Canadian Consulting Engineer

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Mining Tales

As a young man, John Gartner, P.Eng. used to haul a portable typewriter around in his backpack when he was up in northern Canada exploring for minerals. Now in his retirement he's taken up his writing...


Gartner at the keyboard.

Gartner at the keyboard.


As a young man, John Gartner, P.Eng. used to haul a portable typewriter around in his backpack when he was up in northern Canada exploring for minerals. Now in his retirement he’s taken up his writing hobby more seriously. Not that he’s trying to write the Great Canadian Novel or dabbles in the nuances of high literary prose. Gartner’s book is a lively action story built about mining and crime.

Brought up in Kirkland Lake, an Ontario mining community, Gartner had the perfect inspiration for his novel in the real-life Bre-X scandal that rocked the Canadian mining industry and stock markets in 1997. The infamous scam involved, among others, mineral geologist Michael de Guzman, who salted gold rock samples in Indonesia and succeeded in hoodwinking investors throughout the world. Thousands invested in Bre-X stock, only to see their funds crash when the scandal was exposed.

Though de Guzman is supposed to have immediately committed suicide by throwing himself out of a helicopter after the scam was exposed, the body recovered from a jungle swamp was so rotten it was impossible to identify accurately. Lately the villain has been in the news again. An ex-wife has been receiving money and rumours are circulating that he is still alive and in hiding.

Gartner’s career is at the other extreme from de Guzman’s. After graduating from the University of Toronto in applied geology in 1959, he quickly began building a rock-solid career. He became vice-president of Peto Associates, and by 1972 was president and chairman of Gartner Lee, his own firm that he started with Pat Lee. The firm grew to have 200 employees and has offices across Canada.

Over three decades Gartner has taught and published articles on air photo interpretation, terrain mapping, waste disposal sites and other geotechnical subjects. He teaches and writes about business management for scientists and engineers. He is an adjunct professor at the University of Waterloo’s Earth Sciences Department and keeps an office at Gartner Lee. He has served on a string of advisory boards and councils such as being past chairman of the Minister’s National Industrial Advisory Committee and being past chair of the Canadian Geotechnical Society’s engineering geology division.

Throughout it all the flame of creativity has survived. “The novel really started about 50 years ago,” he says. “I was working in the bush up in northern Quebec and I had a small Smith-Corona portable typewriter — the size of a small notebook — that used to be on the top of my packsack. Six or seven years ago I was going through some stuff in the basement when I came across an old file and there were the first 15 pages of a novel I had started to write in the bush.”

Upon retirement in 2000 he began again. He abandoned his first story idea and instead found inspiration in the diamond boom that was going on in Ontario. “Basically I devised a plot about salting diamond mines, much along the lines of what happened in Bre-X,” he explains.

His story line for Gem Greed involves a theft of diamonds from Diavik, Ukrainian mafia and a chase around the world that ends in the Azores. Gartner had kept notes about all the places he’d visited in his career and collected maps. He was able to incorporate all these details to lend authenticity to the story.

So far he has only had rejection letters from publishers, but that is common for novelists and he is not daunted. After a two-year hiatus, he’s thinking about self-publishing and starting to re-edit. “The characters are a little wooden,” he says, “I have to work on that.”

Asked whether he thinks a mining hoax like Bre-X might happen again, he laughs, raises his eyebrows quizzically — but says nothing.