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The entry point for Diavik diamond mine in the North West Territories. (JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail)
The entry point for Diavik diamond mine in the North West Territories. (JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail)

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Richard LeBreton works in one of the planet’s most unique and remote locations: a diamond mine on an isolated island that sits 300 kilometres northeast of Yellowknife, and 200 km south of the Arctic Circle. In winter, temperatures at the site in Lac de Gras regularly reach -40, and an ice road is required to transport supplies. All in all, it’s a geotechnical engineer’s dream come true.

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“The Diavik Diamond Mine is a technological marvel,” he says. “The work itself is a prime opportunity to develop outstanding experience in my field. I pinch myself every day.”

To access the ore, dikes had to be constructed to hold back the waters of Lac de Gras. Mr. LeBreton, a native of Petit-Rocher, N.B., is charged with making sure the massive surrounding walls of granite don’t collapse.

“I ensure that the work environment remains stable,” he says. “It’s very specialized, challenging work. We’re dealing with the Canadian Shield,” which is a vast expanse of Precambrian rock that covers more than half of Canada.

Mr. LeBreton studied engineering at Montreal’s École Polytechnique before joining Diavik four years ago, and he now works four days a week at the site before flying back to Yellowknife for a three-day weekend. His move across the country prompted a significant lifestyle change.

“It’s quite a shift,” he says. “But this has enriched my life experience. There’s a sense of adventure, going to a remote location. It has an exotic feel to it.

“It’s pristine nature here,” he adds. “The air is pure and the water’s clean. In the summer, there’s hiking, camping, kayaking; in the winter there’s snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.”

Add in dogsledding, the Northern Lights, and spectacular scenery, and there’s lots here for an avid outdoorsperson to love.

But Mr. LeBreton is just as keen on the company he works for as he is on the job itself and his breathtaking surroundings.

“What’s really struck me is that Diavik is a responsible organization: Responsible toward its employees, to the communities it works with and within, and toward the environment,” he says.

Recently named as one of Canada’s top 100 employers, Diavik Diamond Mines Inc. is a subsidiary of Rio Tinto, a London, England-based company that operates copper, aluminum, iron ore, coal and diamond mines around the globe. The mine is a joint venture of Diavik Diamond Mines Inc. and Harry Winston Diamond Limited Partnership, which are both headquartered in Yellowknife.

In the Northwest Territories, Diavik processes diamond ore from its open pit and other underground mine operations. It expects to be an all-underground operation by 2012. Its annual diamond production peaks at more than six million carats.

The mine site itself, on gently rolling tundra commonly called the Barren Lands because of the lack of trees, is situated within a continuous permafrost zone. It’s like a self-contained city, with its own water and sewage treatment plant. Production workers fly in for two weeks at a time, living in hotel-like accommodation with private bedrooms with TV and Internet access, free food (but no alcohol), a medic station that’s staffed 24 hours a day, and a fully equipped fitness facility, complete with a gymnasium for floor hockey and basketball, a running track, a squash court and an indoor driving range and putting green.

“It’s a very interesting rhythm,” Mr. LeBreton says. “The focus is on work, but the people you live and work with become a family. It’s a unique work dynamic.”

Diavik’s work force of about 628 is made up of nearly 30 per cent Aboriginal people, and nearly 60 per cent of employees come from the North.

In addition to offering a phased-in retirement plan, the company matches employees’ RSP contributions, and offers a share purchase plan, and a defined contribution pension plan. It also provides maternity leave top-up payments.

Besides employee discounts on diamond purchases, the company has an employee purchase program for everything from cars to computers and airline tickets.

Hiring practices give first consideration to Aboriginal people, with special emphasis on residents from neighbouring communities. Diavik actively involves Northern communities through co-operative agreements with the local Aboriginal groups, which require both parties to work together to address training, employment and business opportunities.

In addition to a cost of living allowance, the company offers scholarships, stay-in-school programs, community-based training programs, educational assistance and an employee and family assistance program for family wellness.

Briane Doherty, Diavik’s manager of people and community, who moved to the Northwest Territories from Ontario, says that honouring Aboriginal culture is a key part of business operations.

“We recognize their cultural traditions; we honour them, we share in them, we respect them, and we learn from them,” Mr. Doherty says. “We start meetings with Aboriginal prayers.”

A culture of safety is also important.

“What stood out for me when I joined the company was its focus on health and safety,” he says. “It’s everywhere; it’s embedded into our DNA.”

Considering the challenge of attracting and retaining job talent in general, and up North in particular, the company strives to be a progressive employer.

“We know that people have choices,” Mr. Doherty says. “We work hard to be the employer of choice. Whether it’s an HR professional, or a truck driver, or an IT person or an engineer, we have diverse and meaningful work.... Yes, it’s a long, cold winter, but life in the North is vibrant. You’re not just joining a company; you’re joining a community.”

The Yukon Hospital Corporation is in a similar situation. Once people make the move to a remote place like Whitehorse, they tend to stay. But getting talented workers there in the first place is the difficult part.

“The health care industry is a very competitive market, so when you do find good, well-qualified staff, you want to keep them,” says Joe MacGillivray, chief executive officer of the Yukon Hospital Corporation, which operates Whitehorse General Hospital, Watson Lake Hospital, and Dawson City Hospital. “The hardest part is getting people here initially. Once they’re here, they realize it’s a good standard of living and a unique lifestyle.”

To cater to a work force that’s 83 per cent female, the corporation provides maternity and parental top-up payments. In addition, an onsite daycare facility is nearing completion.

Staff also have access to a meditation and religious-observance room and a fitness facility. Employees receive four weeks of vacation after their first year of service, and awards for long-term service include an additional week of paid leave after five years and assistance with retirement planning.

“Base compensation and a competitive benefits package are one thing, but all the other things you can do around the edges [makes a difference]” says Mr. MacGillivray. “There’s work-life balance here.”

Special to The Globe and Mail

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