Gilbert LaBine helped shape the course of world history when in 1930 he discovered pitchblende at Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories.
With his discovery there of the ore that yields radium and uranium, LaBine pushed Canada into the atomic age. He was probably one of the few Canadian prospectors of that time who could have identified the pitchblende mineral.
A largely self-taught man, LaBine well before his historic find of the famous Eldorado uranium mine at Great Bear had already tried to make his mark on Canadian mining, though his earlier efforts at discovery and development of silver and gold had not borne much fruit.
Born in 1890 near Pembroke, Ontario, LaBine early on in his life was active in the silver fields of the province’s Cobalt area, and enjoyed some modest success at the time of the Porcupine and Kirkland Lake gold staking rushes. He prospected in the years before the First World War with such notables as Benny Hollinger, and lent a hand to Harry Oakes when Oakes was just a greenhorn fresh out from England.
But LaBine and a brother, Charles, had little luck with a gold prospect at Sesikenika Lake, or with another gold find in central Manitoba, where he and Charles formed a company, Eldorado Gold Mines.
Though Eldorado Gold didn’t succeed as hoped, it did provide LaBine with the finances he needed to move further afield, and led directly to Great Bear Lake, and the new Eldorado uranium mine.
That trip, with partner C.E. St Paul, was an epic of human hardship and perseverance. LaBine’s successful development of the mine, and the building of a refinery at Port Hope, Ontario, to produce radium and the then-useless uranium was another battle against great odds.
The Eldorado radium/uranium ore was so rich that it broke a stranglehold on radium then held by Belgium. But with a saturated market and stockpiles building, production at Eldorado was suspended until the advent of World War II and the sudden urgent demand for uranium – uranium used to produce the first atomic bomb, the bomb that at Nagasaki and Hiroshima ended the most devastating war in history.
As a war measure, the Canadian government had arbitrarily expropriated the Eldorado mine in 1944, although LaBine continued to manage it until 1947.
Just a few years after he discovered the great Eldorado deposit, however, LaBine had returned to central Manitoba, where, in 1934, he formed Gunnar Gold Mines, a successful gold producer for several years.
Then, in the post-war period after LaBine had left the now Crown-held Eldorado operation, his Gunnar Gold company discovered a large uranium orebody in northern Saskatchewan, and it too made a significant contribution to Canada’s pre-eminent and continuing position as a uranium producer.
LaBine richly deserved the title as Canada’s Mr. Uranium, and honors were heaped on him from all sides. He was invested into the Order of the British Empire in 1946, received the coveted Inco Medal in 1957 and in 1969, toward the end of his life, was made a member of the Order of Canada.