Inuit hope fresh deals with mining companies boost employment at new projects

Inuit leaders are hoping a new cycle of mine expansion in Nunavut brings with it a motherlode of jobs and economic spinoffs.

“Inuit are very eager and wanting to participate in the economy,” said P.J. Akeeagok of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association.

His group recently signed an agreement with a mining company that has a billion-dollar expansion proposal before northern regulators. Baffinland’s Mary River mine on the northern end of Baffin Island is considered one of the richest iron deposits in the world.

That’s not the only mining news out of Nunavut.

Quebec-based Agnico-Eagle has begun to pour gold at its new mine near Rankin Inlet and is developing another nearby deposit. The two projects represent $1.6 billion in investment since 2017. Agnico-Eagle, which already has about 800 employees and 300 contractors at its Meadowbank mine, expects to hire more for the new ones.

“We’re going to get close to 700 people by the end of the year,” said Dominique Girard, the company’s vice-president for Nunavut.

Both companies have already made promises about job levels for Inuit. Like other northern employers — including the government of Nunavut — they’ve had trouble living up to them.

Agnico-Eagle, with a goal of 50 per cent Inuit employment, has achieved about 37 per cent. Although Baffinland has the same target, only about one-quarter of its 1,200 employees and contractors are Inuit. The level has been as low as 14 per cent.

The consequences of those gaps are real.

A study commissioned for the environmental group Oceans North concluded that the gap between Baffinland’s targets and its actual employment would amount to about $1 billion in lost wages for Inuit over the life of the mine. That would be especially so if the proposed expansion resulted in increased production before more Inuit could be trained.

“What is the case for massive expansion of the mine before the labour market can keep up with it?” asked Chris Debicki of Oceans North. ”The rapid scaling up of this mine, as proposed, will not maximize Indigenous benefits.”

But Akeeagok and Gabriel Karlik of the Kivalliq Inuit Association — which has just signed a new benefits agreements with Agnico-Eagle — say strengthened promises of education and training will get local people into the workforce.

“(The Kivalliq Inuit Association) is working with stakeholders, including Agnico-Eagle, to ensure that Inuit are in a position to take advantage of available opportunities in training and upskill development,” Karlik said in an email.

Baffinland has expanded a five-day program about work issues that includes managing finances and the strains that fly-in, fly-out work can put on families. Recruits sit in a classroom and shadow current employees.

“That helps long term with retention,” said Baffinland vice-president Grant Goddard.

The company sends potential recruits to an Ontario college for trades apprenticeships and heavy equipment operators. The program had 54 graduates last year. It’s developing an Inuit-focused section to its leadership training.

Baffinland has also committed $10 million to building a training centre in Pond Inlet.

Agnico-Eagle has developed a work and training approach that moves Inuit along a career path of operating ever-more-complex machinery.

“All of our entry level positions are 100 per cent Inuit,” Girard said. “But when we get into semi-skilled or skilled, this is where we’re having more difficulty.”

The company has hired an adult educator for each of its sites to run after-work classes in literacy and numeracy.

“We’d like to develop more leaders,” said Girard. ”We’d like to have our mine managed by Inuit.”

Both companies pay royalties of about $5 million a year to their respective Inuit associations.

Akeeagok said the increased emphasis on training should help ensure that Inuit get the benefit of resources on land that they control.

“Absolutely we want to participate in these industries,” he said. “There’s some real exciting benefits that are out there.”

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