The federal government says it can do a better job of employing northern and Indigenous workers to help clean up Giant Mine.
An independent oversight body has criticized the former gold mine's federal remediation team for failing to ensure enough work is given to local residents, calling on the project to do more.
In its annual report, the Giant Mine Oversight Board said 2016-17 figures showed one in four workers at Giant Mine was northern. Just four percent, or one worker in 25, was Indigenous.
The oversight board said it found those figures "very disappointing and would have expected much greater involvement and benefits for northern and Indigenous communities."
Speaking to Cabin Radio, Natalie Plato – the remediation project's deputy director – admitted those Indigenous employment numbers were concerning and said the project would re-examine its approach.
"That certainly does seem low, for sure," said Plato.
"We’re looking at the oversight board's recommendation. We’ve also heard it from some of our stakeholders as well.
"We’re starting to work on a socio-economic approach and then we’re going to go out and do some consultation on that, to see what people have to say."
That admission comes after workers at a northern-owned joint venture were told their jobs at Giant are being lost.
Since 2013, two groups – Inuit-owned Nuna and Yellowknives Dene corporation Det'on Cho – have jointly held the care and maintenance contract for the mine. Giant ceased production in 1999, leaving 237,000 tonnes of a toxic byproduct named arsenic trioxide buried underground and requiring constant care.
That contract expires in June. Cabin Radio has seen a lay-off notice sent to joint venture workers last week, some of whom had been employed at the site for years.
One of the workers affected, a Yellowknife resident, said by email: "This is the result when the federal government awarded a multi-million dollar contract to a US-owned company without ensuring a condition to protect northern workers, in particular those workers who have been employed for years working on the remediation of the Giant Mine site."
The email refers to a California-based company named Parsons Environmental, which recently won a $31 million contract to manage operations at the site on behalf of the federal government.
Parsons will eventually be the company responsible for fully cleaning up the site under federal guidance. For now, the company's responsibilities include running the bidding to renew the expiring care and maintenance contract.
'We don't set minimums'
Parsons has split the work into five smaller contracts, each a separate bidding process. The federal government says those new contracts will be awarded in the next week or two, using a strict set of bid criteria sent to each interested company.
One worker in touch with Cabin Radio expressed concern that smaller contracts would "effectively dissolve" a unionized workforce, weaken employees' rights, and potentially lead to lower wages.
Plato told Cabin Radio all contracts – the expiring agreement with Det'on Cho/Nuna, the new arrangement with Parsons, and the smaller contracts to be awarded shortly – must include what the federal government calls an Aboriginal Opportunities Considerations element.
"That means companies have to propose Aboriginal local employment, as well as Aboriginal subcontracting," Plato explained. She added two of the smaller contracts being awarded were open only to Indigenous-owned bidders.
However, while companies must outline their commitment to northern and Indigenous workers in bids for work, there are no safeguards for northern workers employed under prior contracts and no minimum percentages bidders must guarantee.
"That’s something we haven’t done, we don’t set minimums," said Plato. "We let the market tell us what is achievable."
Companies who propose hiring more northern and Indigenous workers get a higher score on their bid evaluation, in theory making them more likely to win the contract.
Despite the low rates of local employment set out in the oversight board's report, Plato said overall figures for the decade from 2006 to 2016 painted a better picture for northerners.
According to Plato, of all employees and contractors at Giant Mine in that 10-year span, 56 percent were northern and 50 percent were Indigenous.
"We think we were doing quite well on our numbers," she said.
"Some people might think those are low but we aren’t doing the remediation work yet [it is due to begin in 2020]. The site is relatively limited to employees keeping it in care and maintenance. We’ve provided over 1,500 training hours to Indigenous employees."
Plato says the federal government will issue a formal response to the oversight board's criticism in the near future.
Both Parsons and the Deton'Cho/Nuna joint venture told us they were unable to comment and redirected our enquiries to the federal government.
Parsons employs just over 9,200 people in North America. Last month, the company released a report entitled "People. Planet. Progress." in which it pledged: "We continuously pursue diversity in our workforce."
In February, Parsons noted it had been named one of the "world's most ethical companies."
The same month, as the federal government announced Parsons would be Giant Mine's main construction manager for the foreseeable future, federal procurement minister Carla Qualtrough said: "This contract award highlights our government's commitment to the North, to Indigenous Peoples, and to the environment.
"This contract will target maximum local involvement, create jobs, support economic growth, and ensure the protection of our environment for future generations."