” Lebrun did not respond to interview requests from The Narwhal.

According to Callahan, discussions about the Cariboo Gold Project are ongoing with the Lhtako Dené, Williams Lake First Nation and the Xatśūll First Nation, all three of which have territories overlapping or adjacent to the proposed project.

Osisko is also supporting the community of Wells with a number of financial contributions. In 2021, the company donated $500,000 to the Barkerville Historic Trust, which operates the historic town and park that draws in so many visitors each year. Osisko also lent financial support to the District of Wells as it updates its official community plan. 

“Osisko graciously donated $100,000 towards the [planning] process,” Donna Forseille, chief administrative officer for Wells, tells The Narwhal in an interview.

Judy Campbell has another way of putting it.

“They’re throwing money at us left, right and centre,” she says.

She admits the funds are welcome in a small town like Wells, but at the same time it complicates the community’s relationship with Osisko. The last six months have been tumultuous for Wells residents. Big industrial developments tend to stir up passions, for and against. These passions led to the resignation of the town’s one-term mayor in November, amid accusations about a conflict of interest because he worked as a machine operator at the existing mine. Three councillors resigned shortly after.

Gold nuggets in a pan; Cariboo Gold Rush
Gold-panning is one of the ways prospectors tapped the local resources around Wells and Barkerville, B.C. during the Cariboo Gold Rush of the mid-1800s. Photo: Richard Wright

Wells’ new mayor, Ed Coleman, was elected on Feb. 5. He’s an out-of-towner from Quesnel with deep ties to gold country, having worked for seven years as CEO of Barkerville Historic Trust. It was a landslide victory in small-town terms; Coleman took 89 votes, more than tripling those cast for his rival. Coleman plans to remain in Quesnel and commute to Wells for council meetings. In a phone interview with The Narwhal, Coleman rated the Cariboo Gold Project a “seven out of 10.” He has concerns about the exact location of mine infrastructure but believes the company is being receptive to public feedback.

“Osisko has had a community office in Wells since 2015, and the president has a home here. He’s been very accessible to the community,” Coleman says. “You’re going to get a strong reaction to any industrial development but I think COVID-19 has made the communication piece a little difficult.”

Coleman says the promise of upgrades to power, water and sewer infrastructure, which is part of Cariboo Gold’s pitch, could be a boon for the small cash-strapped community.  

More than 1,600 technical concerns raised through environmental assessment

Judy Campbell says Osisko has done a lot of things right. 

“In a lot of ways they’re pleasant to deal with,” Campbell says. “But nowhere in their application do they really paint a picture of what a day in the life of Wells would be like when the mine is open.”

One of the first things visitors to Wells would see is a mine site services building a few minutes walk from the visitors centre at Jack of Clubs Lake, a two-kilometre long lake surrounded by forest on the west side of Wells. That’s where ore would be crushed in a concentrator, sorted and stored while a steady stream of trucks hauls the concentrate 110 kilometres from the mine to the Quesnel River Mill. There, Osisko will produce gold bars and store mine tailings above the banks of the Quesnel River. At the same time trucks carrying waste rock would be constantly shuttling to and from the mine services building. A new transmission line to power the facility would cut a 70-kilometre swath through the forest. Taken together, it’s an industrial footprint that will have an impact on small town life in Wells, good and bad.

Map of proposed Cariboo Gold mine site
A map of of the proposed Cariboo Gold mine site and related infrastructure. Map: Osisko

Last July, Osisko submitted its application to the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office, triggering a 180-day review process. With the public comment period closed, the environmental assessment office published a notice earlier this year that Osisko’s application for an environmental assessment certificate had been reviewed, along with a summary of comments on it from First Nations, the community advisory committee and a technical advisory committee — composed of seven provincial government ministries alongside several other government bodies. 

The notice suggests Osisko still has much work to do to get Cariboo Gold past the finish line. The Lhatko Dené First Nation, Xatsull First Nation and Williams Lake First Nation highlighted a host of concerns, including downstream impacts on fish and fish habitat from its mill on the Quesnel River, impacts on the southern mountain caribou herd near Barkerville and bioaccumulation of metals in plants used by First Nations.

In addition, the technical advisory committee listed more than 1,600 concerns related to technical aspects of the mine proposal. According to the environmental assessment office, approximately 42 per cent remained unresolved at the end of January. The concerns range from impacts on wildlife to human health, to air and water quality.

Now it’s up to Osisko to submit an acceptable revised application to move the process ahead. Callahan, the company spokesperson, said Osisko hopes to have an accepted application and an environmental certificate from the minister of energy, mines and low carbon innovation by late 2022.

The complicated relationship between tourism and mining

The tension between tourism and resource extraction is weighing heavy on Dave Jorgenson’s mind these days. He’s a long-time Wells entrepreneur who owns and operates the Frog On The Bog gift shop with his wife, Cheryl Macarthy, as well as three separate accommodations, popular with tourists visiting Barkerville and Bowron Lake. He’s thoughtful, and at times conflicted, knowing that his business benefits from both the region’s colourful mining history as well as its peaceful surroundings.  

“People think that I’m trying to kill this mine but that’s not the case,” Jorgenson says.

At a production rate of 4,750 tonnes of ore per day, the Cariboo Gold Project falls under the 5,000 tonnes per day threshold that triggers a more rigorous federal review. In Jorgenson’s submission to the provincial assessment office during the public comment period, he argued for more study of the potential impacts of the proposed mine. He also asked the company to consider moving some of the mining infrastructure, including the concentrator at Jack of Clubs Lake. It would be less of an eyesore and source of noise and air pollution, Jorgenson tells The Narwhal.

Jorgenson is concerned the issues raised by the technical advisory committee don’t address community values or quality of life. “That’s worrisome to me,” he says.

Men at the Frog on the Bog gift shop in Wells, B.C
A prominent local voice on Osisko’s new mining plans for Wells, Dave Jorgenson, right, sits in the Frog on the Bog Gift shop. Photo: Richard Wright

Other comments submitted by community members illustrate strong support for the project. 

Wells local John Aitken called Cariboo Gold “a blessing for all of us.”

And more nuanced comments come from people who aren’t necessarily opposed to the mine but want to make sure it’s done right. In a lengthy submission, Cameron Beck, a member of the community advisory committee, said he was “looking forward to the benefits, both to Wells and all of British Columbia,” but added that he was disappointed by the company’s environmental assessment application. When reached by The Narwhal, Beck said in an email his views on the mine haven’t changed.

“The projected life of the mine is just 16 years. That’s here today, gone tomorrow. Preliminary mine activities have already increased heavy truck traffic, noise and dust. Bright lights flood the night sky. The cost of housing for retirees and artists is increasing,” Beck said in an emailed response. “The mine and the increase in population will, nonetheless, have benefits, too. We need to partner with the mine to develop a formally agreed-upon plan to ensure those benefits aren’t outweighed by the negative impacts.”

Cariboo Gold could set precedent for future B.C. environmental assessments

Cariboo Gold has for the most part slipped under the public radar. However, the project is being watched closely by the mining industry and some environmental watchdogs who view it as a road test for B.C.’s Environmental Assessment Act, updated in 2019.

The updated legislation is intended to ensure First Nations, communities and the public in general can participate in a transparent assessment process, says Michael Goehring, president and CEO of the Mining Association of B.C. He wouldn’t discuss Cariboo Gold in particular.

Gavin Smith, a lawyer with West Coast Environmental Law, says no project has yet to go the distance to final decision under the updated law and its associated regulations and agreements. He believes the outcome of the Cariboo Gold assessment will be a measure of the province’s commitment to important regulatory changes, like more robust First Nations consultation and the establishment of community advisory committees. 

Caribou in bushes; Cariboo Gold mine, Wells, B.C.
Potential impacts of the Cariboo Gold mine on the southern mountain caribou herd, near Barkerville, were raised by local First Nations. Photo: Richard Wright

A project like Cariboo Gold can have economic benefits that spin far beyond the district boundaries of Wells, says Joel McKay, CEO of Northern Development, a regional economic development corporation based in Prince George. He refers to Cariboo Gold as the “classic dilemma around big industrial development.”

“Wells is a brownfield site with a long history of mining. And the tourism sector has been built around giving visitors a taste of what the gold rush was like back in the 1800s,” he says in a phone interview. “We have something that would be excellent for the economy, but there will be costs. And a lot of those costs will be borne by the community of Wells.” 

McKay says it’s not unusual for there to be a lot of questions and issues that still need to be addressed at this stage in the process, and he has “no doubt” the mine will be built.

“The big question is will the economic benefits outweigh the costs?” he asks. “Wells and Barkerville have a vibrant tourism and arts community that, if managed, can be sustainable. Mines eventually close.”

Osisko’s mining track record worries residents and onlookers

It’s not just the devil in the details of the Cariboo Gold proposal that worries Campbell and Jorgenson; it’s also Osisko’s mining track record — in Wells and Quebec. 

In 2011 the company opened what it bills as Canada’s largest open-pit gold mine, in Malartic, a city of nearly 3,000 people, 560 kilometres northwest of Montreal. Osisko ran the mine until 2014 then sold it to Canadian Malartic Mining Corporation.

Life with the mine was difficult for Malartic citizens like Diane Gagnon. In March 2016 she travelled to Kamloops, which at the time was faced with the proposed open-pit Ajax gold mine within a few kilometres of the city’s boundaries. 

In an open letter to Kamloops city council she described “experiencing serious problems and community impacts related to daily blasting, ground tremors, air blasts, dust and noise” from the Malartic mine, adding that the mine also “created deep community divisions”

The same year that Gagnon travelled to Kamloops to share her cautionary tale, Malartic residents launched a class action lawsuit. Osisko wasn’t named in the suit because they no longer owned the mine, but the company’s actions while owner were put under the microscope.

Trudel, Johnston & Lespérance, the firm that represented the plaintiffs, pointed to hundreds of notices of non-conformity issued by Quebec’s Environment Ministry related to noise, air quality, earth tremors and other permit violations. The notices go back to 2008, when Osisko was building the mine, through to 2014 when it sold the mine to Canadian Malartic, and they continued to pile up under the new owners. In 2019, complainants reached an out-of-court settlement with Canadian Malartic Mining Corporation.

Asked about the infractions at the Malartic Mine, Callahan, the spokesperson for Osisko, said in an emailed response that they weren’t representative of Osisko’s ownership and that the company “was not a party to the lawsuit.”

He cited a 2011 public opinion poll Osisko commissioned that indicated 87 per cent of Malartic residents had a good or very good opinion of Osisko. 

Trucks and equipment in the open-pit gold mine in Malartic, Que.
The open-pit gold mine in Malartic, Que. is billed by its owners as the largest of its kind in Canada. Previous owner, Osisko, pointed out that their Cariboo Gold proposal in Wells, B.C., is for an underground mine, not open-pit. Photo: MiningWatch Canada

He dismissed any comparisons between Wells and Malartic, noting that while Malartic was a major open-pit operation, mining at the Cariboo Gold Project is entirely underground, with processing also taking place either underground or in a sound-insulated building.

Back in Wells, Dave Jorgenson also believes Osisko has a lot to answer for when it comes to its more recent activities at Bonanza Ledge. In five years, the company has faced several operational and environmental reprimands and fines. In 2018, the company was fined $200,000 for violating the federal Fisheries Act after discharging effluent into Lowhee Creek, a tributary of the fish-bearing Willow River. The conviction earned Barkerville Gold Mines a spot on the federal Environmental Offenders Registry

In early 2020, the province’s environmental protection division handed the company fines totalling $53,000 for failing to comply with the terms of its permit under the Environmental Management Act, as well as another $30,200, in part for tailings storage violations.

Last May, the province again fined Barkverille Gold Mines, this time totalling $80,000 for exceeding discharge permit limits for cadmium, cobalt, copper, nickel, nitrite, sulfate and zinc. The province noted in its environmental compliance report that it was the “second penalty for the same contravention.” 

Concerned about these violations, Jorgenson sent a letter in mid-October to Bruce Ralston, Minister of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources. In it, he says he raised concerns about Osisko’s permit infractions at Bonanza Ledge, as well as the proposed locations of Cariboo Gold’s infrastructure. Ralston responded the next month, defending Osisko’s record saying the company “has made progress addressing overdue orders and non-compliances.”  

Around that time, the minister of mines amended the company’s Bonanza Ledge permit, allowing production to increase from 150,000 to 215,000 tonnes per year. 

According to Callahan, Osisko is working hard to do better at Bonanza Ledge. He said the company “has worked with experts on reclamation and closure plans for the Bonanza Ledge and the QR Mill and has posted $40 million in bonds for that work at both sites.” He said the company inherited problems from the previous owner and the penalties that led to Barkerville Gold Mines being listed on the Environmental Offenders Registry occurred before Osisko became sole owner of the mine. (Osisko made its initial investment in 2016 and took full ownership three years later — the year after being listed on the registry.)

View of Two Sisters Mountain near Wells, B.C.
Two Sisters Mountain outside Wells, B.C. Photo: Richard Wright

Osisko has invested $4 million in a new water treatment plant and another $1.5 million in a de-nitrification plant. Kent Karemaker, media spokesperson for the Ministry of Mines, said in an email to The Narwhal that a decision has yet to be made on Barkerville Gold Mines’ application to amend its Environmental Management Act permit in order to operate the new treatment plant.

When it comes to Cariboo Gold, Callahan said Osisko has done extensive studies on the proposed mine site with an aim of reducing the development’s impacts. 

On paper, Osisko’s Cariboo Gold Project hits some high notes, Ugo Lapointe, former Canadian coordinator for MiningWatch told The Narwhal in an interview. He lists the use of electric vehicles, sound insulation and the proposed dry stacking of tailings, which he says is considered industry best practice. Tailings are what’s left behind after metal is extracted from the ore. Mining companies have conventionally stored this waste material in impoundment ponds, but it has proven time and again to be a dangerous convention — as the disastrous Mount Polley dam collapse illustrated.

Globally, experts recommend the more secure method of dewatering tailings and stacking them as dry cakes. But without a technical requirement from the province, it’s up to the mine operator to make this choice. That Osisko plans to use the more costly but safer technique is a positive sign but, Lapointe says, the QR Mill and tailings storage site’s proximity to the salmon-bearing Quesnel River, needs close scrutiny.

And in the end, actions always speak louder than best intentions.

“Of course, in Malartic, Osisko promised the moon, but on the ground things were much different,” Lapointe says.

Saving the mine and the town of Wells

Down at Frog on the Bog, wintertime business is slow. Cheryl Macarthy has just pulled her locally famous carrot cake from the oven. Dave Jorgenson sits down for a coffee. Gold fever is nothing new to this part of B.C. It informs art, culture, lore and a sense of place in Wells. Nobody denies it, not even Jorgenson. After all, one of the gift shop’s top sellers is the Secret Society of Dead Gold Miners T-shirt. 

Jorgenson sips his coffee, then sticks a fork into a slice of carrot cake. Catastrophic forest fire seasons and COVID-19 have not been kind to tourism in Cariboo country in recent years. In this light, the heady promise of high-paying mining jobs can be seductive and alluring. 

The blue and green Fog on the Bog gift shop in Wells, B.C.
The Frog on the Bog gift shop, owned by Dave Jorgenson and Cheryl Macarthy. Photo: Richard Wright

He has the sense the environmental assessment office is steamrolling to one conclusion: project approval. Smith, of West Coast Environmental Law, says under the old environmental assessment act, the province “very, very rarely rejected a project at the end of an [environmental assessment].” The proposed Ajax gold and copper mine, for which the province denied an environmental certificate in 2017, is one rare example. Whether that will be the case under the new act is yet to be seen. 

Wells was built on mining, and a modern gold rush could shape the destiny of this little Cariboo community.   

“Wells has reinvented itself to become the outdoor recreation hub for exploring and celebrating the surrounding wilderness in all seasons, and it’s a regional centre for the arts,” Jorgenson says. “All I’m trying to do is to save this mine and save our town.”

Updated on Apr. 12 at 10:45 a.m. PT: This story has been updated to correct the location of Wells, B.C. as east of Quesnel, not west.

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