Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Resources

Prime Minister Stephen Harper pushes mining expansion in Arctic Add to ...

While Billie-Jo Eindhoven’s friends back in the Nunavut hamlet Rankin Inlet are having babies, she is 300 kilometres away, driving 150-tonne trucks around the rocky pit of the Meadowbank gold mine.

Ms. Eindhoven, 24, started off as a kitchen helper, and moved to the trucks five months later “mostly for the challenge,” she said on Wednesday after Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his entourage arrived at what is now the only working mine in this territory.

The recent surge in the price of gold, which is still above $1,700 an ounce despite a recent dip, has made it easier for the Prime Minister to boast about the burgeoning development of the natural resources that lie below the tundra in Canada’s far North.

But some of the people who work up here say mining and other resource extraction would be greatly enhanced if the federal government would invest more in infrastructure and a long-term development plan.

Ms. Eindhoven is one of about 300 people from Nunavut’s Inuit communities who earn $70,000 to $100,000 a year working at Meadowbank. Next week, she will move to Montreal, to which mine owner Agnico-Eagle Mines Ltd. flies regular charters.

Her job entails two straight weeks of 12-hour days in a mining camp followed by two weeks of down time. But the money is more than Ms. Eindhoven could ever hope to make in Rankin Inlet. Still, she says her friends don’t want to follow her example because they are all home having babies.

The GDP in this territory rose nearly 15 per cent last year, due in large part to the Meadowbank mine. And developers are considering 10 to 12 other mines for gold, uranium, diamonds and iron ore.

Agnico-Eagle Mines Ltd. is in the exploration phase of another gold mine near Rankin Inlet that could provide employment to the Meadowbank workers if the mine runs out of gold in 2019 as predicted.

“Development of the North’s awesome resource potential is a national economic challenge, which could yield enormous national economic benefits,” Mr. Harper told workers in the mine’s cavernous garage.

“The primary beneficiaries will be Northerners themselves, but the wealth generated here will create jobs and opportunities for Canadians all across the country.”

The federal government is investing $230,000 over three years to support the establishment of an office in Iqaluit for the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

But the costs of development in Canada’s arctic are usually counted in millions and billions. Agnico-Eagle had to pay more than $60-million to run a road from Baker Lake to the mine site 60 kilometres away.

“It would be helpful if the government would develop more of the infrastructure,” said Jean Robitaille, senior vice-president of technical services for Agnico-Eagle.

Mr. Harper replies that his government has spent billions of dollars in development of the North since coming to office in 2006, including funds for a geomapping program to show what resources are available.

“As a government, we don’t measure our results of our progress based on how many millions or billions we spend. ... We measure it by results. And I think you see over the past five years the tremendous expansion of activity in the North, and particularly in the mining sector,” he said.

This development does not come without a social price.

Frank Tester, a professor in the school of social work at the University of British Columbia who has studied development projects in Nunavut, including now-defunct mines, said the projects have had no lasting legacy.

Mines in the North have never met their targets for aboriginal employment, Mr. Tester said, because the Inuit build their lives around their families and most are not willing to be away from home for long.

Meanwhile, he said, the negative effects are many. Baker Lake is divided over a proposal to open a uranium mine west of the community because more money means more alcohol, drugs, gambling and domestic abuse.

“It takes people away from the land – from hunting and a relationship with land and nature that is the foundation of Inuit culture,” Mr. Tester said. “This, in turn, affects how people do (or do not) function together.”

Ben Bradshaw, a professor of geography at the University of Guelph, acknowledges the historical problems associated with mineral exploration in the North. And he agrees that more local wealth has led to increased substance abuse and internal community conflict.

But Northerners today have far greater say over the terms under which mining occurs, especially in regions like Nunavut, and are increasingly partners in development, Mr. Bradshaw said. The Meadowbrook mine, for instance, has signed an impact and benefit agreement that offers employment to residents of Baker Lake as well as a share of mineral profits.

“Wealth from mining is certainly trickling down to communities, but it has to be managed wisely to achieve lasting benefits,” he said. “Some communities are achieving success in this, but others are not.”

Pujjuut Kusugak, the Mayor of Rankin Inlet, is optimistic about the possibilities of a new Agnico-Eagle mine.

“For a community like Rankin Inlet to have an opportunity for a gold mine is huge for us,” said Mr. Kusugak. But the community is not yet prepared for the influx of people that such development would bring, and the federal government’s assistance is needed, he said. “We can’t really do it by ourselves.”

In the know

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular