________________ CM . . . . Volume VIII Number 19 . . . . May 24, 2002

cover Britannia: A Company Town.

David Vaisbord (Director). Trish Dolman & David Vaisbord (Producers, Screen Siren Pictures).
Selywn Jacob (Producer, NFB).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2000.
46 min. 5 sec., VHS, $39.95.
Order Number: C9100 146.

Subject Headings:
Copper mines and mining-British Columbia-Britannia Beach- History.
Water-Pollution-British Columbia-Howe Sound.

Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.

Review by Gillian Richardson.

*** /4

Britannia: A Company Town documents the history of a small BC town tucked against a mountainside, just south of Squamish. In 1902, it boasted "the largest copper mine in the British Commonwealth." Today, it is a crumbling town fighting for its future. With the closing of the mine in 1974, and no consideration given to the looming water pollution disaster... "now, society is less and less tolerant of historical environmental pollution"... the scene was set for this "sliver of paradise [to be] cursed by its past."

     The background is revealed through archival flashbacks effectively blended with shots of Britannia Beach today and clips of interviews with past and present residents, scientists, environmentalists and the townsite owner. A strong sense of loyalty is evident among those who found it "a wonderful place to grow up" (the close-knit community of mine employees enjoyed family picnics, even a heated, Olympic-sized pool) and those who stayed on after the mine was abandoned. Others moved there in the 80s, lured by the prospect of new residential development including condos and a golf course. Public knowledge of the extent of water contamination from decades of acid-laden runoff led to the eventual bankruptcy of the development. There is still "up to a ton of heavy metals daily" in the ground water washing into Howe Sound from abandoned mine workings that riddle the mountain, leaving a concentration so high that "almost nothing lives in [the water]."

     Residents (population 250) defend the "small town feel," low crime rate and value of the picturesque setting. They have formed a Community Association to present a united front to the "landlord," an accounting firm in Vancouver, regarding issues of deteriorating infrastructure and the need for a water treatment plant. The projected costs are enormous. No one wants to take responsibility, and no one was ever charged for the environmental damage. The choice of solutions is a problem in itself: expropriation to build a treatment plant, then auction it off to pay the costs is unprecedented based on environmental issues; lawsuits take time and money; a landfill to cover exposed rock and slow the rate of pollution has a big price tag and brings no guarantees. The residents and landlord, both frustrated, have reached a stalemate. The latter offers the individuals ownership of their lots in return for supporting the landfill project. The former are skeptical it will be the desired solution, and they see themselves being left with infrastructure repair costs. Much of the film is devoted to presenting the opposing views on the town's future. Missing from the discussions is any reference to current health concerns by those who choose to live so close to a contaminated site, nor is there any mention of their source of drinking water.

     Hovering like a dilapidated ghost is the mine building, donated by a former owner for a museum, and the only business in town..."eyesore" or "treasure"? Tours highlight the source of the contamination problem, and the legacy of silicosis for older miners. One of the final images is the building's ugly reflection in the polished surface of a tour bus window, suggesting that whatever the future brings, Britannia Beach will always see the mine in its rearview mirror.


Gillian Richardson is a former teacher-librarian and a published writer of children's fiction and nonfiction, living in BC.

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ISSN 1201-9364