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Agnico Eagle prepares for driver-less vehicles

Mining company Agnico Eagle is researching how it can integrate automated technology at its Kivalliq sites.

By later this year or early in 2019, the company plans to start testing sensors that would eventually allow three or four driverless long-haul trucks, similar to tractor trailers, to follow a lead truck driven by a human, said Dominique Girard, Agnico Eagle's vice-president of Nunavut operations.

Automated technology is also expected to be used for scoop loaders, which can be controlled remotely by joysticks, and possibly for drills, he said.

Agnico Eagle will soon test sensors that allow three or four autonomous long-haul trucks like this one to follow one driven by a human employee.
photo courtesy of Agnico Eagle

"To operate a mine in Nunavut is more expensive so we need to find a way to mitigate that... going into automation is a way to do it," said Girard, who added that it will take several years before the technology is full adopted for day-to-day operations.

Asked what the Kivalliq Inuit Association's response has been to this impending change in practices, Girard replied, "I did not have a discussion in detail with them about that."

However, he said he has advised the Government of Nunavut that new skill sets should start to be developed to complement the advancing technology.

The KIA, which has Inuit Impact Benefit Agreements in place with Agnico Eagle, including terms for 50 per cent Inuit employment at the Meliadine and Amaruq gold mines, didn't respond to Nunavut News' request for comment prior to press deadline.

There will be local opportunities associated with the new mine technology, such as finding a Nunavut-based supplier to provide the sensors, Girard suggested.

"Right up front we would like to involve Inuit business in that technology," he said. "The vision behind that, and we're really at the early stage, is to have Nunavut becoming the Arctic leader in automation."

He emphasized that there is no plan to have Agnico Eagle's Kivalliq operations controlled remotely from southern Canada.

"Our goal is having our mine managed by Inuit," he said.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) made an unsuccessful attempt to unionize Agnico Eagle workers six years ago. Bill Fennell, president of the Nunavut Employees Union (NEU), said he still advocates for mine jobs to fall under the NEU and PSAC. He added that he's also in favour of re-employment and training to protect private-sector jobs at risk from advancing technology.

Dale Coffin, Agnico Eagle's corporate director of communications and public affairs, previously told Nunavut News that haul trucks – different vehicles than long-haul trucks – are not being targeted for automated technology at the Kivalliq mine sites.

"Haul truck drivers at our operations in Nunavut are considered entry-level positions and under our IIBA (Inuit Impact Benefit Agreements) we have a commitment to ensure that all entry-level positions are made available to Inuit in the Kivalliq region," Coffin said in March.

In 2017, Agnico Eagle recorded net income of $243.9 million for its global operations, which includes its mines in Quebec, Finland and Mexico. Also in 2017, the company announced a $1.2 billion investment in Nunavut to develop its Meliadine and Amaruq mines, which are expected to be operational by the second quarter of 2019.

The profitability of the Meadowbank gold mine, in production since 2010, has been greatly hindered by a nearly $1 billion write-down in 2011 due to the mine's operating costs being severely underestimated, according to Girard.

"Amaruq is helping to pay that write-down," he said. "We really need to leverage the investment that we did (at Amaruq and Meliadine).

"It's not a choice to jump into automation, we'll need to jump into automation," said Girard. "When we talk about jobs, we could think, 'OK, let's go mining with a hammer and more manual equipment (to) create more jobs, but we're not there anymore. Right now we have better equipment, better technology. It's more safe also for the operator."