The NWT’s Liberal MP, Michael McLeod, says his federal government is not yet hiring or awarding contracts to enough local and Indigenous people for northern mine reclamation.
Carolyn Bennett, the federal Crown-Indigenous relations minister, said Ottawa is working to improve its procurement process. On Monday, Bennett spent time in Yellowknife discussing a $2.2-billion federal investment over 15 years to clean up high-risk abandoned mine sites in the NWT and Yukon.
Low employment rates for northerners have already been a concern at the federally led Giant Mine remediation project in Yellowknife, which is ramping up and expected to create hundreds of jobs in the coming years.
“We could do better. We’ve asked and had many discussions with the federal public works minister to do a review,” McLeod said on Monday.
“We’re still not hitting the mark when it comes to the percentage of required work that should go to Indigenous companies and organizations.”
The $2.2-billion package to treat abandoned mines was previously announced as part of the Government of Canada’s Budget 2019. That money will pay to remediate the two territories’ eight largest abandoned mine sites.
The NWT mines covered by the funding, which begins in 2020, are the Giant, Cantung, and Great Bear mines. Around $700 million will be spent cleaning up the three former mines.
Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett pledged the federal government would do better on northern procurement. Emelie Peacock/Cabin Radio
Bennett promised her government found it “no longer acceptable” for money dedicated to northern projects to “leak” to southern firms and individuals.
The minister also pledged the federal government would do more to uncover contractors only purporting to be Indigenous, calling them “inappropriate allocations.” Bennett said the Nunatsiavut Group of Companies, in Labrador, had complained of supposedly Indigenous companies paying an Indigenous person to be a partner, when the partner was not involved in the company’s day-to-day operations.
Jeff Mackey, the federal director of program management for contaminated sites, said projects were mandated to build relations with communities and Indigenous governments adjacent to mines.
“We’ve asked them as well how they’d like to be participating in the project and in the economy associated with the projects,” said Mackey. “We’ve been challenged, and we’ve accepted the challenge, to continue to try to do a better job. We collect regular data and report back on that.”
Bennett added: “[The funding program] will allow us to have … certainty so we can get these things done without waiting for these stop-start, stop-start kinds of funding arrangements that are, hopefully, now a thing of the past.”
20 per cent of Giant’s workers are northern
The 237,000 tonnes of arsenic trioxide stored under the surface of the former Giant gold mine is being remediated by the federal government after production ceased in 1999 and the mine’s owner went bankrupt.
Full remediation of the mine is set to start next year. The arsenic trioxide is to be frozen in place using tubes known as thermosyphons inserted into the earth to regulate its temperature. The federal department in charge of remediation, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, has previously promised to give more work to northerners.
While leaders of the Giant Mine Remediation Project have previously stated more than 50 percent of those involved in the work were northern, that statement was criticized by the project’s independent oversight board. The remediation team’s 2017-18 employment figures show 20 percent of workers were northern and a mere four percent were Indigenous.
A 2008 image of buildings awaiting remediation at the Giant Mine site. WinterCity296/Wikimedia
Natalie Plato, deputy director of the Giant remediation project, told Cabin Radio companies applying for contracts have to outline their commitments to hire northern and Indigenous workers. There are, however, no minimum percentages to which companies must agree.
“That’s something we haven’t done, we don’t set minimums,” she told Cabin Radio in May 2018. “We let the market tell us what is achievable.”
Remediation of Cantung, Great Bear mines
The Cantung tungsten mine sits along the NWT-Yukon border, flanked to the east by the Nahanni National Park Reserve. The federal government is funding remediation of the mine as the North American Tungsten Corporation has been under creditor protection since 2015.
The territorial and federal governments have agreed to the marketing and potential sale of tungsten and copper reserves at Cantung, so mining could continue at the site before it is fully remediated and closed.
The Great Bear mine project involves cleaning up a number of smaller-scale mines on the east side of Great Bear Lake in the Sahtu. These include Silver Bear, Contact Lake, Bonanza, and Sawmill Bay. A Monday federal government news release stated combining these mines for the clean-up phase reduces the environmental impact and costs.
The federal government said locals from Délįne, 250 km west of the mines, have been hired for positions including community liaison, fieldwork, remediation, and training.
In 15 years’ time, “active remediation” is expected to be complete at all of the NWT projects. They will still require long-term care.
Other contaminated mine sites not named as part of the $2.2-billion package, as well as potential new sites requiring remediation, will be under the care of the federal government’s Contaminated Sites Action Plan. That provides $188 million in funding for the three territories over five years.