Nunavik's Raglan mine was supposed to launch a badly needed employment boom for Nunavik Inuit. But not's not the way things have worked out.
MONTREAL Five years ago this month, Nunavimmiut and Falconbridge Ltd. signed the Raglan Agreement, a deal designed to give Inuit a share in the giant mining company's new nickel mine.
Praised as a model for partnership between native interests and mining companies, the Raglan Agreement appeared to guarantee jobs and business opportunities, in addition to cash compensation and profit-sharing.
"It already sets an important precedent for any other private developers who may eventually start a project in Nunavik," said Simeonie Nalukturuk, president of Makivik in 1995 and one of signatories of the Raglan Agreement.
While the Raglan Agreement included a complex pay-off scheme worth at least $75 million to Nunavimmiut over the mine's 20-year lifetime, the new employment possibilities at the mine were always considered to be the real bonus for the people job-starved Nunavik.
Only 16 per cent
Yet in November 1999, after intense and expensive catch-up training, the percentage of Inuit employed at Falconbridge's Raglan subsidiary, the Société minière Raglan du Québec, stood only at 15 per cent, or 54 employees.
According to the SMRQ, it's now at 16 per cent, but this still falls short of the 20 per cent minimum Inuit employment figure Inuit leaders expected to see when they signed the agreement.
A 1996 press release of the Kativik Environmental Advisory Committee declared "Inuit workers... should form at least 20 per cent of the total work force."
The agreement didn't spell out any percentages for levels of Inuit employment, but "qualified" Inuit were to get the first crack at mine jobs, as well as support to keep their jobs.
Starting in 1995, the Kativik Regional Government put millions of dollars into training courses to prepare local residents for some of the 150 jobs unofficially earmarked for Inuit.
"If we're only at 15 per cent partnership in this deal, we have nothing to brag about," Paul Okituk from Kativik Regional Government told Nunatsiaq News. "Was the Raglan Agreement good for Inuit, or was it just to look good in the eyes of the world?"
Okituk, who recently took over the Raglan employment and training file for the KRG, is encouraged that 10 heavy equipment operators who received training through the KRG and the Kativik School Board are expected to receive their Quebec certification in March.
This will put them on par with their counterparts from the South.
But he's troubled by the low job success and completion rates of some other training programs. The enrolment in the college-level mining technology program at the Nunavimmi Pigiursavik technical and vocational centre in Inukjuak has dropped to only four students from 11.
And Okituk worriesabout the continuing high turnover rates at Raglan, even among trained Inuit. Recently, several skilled, long-time workers at the Raglan mine site left their jobs for family reasons, new employment, or job-related problems.
Last week, the Raglan Technical Committee, a joint committee that oversees Inuit employment and training at the mine, decided to conduct an outside review of some 49 Inuit employees at the mine to see why they left in 1999.
The low Inuit employment figures don't dismay Al Giroux, SMRQ's site manager.
"I could get it up to 20 per cent within three months," Giroux said, but he said these would be low-end, low-skill jobs.
He attributes low Inuit employment rates at the mine to the fact that many qualifed workers prefer to stay in their own communities rather than live at the mine.
And, according to Giroux, graduates of training programs haven't always been suited to mine work, either.
The SMRQ, which received $4 million from the Quebec government last year for training, is counting on the success of its new on-the-job program to boost numbers of Inuit employees.
This program is preparing 28 Inuit to do specific jobs at the mine as service miners, heavy equipment mechanic helpers, carpenter helpers, dispatchers and reception administrators.
The SMRQ also plans to tackle its high turnover rates for Inuit employees with a new peer support program for workers.
With the price of nickel now at $4.00 a pound, the SMRQ can likely afford to invest in its workers. Giroux said he's "very excited" about the strong market that has driven Falconbridge to invest another $26 million to increase the mine's production to one million tonnes of nickel next year.
If production tops one million tonnes a year, the Raglan Agreement will be reopened, and, in this event, Nunavimmiut would have a second chance to strike an even better deal.
Union deal in the works
But there's concern now over how a labour agreement now in negotiation between the SMRQ and Quebec's Steelworkers Union, Le syndicat des métallos could affect future Inuit employment.
This agreement is expected to be signed by the end of March.
And if it gives current employees job security, job-seeking Nunavimmiut with paper qualifications, but no experience, could be even more disadvantaged in the future.
"That's where my fears are. It could be more restrictive," Okituk said.
No Inuit representatives have been participating in these labour negotiations, although union promoters maintain that with Raglan's future expansion, new jobs will come up, providing more than enough employment to fill local demand.
The SMRQ management is also promising to defend the Raglan Agreement.
"But we can only take their word for it that they are not infringing or breaching the spirit and intent of the Raglan Agreement," Okituk said.