Quebec church won’t be demolished for gold…yet

MALARTIC, QC--A small town in northwestern Quebec is relieved that its local Roman Catholic church, Saint-Martin-des-Tours, won't be demolished for the sake of gold--at least not yet.

The controversy began after prospectors discovered one of the largest gold deposits in Canada located directly under the town.

Malartic is one of several towns that sprang up during the 1930s gold rush in Quebec's Abitibi region. By the end of the 1980s the most easily accessible deposits had been excavated and the mine was closed. When the local sawmill closed in 1997 and the Domtar forestry operation shut down in 2006, Malarctic was left a virtual ghost town.

"Many of the workers in the mine back in those days knew there was still gold down there," says local priest, Robert Charron. "Since the mine stopped, there have been stories that there were still deposits down there, and many people knew that some of the richest veins ran under the town and even under the church."

The increasing price of gold, the Quebec government's new openness to mining projects and technological progress have now combined to make this deposit very attractive again.

The Osisko Mining Company plans to retrieve the gold through open pit mining, a process which according to company president Sean Roosen will costs only $1.80 a ton, compared to as much as $150 a ton for conventional underground mining. The open pit will eventually stretch two kilometers, will be 780 meters wide and 380 meters deep.

To get at he gold, the mining company will move 200 homes, schools, a nursing home and a variety of other buildings about two kilometres north of their present location.

Saint-Martin-des-Tours is a brick edifice built in the early 1950s. It can't be easily hoisted onto a moving truck like wood frame construction houses can.

The church is deeply treasured by the community, but it is five years too new to qualify for provincial government protection as a heritage religious site.

Apparently, it was initially slated for demolition.

Over the past year environmentalists have held marches protesting the soon-to-be-dug monster pit, bringing back memories of massive open holes that remain from the heyday of asbestos mining in other areas of the province.

Several Malartic families refused to sell their land.

While Osisko has worked hard to be a good corporate citizen, offering generous premiums for the homes it purchased and pumping funds into local activities, complaints have arisen over the poor quality of the work done by several house moving contractors. Complaints have also surfaced over the fact that the company had begun a considerable amount of work before official permits and authorizations were handed down earlier in July.

Detailed plans now show that the church will not be touched by the first phase of the dig. The second phase will be another question, but it will not begin for at least another five years, assuming that the required authorizations are granted.

"The people love this church" says Charron. "It has some unique architectural features, but it's just not the kind of unique gothic stone cathedral that you pick up and move piece by piece."

Charron doesn't know how this story will end. "Watch the news again in five years time," he says.

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