April 18, 2008

Welcome to Mount Beemer

Gord McCreary hopes to turn an iron mountain into a pile of German cars, a ton of cash and hundreds of jobs

JOHN THOMPSON

MARY RIVER - Inuit call the mountain Nulujaat, or buttocks, because its gentle curves remind them of a woman's shapely bottom. But Gord McCreary sees a big pile of automobiles.

"These are all BMWs you're standing on," he chortles on the mountain top, 160 km south of Pond Inlet and 500 metres above sea level, where workers are busy drilling holes and laying explosives. All around McCreary's feet lie fragments of red rock - remarkably pure iron ore.

McCreary is president of Baffinland Iron Mines Corp., a junior mining company with big plans. It wants, in essence, to blow this mountain up and ship it in tiny pieces to the blast furnaces of Europe, where the ore would be used to build, among other things, German cars.

Baffinland’s Mary River camp is home to some 230 workers. That number will grow to 350 during the peak of construction this summer.
(PHOTOS BY JOHN THOMPSON)

Baffinland hopes to have a mine open by 2014 that would transform Baffin Island's economy, offering hundreds of high-paying jobs to communities where work is scarce. But the company still faces many challenges.

Baffinland has only just entered Nunavut's onerous regulatory system. It needs to raise $4.1 billion in start-up money. And it needs to sway naysayers who worry about the project's impact on caribou, whales and walrus.

But everyone on site speaks as if the project is predestined. They are, after all, already mining, as Baffinland prepares to ship a bulk sample of 250,000 tonnes of ore this summer to Europe, to prove the quality of its ore to potential customers.

Right now there are about 230 workers on site, one-quarter of whom are Inuit.

Among them is Terry Qamaniq, 28, of Pond Inlet, who is helping with the drilling and blasting work on the mountain top. He's worked at the site for about a year. It beats his old job, working on trawlers for the Baffin Fisheries Coalition.

Fishing involves spending as long as two months at sea. Here, he gets to return home every two weeks. And it's only a half-hour flight home, compared to 12-hour commute from St. John's, Newfoundland.

Eric Tikivik and Meesa Nooveya, both of Iqaluit, are doing construction work at Baffinland’s Mary River camp.


Guys like Qamaniq earn about $25 an hour. No wonder hamlets are worried about losing truck drivers and other skilled workers to the site.

McCreary, realizing he needs community support, says he's working with mayors and senior administrative officers to ensure communities are left with enough workers to plow their runways and fill their water tanks.

Barnaby Arreak, 34, used to issue water bills for the Hamlet of Pond Inlet. Now he tracks inventory at the mine site and helps organize pilot schedules.

Soon he'll be a construction supervisor, now that he's completed a first aid course. Next he wants to complete his Class II driver's license, and "keep trying to work my way up to the top."

"I'm accelerating really fast," he says. "They know I'm smart, I'm a hard worker."

He'd like to buy a new snowmobile. But first he needs to pay child support for two daughters in Iqaluit.

During time off, Arreak shoots pool in the camp's recreation room, which is also stocked with plasma television sets, comfy couches and a dart board. Nearby there's a workout room, phones and wireless internet, and a cafeteria open 20 hours a day.

All this is under one roof, as of mid-February, when a dozen big new tents were erected and linked by a corridor. The whole structure has linoleum floors, fluorescent lighting and heating.

Gord McCreary, president of Baffinland Iron Mines Corp., holds some recently-crushed iron ore.


But it's still a tent. During strong winds the walls flap, and all through the night the rumble of heavy equipment passes straight through the tent.

The only thing that bothers Arreak is the absence of a store. It's a problem when he runs out of cigarettes.

Some Inuit workers have more trouble adjusting to camp life. For some it's their first job. Not everyone's used to rising early, meeting a tight timetable and following strict safety rules.

Alcohol and drugs are prohibited on site. When workers arrive, each bag is searched by security staff. Last year four workers were caught with liquor or hash. This year, so far, three workers were caught with marijuana - no big surprise in a territory awash with the stuff.

Break the rules and you're on the next plane off. But there are no permanent bans. Employees are told to re-apply in a few months, after a cooling-off period.

And, in an effort to accommodate Inuit workers, every qallunaat foreman has an Inuk counterpart who explains the day's work in Inuktitut.

The company plans to train 200 Inuit heavy equipment operators over the next three years. Some say that's not enough.

Barnaby Arreak, 34, of Pond Inlet shoots pool inside the camp’s recreation room.


But James Tagalik, 52, of Arviat has another concern. He's worked as a heavy duty mechanic for more than 30 years, and is one of the few Inuit tradesmen on site. He worries there may not be enough young Inuit from Baffin communities who have enough schooling to continue on as tradesmen.

Many Baffin residents are still coming to terms with the immensity of the project.

If it goes ahead, trains pulling 110 cars full of ore, stretching two km, would run along a 143-km rail line from Mary River to Steensby Inlet, northeast of Igloolik. There, machinery at a deepwater port would feed some of the largest ships in the world a steady supply of ore year-round, shipping 12.6 million tonnes each year.

Ida Macpa, 39, grew up on the land near Milne Inlet, west of Pond Inlet, with family who hunted caribou, seal and beluga. This summer the same area will be buzzing with heavy equipment as freighters are fed the 250,000-tonne bulk sample to be shipped to Europe. She worries what will happen to the land and animals.

"It's awful for me," she says. "But people need to live on something, too."

That includes herself. Macpa washes dishes at Mary River, where she earns twice as much here as she did at a hotel in Pond Inlet.

She also needs to think about the grandchildren she expects soon. They'll need jobs one day, too.

If the mine meets expectations, they could expect work as well. The first phase alone is expected to last at least 20 years. After that, there are three other deposits to be exploited.

"It'll be a flywheel that'll run forever," says McCreary. "If this gets started, it will keep running until it's exhausted."

Workers lay explosives atop the mountain.