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Giant Mine needs hundreds of workers at a time. Staying, uh, where?

Hundreds of seacans containing highly contaminated material at Giant Mine. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

Over the next 15 years, the federal government anticipates needing more than 2,000 full-time workers to remediate Yellowknife’s Giant Mine. Someone has to figure out where they stay.

Giant Mine, a former gold mine, closed in the early 2000s and now represents a $4.38-billion headache. Toxic arsenic trioxide beneath the mine must be safely contained, work requiring many years and lots of employees.

Those thousands of workers won’t all come at once. The federally led remediation team estimates 142 to 260 full-time workers will be needed per year depending on the project stage.

In a city with near-zero vacancy, if some or possibly most of those staff end up coming from out of town, where are they all going to stay?

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“We are working on it,” said Natalie Plato, deputy director of the remediation project, in a presentation to Yellowknife city councillors earlier this month.

“We don’t have an answer,” Plato added, before focusing on efforts to attract local workers. “The best answer is we don’t have to bring foreign workers in or import people in. That’s our number-one goal to not having a housing crisis.”

The project, which is now ramping up year-on-year after a lengthy preparatory period, has taken steps to incentivize local employment during the procurement process. But there are indications that those measures haven’t been as effective as hoped, falling short of targets for Indigenous and northern employment.

“We’ve always known that there are going to be challenges getting local people to do the work,” said Plato at the same meeting.

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If the majority of workers do end up being imports, the federal government says the private contractors employing those people must work out how to house them.

“The Giant Mine Remediation Project does not have a work camp or provisions for accommodations; these are instead the purview of those subcontracted to complete work packages,” Plato wrote in an email to Cabin Radio.

“As individual contractors are not required to report on how they intend to accommodate their workers, the project team is unable to provide specific information.”

Plato did not immediately respond to a request to share any additional steps Ottawa is taking to prevent the project from contributing to Yellowknife’s housing crisis. A 144-page annual report on the remediation’s progress and plans, released last year, makes no mention of housing or accommodation for workers.

An abandoned home at the former Giant Mine townsite
An abandoned home at the former Giant Mine townsite. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

Rob Warburton is a Yellowknife city councillor who just finished a term on the city’s community advisory board on homelessness. His business, Cloudworks, in part specializes in worker accommodation.

Warburton says several contractors have contacted him looking for accommodation, only to have to back out of projects when nothing was available. He says the delayed completion of the Stanton Legacy project, which is transforming an old hospital into a care facility, is an example.

“There’s literally work not happening on projects in town because of this issue,” Warburton said.

“Passing the buck to contractors doesn’t work, and it will cause delays in your project. It’s just poor project management not to think about where workers are going to stay in a place that has no housing.”

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But he doesn’t believe that’s what’s happening here. Warburton is sure the federal government has a plan.

“I have confidence that they are thinking about this,” he said. “It’s just that we haven’t heard about what they’re doing yet.”

Warburton believes this planning will make all the difference to ensure the project improves the quality of life for residents in the short and long term.

“This could be a huge benefit,” he said. “The accommodations, the food service, all that stuff that goes along with workers? It’s an opportunity for us. But there will be a big negative impact if we’re trying to compete with already-scarce housing units for folks who live here already.”

Warburton raised the subject when Plato presented to councillors.

“This is why I asked the question. This is why I’m going to keep pushing to make sure this is front-of-mind for folks, and built into their plan,” he said. “We’re just not big enough for there to be no plan.”

Plato said the remediation project’s subcontractors have successfully secured accommodation for the work that has already begun, but Warburton worries the path forward is less clear.

“Even 100 new people in town makes a huge difference right now,” he said.