Mining companies across the territory share the aspiration of hiring more Inuit employees, a requirement outlined in Inuit Impact Benefit Agreements. But it's easier said than done.
In the Kitikmeot, TMAC Resources has a 600-person workforce at its gold mine that comprises only 10-15 per cent Inuit, well below the target.
At Sabina Gold and Silver, Inuit employees make up just 13-18 per cent of the workers at the Back River gold project.
The territorial government needs to play more of a role, according to Paul Emingak, executive director of the Kitikmeot Inuit Association (KitIA).
"The Government of Nunavut must work with regional Inuit associations and the mining industry to enhance training and educational opportunities for Inuit in this sector," Emingak said. "The GN must also work with the mining industry in the promotion of the industry and employment opportunities within for Inuit."
That topic arose in the legislative assembly on Feb. 28 as Economic Development Minister David Akeeagok told his colleagues that work is ongoing to create a territory-wide mine training program. The GN will host a mine-specific meeting in April that will address the issue, said Akeeagok.
For its part, the KitIA is attempting to provide greater insight into mining careers to determine if residents in the region might be interested. The Inuit association has also forged the Kitikmeot Qualified Business Registry, which enables Inuit-owned companies to look after several areas of contract work, Emingak said.
"KitIA is working with those companies to make sure hiring Inuit remains a priority," he said, noting that there's been a statistical improvement over the past year.
The organization is also urging the Department of Education to continue the Mining Matters program – a government and industry partnership to promote mining occupations in educational institutions because "there is very little career counselling, if anything at all in the schools," Emingak said.
TMAC tours Kitikmeot schools
TMAC Resources has hopped on the idea of opening students' minds to mines. Company representatives toured all five Kitikmeot community schools in October.
"Expanding our Inuit workforce is an important priority for us," Jason Neal, TMAC's president and CEO, said, adding that scholarship opportunities were outlined. "If we get people that are trained as geologists or engineers or in trades – mines employ a lot of trades – that will be good because that allows us to create higher-paid jobs for Inuit. So staying in school and getting additional training, whether it's trade schools or university, is very valuable."
The Kitikmeot workforce is small, with only 6,500 people in the region and the number of eligible and available workers being much smaller than that. Spending two or three straight weeks at a mine site is a deterrent for some, Neal acknowledged.
"A camp lifestyle is not for everybody," he said, adding that some young Inuit couples with children at home feel a greater commitment to being with their family.
Bruce McLeod, president and CEO of Sabina Gold and Silver concurred.
"It's something that many people from the communities in the Kitikmeot are not used to is rotational work. Unfortunately we really don't have a choice on how we do that," said McLeod, adding that Sabina's advantage is that it's primarily going to have surface mines requiring less specialized training than going underground. "It really is going to take some time to hire and maintain that (Inuit) workforce. But what we've seen in the successful mines in Nunavut is that it has taken time but everyone has eventually had that success. I think it's being patient and offering a lot of pre-employment work."
Baffinland makes strides
Progress has been made in the Qikiqtaaluk, where Baffinland Iron Mines – facing criticism in the past for its low level of Inuit employees and poor retention rate – has pushed the number of employees from the 90s to close to 200 in the past few months.
Baffinland and the Qikiqtani Inuit Association renegotiated their Inuit Impact Benefit Agreement in October to further boost Inuit employment, among other items.
"QIA is confident that there is renewed commitment toward training, including improved clarity on short and long-term goals and planning," said Levi Barnabas, a member of QIA’s executive committee who's responsible for the Mary River file.
Brian Penney, Baffinland's president and CEO, said the training initiatives are already starting to pay off. The company has also been striving to improve camp life, opening an 800-person camp with individual rooms, washrooms, TVs and internet as well as a well-equipped recreational facility.
"Once we get people working at Baffinland, we want to make sure they stay with us," Penney said.
At Agnico Eagle's operations in the Kivalliq, where several hundred Inuit have been employed at the Meadowbank gold mine for the better part of a decade, one of the priorities is getting more Inuit in management roles. The Kivalliq Inuit Association "is working with all stakeholders including (Agnico Eagle) to ensure that Inuit are positioned to take advantage of available opportunities in training and upskill development to maximize Inuit employment at (Agnico Eagle) sites," said Gabriel Karlik, the KIA's executive director.