06/28/2012 09:47 EDT | Updated 08/28/2012 05:12 EDT

I Worked in the Elliot Lake Mall That Collapsed


As I consider what is transpiring in Elliot Lake this week, I can't help but feel the rest of Canada needs to know how important the Algo Mall is to the community and why its loss is so devastating.

Of course, the immediate concern is for the victims of the collapse and their families. The community is tight-knit and will band together to support each other. Going forward the absence of the mall will become another issue for those residents to deal with.

Certainly, much of Canada is learning more about Elliot Lake in these last few days than could ever have been anticipated. A mining town that re-invented itself as a retirement community is likely the extent of most people's knowledge of the place -- until this week. Now, images from news feeds have shown the town as a place of a tragedy that will likely become iconic in Canada. In most of those images, the dilapidated mall can be seen in the background. It will be a loss that the community won't soon get over.

As I mentioned, Elliot Lake has reinvented itself as an affordable place to retire. When the mines shut down, the decision to recast was swift and helped keep much of the town intact. As the community of retirees grew, the Algo Mall became a central gathering point.

Inside, the food court bustled, Zellers and the Foodland grocery store were anchor tenants augmented by businesses like a dollar store, flower shop, travel agency, restaurant and hotel -- an incomplete list to be sure. The bus terminal at the back of the building connected local and regional. Service outlets like the Algoma Health Unit, Service Canada, and the shared office of the MP and MPP could also be found in the mall.

The biggest loss could well be the public library that was located on the second floor, just metres from the escalator that had been such a problem for emergency workers. In the library, seniors had a place to go and catch up with a newspaper, magazine or even go online. It had computers for patrons to use and was a wireless hotspot for those who had their own.

For people without computers or home internet service, this simple service cannot be overstated. Increasingly, our governments encourage people to go online to learn about programs and services. Many jobs are only posted online. Young Canadians see connectivity as a basic and experience much of their social and academic lives in that way. In Elliot Lake there are few places that level the playing field in terms of internet access and the library was certainly the most available and perhaps only truly public one.

The challenges going forward will be significant. The mall was the place of employment for approximately 400 people. Many will now require assistance in the form of employment insurance claims. Businesses will determine if and how they will go forward. Commercial space will be at a premium and all levels of government will be asked to help out. There is no way of knowing if the Algo Mall will be replaced, but there is no doubt its absence will be felt.