Nunavut mining company tries to quell concerns about potential for COVID-19

Agnico Eagle Mines Ltd. says southern workers must avoid community contact

Rankin Inlet Mayor Harry Towtongie and Kivalliq Inuit Association President Kono Tattuinee stand by the checkpoint where trucks blocked the road to Agnico Eagle’s Meliadine gold mine. “People have to work and life has to go on. Life is going to go on and has to go on. One side of me thinks everything should shut down for a while, that the North should shut down for a while, and there is this other part of me that we need to keep this place where people go to work,” Towtongie told Nunatsiaq News. (Photo by Noel Kaludjak/Twitter)

By Jane George

Updated at 4:30 p.m.

Agnico Eagle Mines Ltd. says it’s taking measures at its Nunavut mines to separate Inuit communities from southern employees, to help address concerns about the potential spread of the new coronavirus.

Southern workers arriving and leaving the territory’s mine sites must now avoid all community contact to help prevent spreading COVID-19, said Dominique Girard, Agnico Eagle’s vice-president of Nunavut operations, in an interview with Nunatsiaq News.

Agnico Eagle reminded all employees to practice self-isolation for 14 days after they return home.

Nunavut’s chief medical officer, Dr. Michael Patterson, said on Friday afternoon that he’s satisfied with the company’s precautions and will allow its mines to continue to operate.

“I have reviewed the plans and preparations of Agnico Eagle Mines, and it is my belief that under the current circumstances their working arrangements do not represent a significant risk of spreading COVID-19 to the residents of Rankin Inlet,” Patterson said in a news release issued by the Hamlet of Rankin Inlet.

There have not been any confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Nunavut.

The company’s decision came after some Rankin Inlet residents used pickup trucks to block the road from their community to the Meliadine gold mine on the evening of Wednesday, March 18, with the goal of stopping Quebec-based workers from getting to the mine site.

On Thursday, March 19, Agnico Eagle decided that its Nunavut employees should return home, as had already been decided by the two other Nunavut mining companies.

All will all be off the mine sites by the end of the weekend.

Agnico Eagle workers will continue to receive their regular pay while they are off site, said the company, and they will be hired back when the pandemic crisis eases, Girard said.

In Nunavut, Agnico Eagle employs between 800 and 900 workers each week at its Meadowbank and Amaruq gold mines near Baker Lake and 600 and 625 workers each week at its Meliadine gold mine near Rankin Inlet.

Between 400 and 500 of these employees are Inuit.

Trucks block access to the road that leads to Agnico Eagle’s Meliadine gold mine on Thursday, March 19. (Photo by Noel Kaludjak/Twitter)

The decision to send Nunavut workers back is hard, said Girard.

“We are missing them,” he said. “We are having to re-adapt because Inuit are integrated into the functioning of everything.”

Girard said he respected those who came out in their trucks to protest because “we’re in a democracy.”

For now, the company has no plans to put its mine into care and maintenance, as is the case for two other northern mines, Ekati in the Northwest Territories and Voisey’s Bay in Labrador.

“But things are moving very fast. Today as we’re speaking ‘no,’ but it could change with time,” Girard said.

Rankin Inlet Mayor Harry Towtongie said he went to see the blockade yesterday with Kivalliq Inuit Association President Kono Tattuinee.

“I think we have to do our best to keep each other safe,” said Towtongie. “Keep each other safe and keep care of what we can.”

For now, Towtongie said he’s leaving the decision on whether or not to keep the mine open to the professionals.

“People have to work and life has to go on. Life is going to go on and has to go on. One side of me thinks everything should shut down for a while, that the North should shut down for a while, and there is this other part of me that we need to keep this place where people go to work, ” Towtongie said.

“They can’t just lock it and shutter it down. There is always going to have to be someone there anyway.”

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(8) Comments:

  1. Posted by The Old Trapper on

    In my opinion Agnico Eagle is being reckless. Yes, odds are that their southern employees will not infect any locals while transiting the Rankin Inlet airport, but can the mine provide a 100% guarantee?
    .
    Who unloads the aircraft? What if a southern employee uses the washroom at the airport, or the pilot comes in for a weather briefing? What if someone throws something in the garbage and a local picks it up to dispose of it?
    .
    The Covid-19 virus is virulent and there can be few to no symptoms associated with it in a healthy individual.
    .
    Why take the chance, as Covid-19 lose in Nunavut would be devastating.
    Put the mine into care and maintenance for 6 weeks, then reassess.
    .
    We got into this problem by taking half measures, time to shut everything down for 6 weeks except for inbound food and medical supplies and outbound emergency patients. And if Covid-19 gets lose in Nunavut there will be no shortage of those.

    • Posted by John Hines on

      I’m curious Trapper. Do you have a science background that informs your opinion?

      • Posted by The Old Trapper on

        John, no formal scientific training although I’ve always enjoyed learning about new discoveries in science. When I was working I was a high level manager, also responsible for a lot of forecasting, statistics, and pattern recognition.
        .
        I started following Covid-19 when the Chinese finally broke the news of it’s existence in January and really started paying attention when they put Wuhan on lockdown. I thought that it could get bad, really bad and sold 90% of my stocks on 03/04 February, still kicking myself that I didn’t do 100%.
        .
        It’s been pretty easy to see that what China did worked, 100% lockdown, rigorously enforced as only the Chinese government can do. Politicians in the west have acted too late, and with half measures. We are almost where we need to be, with only essential services open.
        .
        Unfortunately we are still on the wrong side of the curve; cases doubling every 2 1/2 days. Cases will continue to go up, partly due to improved testing, but also because the virus is rampant in some communities.
        .
        The only way to get this under control is a shutdown of all nonessential services, and I would put the army in the streets to enforce it. One person from each household allowed to shop every 3 to 5 days for essentials, prescriptions, etc.
        .
        Do this for 6 weeks and there will be financial pain, but the federal and provincial governments have programs to get us through. The government resources will be stretched but are strong enough to get the job done for all Canadians.

  2. Posted by Nunavutmiutta on

    This is not a “white People” virus. It effects all humans. We are need to be careful. Mayor is right, Inuit need the jobs. With extra care and washing hands, maybe some can still keep their jobs.
    Mining has given a lot of jobs in the Inuit community and have helped put food on the table.
    I’m sure the Mines have taken this virus 19 seriously.

  3. Posted by Jeff on

    This is a tough one. Too bad no airstrip at mine site. Maybe if plane lands at RI airport & employees transfer directly to bus(s) and go straight to mine site. And all Inuit mine employees remain at home for foreseeable future & collect full wages. If COVID-19 gets into community it will be a nightmare.

  4. Posted by Lifelong Nunavut Resident on

    I have been to both mine sites and they are extremely clean. I don’t think that living in fear and expecting everything to shutdown is reasonable. The people that depend on these jobs need to keep working. We don’t all work for Government or Inuit Org’s where there is a pot of money no matter what happens. Many of us have to earn our money which means showing up to work everyday. The mentality of the vocal minority is a bit sickening. The resource industry has helped many families come out of poverty and give people purpose (reason to get up every morning and provide for their families). The vocal minority need to stop bashing AEM and other resource companies as we need development in our Territory. If you don’t like the deals that were negotiated in the past (by elected officials you voted for), we should then vote for people that can actually negotiate a good deal. I would suggest looking at Inuit with the Education and Experience that can actually sit at the table with Professional Negotiators and be able to secure good deals.
    We need jobs, not sit on our ass and live in fear. The virus is dangerous but as long as we follow all the guidelines, take all the precautions, the majority of people will be fine.

  5. Posted by Estelle StCyr on

    Congratulations for taking the health of local employees at heart. The only solution was to send them home with pay and you did. Bravo! Should they become infected with the virus, it will not be on your conscience.
    But what about the workers who fly in and out?
    A clean environment is important, washing hands also, but does nothing to prevent an individual who has the virus and present no symptoms. That person will go about doing his job and spread the virus to others.
    How will you enforced « social distancing . »
    When you have 10, 25, 100 sick workers what care will you provide for them? They come from all provinces… how will you return them home? Are these issues addressed in your emergency plans?
    Thanks

  6. Posted by Solution on

    Thank you Agnico for sending the Inuit staff home for two weeks their family’s are not worried now my only question is they cannot go back to the mine sites for 2 months will keep getting paid or go on unemployment insurance

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