Picco vows that skilled trades training program will be resounding success

Mining boom adding to Nunavut labour shortage

By JOHN THOMPSON

Mining executives already can't find enough certified tradespeople in Nunavut – and the territory's mining boom is only getting started.

It means that while widespread unemployment remains, there's also a growing labour shortage.

This and other problems were debated last week by a panel of mining-friendly representatives at the Nunavut Mining Symposium's town hall meeting, held in Iqaluit's Inuksuk High School on Wednesday, April 9.

The 80-odd attendees heard that Newmont Mining Corp., which plans to open a gold mine about 140 km south of Cambridge Bay, is already having trouble finding tradespeople.

Glenn Cousins, executive director of the Nunavut Economic Forum, said "the labour shortage is already an issue."

So, if Nunavut is to fully cash in on the mining boom, much rests on the success of Nunavut's trades school, which is to open in Rankin Inlet in 2009, with the aim of training 75 students each year.

Some worry the Government of Nunavut's plan to pump out hundreds of Inuit tradespeople will be hindered by the territory's staggering drop-out rate. Only one in four students finish high school in Nunavut. To become a skilled tradesperson, you need a high school education.

But Ed Picco, Nunavut's education minister, said he heard similar doubts before Nunavut‘s nursing program started, which he hails as a success.

"It kind of tees me off when I hear we can't do things," he said.

Nunavut has already trained 200 heavy equipment operators, through a course offered in Ontario, Picco said. And the government plans to build a new adult education facility in Pond Inlet this summer, to help train residents to work at the Baffinland Iron Mines camp at Mary River.

Blame must be shared for Nunavut's drop-out rate, Picco said. He said it's a combination of problems at school and problems at home.

But he said he hears the same comment from those students who do graduate: they're thankful for their parents dragging them out of bed every morning.

Picco added that if mining companies need residents to take a course that isn't currently offered, his department will "go out and buy it."

Another unusual problem is being encountered by Agnico-Eagle Mines Ltd., the owners of the Meadowbank mine, 70 km north of Baker Lake, which is set to open next year.

Some Kivalliq residents refuse to work more than a few months at time, said Larry Connell, Agnico-Eagle's regional manager.

The reason? They fear their social housing rents, which are heavily subsidized by government while they're on unemployment insurance, will skyrocket to market prices of more than $1,200 a month.

"It's a real problem," said Connell, "and the industry didn't realize it at first. It's not our job to bridge this. It's the job of government."

Charlie Lyall, the outspoken president and CEO of Kitikmeot Corp., said the obvious solution is to for government to increase rents gradually over a one-year period.

"It seems to be too simple, otherwise the housing corporation would have implemented it a long time ago," Lyall said.

Other problems, such as the complexity of Nunavut's regulatory regime, are more difficult to solve because they're embedded in the land claim agreement.

Companies have long complained about the length and complexity of Nunavut's regulatory system.

Alex Buchan, manager of community relations for Newmont, pointed out the system is also too complicated for many residents to understand.

As a result, the numerous public meetings held while a company navigates its way through the Nunavut Impact Review Board, the water board and other bodies, are usually poorly attended.

So, while the number of public meetings on matters such as proposed mines has increased dramatically since the formation of Nunavut, he said public attendance at such meetings has substantially declined.

And, Buchan said, public involvement is what "will validate having a land claim in the first place."

The stated theme of the town hall meeting was "Let's talk benefits." But the true theme that emerged was more cautionary: don't expect mines to solve all of Nunavut's problems.

Hamlets wonder what benefits they will see from mines opening nearby. Will community infrastructure continue to crumble, even after mines have opened and closed?

Some have called for hamlet representatives to be part of negotiations for Inuit impact and benefit agreements, which are negotiated between Inuit organizations and mining companies. But not Charlie Lyall.

Lyall said fixing up communities isn't the business of mining companies. It's that of government.

"Mining companies don't build hospitals or hockey rinks," Lyall said. "They build mines."

"They shouldn't be asked to build hockey rinks. We shouldn't be burdening them with government's work."

Connell, with Agnico-Eagle, agreed. He said nobody wants to return to the days of company towns. "It wasn't successful and we certainly don't want to go back to that," he said.

With such high hopes being raised by talks of mines opening, Connell said he's already encountering frustration among Nunavut residents. It takes years for a mine to open, and for many promised jobs to materialize.

But it's better to have mining jobs, and the complications they bring with them, than no jobs at all, said Wilf Wilcox, the president of Jago Services in Cambridge Bay.

"I think I'd take a boom over a bust any day," he said.

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