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Canadians who are gripped by gold fever Add to ...

THE PROSPECTOR "What happens is, everything in the pan will move except the gold. You can swirl the sediment around, but there it will sit," says Jim Laidlaw. Twice in his life, the prospector has felt the thrill of finding nuggets of gold while panning in Eastern Ontario. A find like that is pretty rare, though. More often, searching for gold involves using advanced geochemistry to detect microscopic particles in soil and rock samples. Knowing where to look is key-volcanic terrain, near quartz and sulphide minerals like pyrite. That's where Laidlaw comes in. He's a geological gun-for-hire who has been prospecting on behalf of junior mining companies, plus working his own claims, for more than 30 years. His work has taken him to gold camps from Quebec to Saskatchewan and, most recently, to Timmins-Ontario's gold hot spot of the moment. "Some of the things I've worked on, we've been able to sell it and move it into a junior," says Laidlaw. "That's sort of the dream."

Home for the geological technician is near Madoc, a tiny town midway between Toronto and Ottawa. The province's first gold mine was built here in the mid-1800s, at a place called Eldorado. "It was basically a hole in the ground with a door on top," says Laidlaw. But the find spurred a gold rush, and the local government mustered a mounted police force to keep the peace. Laidlaw first came here in 1987, while working for a junior mining company searching for gold.

His biggest challenge now is finding open land to stake. In Northern Ontario especially, "everything is staked solid," says Laidlaw. "Everyone and their dog is out there with a hammer and drill, dreaming they're gonna hit big."

Reader Forum: Where next for gold? What do you think of the prospects for gold? Are you betting hard on flight to safety? Or is it the next bubble -- fool's gold, as it were? Share your thoughts with our community of investors.

THE PITCHMAN Here's my newest ad!" Russell Oliver cranks up the volume on the TV, which is tuned to CP24, a Toronto-area news station that makes a mint off the prolific pitchman. "I'll give you cash for your used jewellery," shouts the TV Oliver-a.k.a. the Cashman, a.k.a. the Loan Arranger-in his South African accent, signing off with his signature "Ohhh yeahhhhh." Oliver produced his first spot in 1994. Since then, he has spent $25 million on TV advertising. That helps explain the constant stream of customers being buzzed into Oliver's shop on Eglinton Avenue. They come bearing bags full of bracelets, chains, coins and trinkets, handing them to the youngest of Oliver's four sons, Jonas-a.k.a. the Cash Kid-who uses an acid kit to determine the karat of each piece (a skill he learned as a kid from his dad). In exchange, Jonas hands over a wad of cash-generally 70% to 80% of the gold's scrap value. Behind the scenes, four employees sort the day's haul by karat into muffin tins, then cart it into the back office to be inspected by Oliver himself, using a loupe that hangs around his neck.

Oliver started selling jewellery in 1970, after spending a student loan meant for law school to buy a shop downtown. When the recession hit in the early 1990s, he switched from new to used jewellery, and eventually gave up selling the stuff altogether. Besides, he says, "buying jewellery is so much nicer. You're giving people money, and you don't have to sell them on it."

Another Oliver spot comes on-the one with the scantily clad dancing girls. "This is the one I love the most," Oliver says dreamily. "I'll never get rid of this one." Ohhh yeahhhhh.

THE REFINER Jerry Stein's desk is littered with bags of gold-chains, tarnished spoons, delicate rings. There are two bricks of melted-down dental fillings worth $20,000. A TV set hooked up to seven security cameras shares space with all this loot, and a "Beware of Dog" sign hangs in the window, though there is no pooch in sight. This is the headquarters of Cash Gold Canada, the three-year-old company run by Stein's daughter.

But for 24 years, Stein's mainstay has been the unsexy stuff, like slag-encrusted crucibles and gold shavings from a jeweller's floor. (He points to one bucket of sweepings and estimates it contains $2,000 worth of gold.) This soft metal leaves a bit of itself on everything it touches, and Stein specializes in buying it, refining it and selling it back into the market. "I look like a biker"-Harley-Davidson jacket, studded belt, bulging biceps-"but I am really very educated," says the Israeli-born chemical engineer.

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