Nunavut’s Baffinland employees won’t return to work anytime soon
Mine still waiting to hear results from two presumptive cases of COVID-19
Nunavut employees at Baffinland’s Mary River mine have been off work with pay since March 16, and it doesn’t look like they’ll be going back to work anytime soon.
The decision to keep around 300 Nunavut workers home was initially temporary, and the company says it is continually being reviewed.
“We believe there’s a long way to go before this virus is contained,” said Tim Sewell, the senior director of health and safety for Baffinland, over the phone from Oakville, Ontario.
“We know that Nunavut employees and communities surrounding us don’t have the medical capacity to manage an infection or breakout,” Sewell said.
The mine doesn’t employ enough Nunavummiut workers to do the reverse—keep workers from the south home, and have local workers only at the site on north Baffin Island.
“Eventually we would love for that to be the case, and we’re striving for it,” said Udlu Hanson, Baffinland’s vice president of community and strategic development, who’s based in Iqaluit.
This is the busiest time of year for the mine, when ships are transporting iron ore out of the port at Milne Inlet. There are around 800 people working at the site now, Hanson said, and there aren’t enough Nunavut-based employees to keep it running at this time.
Three people have tested positive for COVID-19 on the mine’s test machine. One of those people subsequently tested negative on labs in the south and is back to work.
Two people are isolating at the mine, waiting for their tests to be confirmed at a lab in Hamilton, Ontario. The cases will be presumed to be positive until the confirmatory results are known.
“Everything’s so fluid right now,” said George Hickes, Nunavut’s minister of health and finance.
“Having two additional cases brought forward changes perspective on how fast to engage local employment in the mine sites.”
Hickes said he’s been hearing from Nunavummiut employed at the mine that they want to get back to work.
“We have to really take a look at how we balance health and safety of Nunavummiut versus our economic impact,” Hickes said, adding that the mineral sector is one of the greatest contributors to Nunavut’s economy.
“We don’t want to unnecessarily hinder that,” he said.
That means the best way to keep the mine running and keep Nunavut safe from COVID-19 is to keep local workers home.
Along with paying the wages of Nunavummiut miners, Sewell said Baffinland is paying for the fact that workers from outside of the territory aren’t as experienced as local ones are.
“It’s extremely expensive and not as efficient,” said Sewell.
“While they’re doing a great job, you just can’t replace the kind of experience that the Nunavummiut miners bring to the table.”
Hickes said that the Government of Nunavut has been working with the Government of the Northwest Territories and the Nunavut and NWT Chamber of Mines to lobby the federal government for financial support for northern mines.
Hanson said Baffinland has been trying to get federal funding to help cover the cost of paying for Nunavut workers’ wages when they’re staying home, too.
She said that the company is not currently considering having Nunavut employees return to work while southern workers isolate for 14 days before entering the mine site.
“I don’t see anything changing,” Hanson said. “If there was a more cost-effective way to do it, then I’m sure we probably would have found it by now.”
She said Nunavut employees will be paid to stay home for as long as the mine can afford it. “This is not a guaranteed thing.”
“We have to review this and see if it’s still viable on our side, and update our employees as regularly as we can,” Hanson said.