While more of an academic publication than a great literary work of non-fiction, Boom Town Blues: Elliot Lake remains an enlightening and useful read. The book summarizes what can only be described as the “great experiment of Elliot Lake, Ontario.” Now, many of you may be wondering what news story did you miss about a great experiment? Truth is, I had not heard of this study either until I read the book. Essentially, since 1991, Elliot Lake, Ontario has been the protagonist of a bold experiment which explores whether a single-industry mining town can survive the mass closure of its primary source(s) of economic, personal, and social stability. In Elliot Lake’s case, it was the closure of multiple uranium mines.
Boom Town Blues chronicles the preliminary results of this community-wide study between 1991 and 1999, in a series of reports enunciated in each chapter. Among the most intriguing aspects of the experiment was/is Elliot Lake’s effort to completely transform itself from a remote uranium mining town into a retirement community and tourist destination. For a young town (founded in 1955) of 14,089 residents in 1991, and situated amid the oft-frozen forests north of Lake Huron, such an endeavor was beyond audacious. One might say the plan was totally absurd. But, Elliot Lake was willing to take the associated risks because the community was not willing to just fade away and die.
By most accounts (at least through 1999) the bold experiment had succeeded beyond anyone’s anticipation, thanks largely to a considerable excess of vacant and affordable single-family homes and apartments built for the uranium miners and a corresponding surplus of interested buyer/renters in heavily populated and pricey southern Ontario. Elliot Lake also benefits from being situated in a lovely, lake-dotted, north-country setting (see photo above). Whether the experiment remains a complete success today, 15 years later, may be up for some debate. What is not debatable is the initial effort(s) stemmed the mounting threat of a massive population loss and allowed the city to catch its collective breath.
While Elliot Lake’s population has fallen since 1999, it has not disappeared from the maps like so many other mining boom towns have before and remains home to 11,348 residents as of 2011. The 2011 census data also reveals the average age of residents has substantially increased from 49 years of age in 2001 to 57 years of age in 2011. Certainly the success of Elliot Lake Retirement Living and related programs has something to do with this increase, as would the rising average ages of the overall population in developed nations like Canada, as well as possible the out-migration of younger residents seeking employment opportunities elsewhere. In fact, Elliot Lake was cited by Statistics Canada as one of two cities in the country with highest proportion of seniors, more than double the national average of 14.8 percent.
While a few chapters offer historical context, interesting tales, and some political rancor, most of this book reads like a collegiate textbook or a research thesis. That is unfortunate because the story behind the story is quite intriguing and presents some very important findings. The initial results of using wetland bioremediation of the tailings were particularly hopeful. Likewise, the social, demographic, and economic findings contained in the reports are excellent resources for further study.
No matter the end results, one must applaud Elliott Lake for its bold bravado in attempting to stave off economic demise. As the great Daniel Burnham so eloquently stated, “make no little plans.” Apparently, Elliot Lake, Ontario was listening.