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Quebec man literally sitting on gold mine refuses to leave

MALARTIC, Que. - His home is surrounded by wasteland, his yard shakes from regular dynamite blasts, he has a wrecking ball knocking at his door, yet Ken Masse refuses to leave.

MALARTIC, Que. - His home is surrounded by wasteland, his yard shakes from regular dynamite blasts, he has a wrecking ball knocking at his door, yet Ken Masse refuses to leave.

He is literally sitting on a gold mine. And he's determined to stop a multibillion-dollar project aimed at exploiting one of the biggest gold reserves in Canada.

In his battle against a mining company, Masse is clearly the underdog. He doesn't have a lawyer, draws a momentary blank when asked for his age, and is constantly accompanied by a fast-talking, self-described billionaire adviser who wears a Hawaiian shirt caked with dried crud.

But the man with a jungle of reddish beard told The Canadian Press he's convinced he will succeed in his struggle to keep a mining company from digging under his Quebec town.

Masse's childhood abode in Malartic is all that stands in the way of production on what may be Canada's largest untapped gold deposit.

In fact, for a year his house has been just about the only thing standing on the lunar landscape of what used to be the oldest district in town.

Lucrative offers to buy him out and an expropriation order have failed to move Masse from his mother's rickety, 70-year-old house, which has been municipally evaluated at $14,000.

Masse, 35, claims his family has turned down offers of $100,000, $350,000 and $4 million from Osisko Mining Corp. in exchange for the property.

"The more they want to take it away from me, the more attached I get to it," said Masse, standing in front of the two-floor house, now encircled by six-metre-high mounds of grey sand and rock.

"It's where I grew up and I wouldn't see myself letting it go, because if I let it go, where are my references? Where will I come back to?"

Osisko reached deals with 204 of 205 homeowners in the area 550 kilometres northwest of Montreal to either relocate their houses or buy them out for prices above market value.

Masse says his decision to hold out is based on principle — environmental concerns and the good of Malartic — not on the desire for a bigger pay day.

Today, his treed lot is littered with debris. There's a broken-down minivan, a skeleton of a shed and a wobbly four-metre-high scaffold that enables him to peer out above the dirt piles.

But the days of his oasis in the Malartic desert could be numbered.

Last month, the Montreal-based company sent Masse an expropriation order in the goal of clearing him out before the mine's planned June 2011 production start date.

But Masse insists he's not going anywhere — not for any price. Osisko won't discuss any of its negotiations with residents, but indicates it has refused demands from Masse for $1 million. It also denies his claim he was offered $4 million.

Masse, a former town councillor, plans to fight the government-authorized expropriation in Quebec court on Sept. 8.

The unemployed father of four still hasn't hired a lawyer and is actively trying to secure a bank loan, but none of that dampens his optimism.

"We're going to win," he predicts.

Masse also has plans to launch a $205-million class-action lawsuit against Osisko and the Quebec government. He says the cash would give each displaced homeowner, as well as himself, $1 million.

When the operation eventually closes, he fears the mining company will leave citizens with a polluted environment, a higher cost of living and a big empty hole in the ground.

"There were six mines here in the past, the six mines took everything and left and the town was in economic crisis," Masse said.

"If we don't protect it (the gold) they're going to do the same."

But most locals support the mine and the economic spinoffs it will bring to Malartic, the mayor says.

Andre Vezeau expects the project to create 480 direct jobs and another 400 indirect jobs in the declining community of 3,500. Osisko has already constructed a half-dozen institutions, including a school, a community centre and a seniors' residence.

"It's the city's renaissance," Vezeau said during an interview inside Malartic's council chamber.

"For the people of Malartic, it's a type of blessing, a second chance."

Vezeau, who says that on average Masse's neighbours sold their homes for market value plus 25 per cent, is puzzled that his former councillor has turned down offers believed to be much higher.

"I personally think that this will end with his expropriation," said Vezeau, who received Masse's resignation from council last year in protest over the proposed mine.

"He would lose enormously."

Osisko rolled into town a few years ago with plans to spend $1 billion to exploit a vast deposit of gold discovered beneath Malartic. The province gave the project its environmental approval last year.

The pit will stretch two kilometres long, 800 metres wide and will plunge nearly 400 metres into the ground — deep enough to bury the 381-metre-high Empire State Building.

The company expects to produce nine million ounces of gold from the deposit over the next 12 years. At current gold prices, that's more than $11 billion.

A spokeswoman for Osisko says the company has been trying to reach an agreement with Masse for the last three years.

"We're trying to buy his house, but Mr. Masse has his mind set up and he doesn't want to deal with us," Helene Thibault said.

"So we had to go into a procedure that we didn't wish for. We did everything we could to find a solution with him."

Overturning an expropriation order is a daunting challenge, says a Universite de Montreal expert on the topic.

"He's just crazy or he's just savvy enough to be the last guy out and is going to hold until the top dollar," said Matthew Harrington, who was not aware of Masse's case before being interviewed.

Masse's argument that his battle is in the interests of his neighbours won't hold up because everyone else has already left, Harrington said.

"If you're the only guy, or there's just a few of you left, this train has left the station," he said.

Guy Morrissette, the only other councillor besides Masse to vote against the mine last year, also has some concerns about the project.

He says the mine was approved too quickly and he's worried about dust, noise and the almost-daily blasting that has been rattling the plates in his cupboards more than a kilometre away from the site.

Unlike Masse, however, the 66-year-old retired math teacher concedes the mine might do some good.

"The city of Malartic isn't made of gold, even if it's sitting on it."

A spokesman for a local organization of activists fighting for the rights of Malartic citizens agrees with many of the social and environmental issues Masse is trying to defend.

But Jacques Saucier says the group had to distance itself from Masse after he started taking cues from his talkative adviser, a man named Rejean Aucoin, who wears colourful shirts and claims to have made billions in the oil-refining business.

"He's no longer in reality — we can't lose our credibility," said Saucier, whose organization has raised concerns such as water contamination from the mine and the impact rising municipal taxes will have on the community's poor.

For months, Masse and Aucoin have spoken enthusiastically about plans to travel to Geneva to file a human-rights complaint against Quebec at the United Nations.

"He's like a Don Quixote," said Saucier, "but a Don Quixote who is prepared to sacrifice himself to become a martyr."

 
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