Hundreds of Nunavummiut miners returned to work during the summer and fall, but it wasn’t just a simple process of picking up where they left off.

A retraining phase was put in place to ensure that mine staff were once again familiar with their job duties and responsibilities. The employees also had to be made aware of changes to the workplace since they were sent home in March 2020 to minimize the risk of Covid-19 transmission to Nunavut communities.

Arviat’s Ashton Kadjuk, an underground shift supervisor at Agnico Eagle’s Meliadine mine 25 kilometres north of Rankin Inlet, was one of those miners. He retrained alongside other supervisors who remained on the job.

“It was a different experience to go back to work but our department has done a very good job to get me back into work,” he said. “They put all the steps forward to make sure I’m ready for work.”

There are numerous workplaces underground and it took some time to get to know the lay of the land since he was last there 16 months earlier, Kadjuk said, as an example.

There were also many new safety protocols in place to contain Covid-19 in the workplace. Signing in for a shift used to be done via pen and paper, but to eliminate the risk of spreading germs, that changed to a digital process, he noted.

Visits to the cafeteria now begin by making use of a hand-washing station. The cafeteria seating was changed to incorporate social distancing and Plexiglass panels were installed to thwart the passing of microbes.

“I think that’s a very big improvement,” Kadjuk said of the measures.

As a supervisor, he said it’s become part of his job to remind his co-workers to follow Covid safety protocols.

Community cares

The lengthy sabbatical was difficult in some respects, Kadjuk acknowledged.

“My community did a very good job, like they always do, coming together and helping each other out,” he said. “It helped everyone get through that.”

He added that he concentrated on his music and artwork at times to fill his days while away from the job.

Agnico Eagle paid employees 75 per cent of their base salaries throughout the period.

“I was very grateful for that,” Kadjuk said of the steady income.

David Akeeagok, then-minister of Mines as well as Economic Development, made a statement in September to draw attention to the importance of the mining industry and its impact on Nunavut’s economy.

“Mines are the largest private-sector employer of Nunavummiut, and mine employees have been disproportionately impacted by the border restrictions and isolation requirements. Facilitating the return of Nunavummiut mine employees to work was a complex undertaking and required the cooperation of many parties,” Akeeagok said at the time.

Hope Bay challenges

The situation at the Doris North gold mine on the Kitikmeot Hope Bay property, acquired by Agnico Eagle when it took over TMAC Resources in February, proved more challenging recently.

A Covid-19 outbreak occurred at that site in late September, forcing the mining company to scale back production in early October and temporarily reduce the number of staff to no more than 40.

A ramp-up began in November, after a thorough cleaning of the facilities at Hope Bay, according to Alex Buchan, Agnico Eagle’s director of Western Nunavut Affairs. The number of personnel at Doris North has climbed back to 190 — all required to have received their vaccinations — but there are still no Nunavummiut among their ranks.

“We continue to monitor and assess the pandemic situation — and, in particular, the Omicron variant — and we look forward to potential rehire of workers early in the new year,” Buchan stated. “We will be focusing on underground mining at Hope Bay for the remainder of the year in order to build up our ore stockpiles. This allows us to effectively feed our processing plant.”

Derek Neary

Derek Neary has been reporting on developments in the North for 18 years. When he's not writing for Nunavut News, he's working on Northern News Services' special publications such as Opportunities North,...

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