May 18, 2001

Polaris: The end of the mine

Neighbours of Nunavut’s northernmost mine are steeling themselves for Polaris’ coming shutdown.

AARON SPITZER
Nunatsiaq News

IQALUIT — With the closure of the Polaris mine a mere year away, the High Arctic is beginning to brace for the blow of the shutdown.

The mine, owned by Vancouver-based Cominco Ltd., has been digging lead and zinc for 20 years on Little Cornwallis Island northwest of Resolute Bay. With ore-reserves running out, Polaris will close in July of 2002.

In direct job losses, the knock to Nunavut will be slight. Of the mine’s 255 workers, fewer than 20 are from the North. Most of the rest are flown up from Edmonton and Ottawa on eight-week-long shifts.

Still, the spin-off impacts of the shutdown will be noticeable, especially to the 200 people of Resolute Bay.

According to a study commissioned by the Northwest Territories government in 1997, for every Resolute resident who works at the mine, another 1.6 are employed in positions created indirectly by Polaris’ presence.

More than 30 per cent of the jobs in the community are related to the mine, the study found.

During its two decades in operation, contracts with Polaris have provided cash flow to several Resolute businesses.

Key among them is Narwhal Arctic Services, which has a deal with the mine to handle freight and luggage that lands in Resolute en route to Little Cornwallis Island. Narwhal also operates a hotel that sometimes houses miners overnighting in Resolute.

"We’re going to feel it when [the mine] moves out," said Sam Whiting, Narwhal’s manager of operations. "We are going to feel an economic change, and not for the better."

Whiting said Narwhal employs 14 workers in Resolute. Whether some of them will have to be laid off, he said, depends on how the mine-closure affects traffic at Resolute’s airport, where Narwhal has the contract to provide freight-handling and other services.

Fears of fewer flights

Many Resolute residents share Whiting’s concerns about the impact of the mine closure on air service. They worry that First Air, which transports Polaris’ miners and freight between Resolute and the South, could cut flights, or even pull out entirely, after July of 2002.

Because of the mine, Resolute has better air service than any other small community in Nunavut.

First Air currently serves the community with 727s — its biggest jets — sending two per week from Ottawa by way of Iqaluit. The company also flies 737s twice a week from Edmonton.

Terry Jesudason, who depends on First Air to carry tourists and cargo to her hotel, the Qausuittuq Inn, fears Polaris’ closure will limit access to Resolute.

"It could possibly affect the type of aircraft that is available to come up," she said. "That could then make the trip longer for people, or possibly more expensive."

Though First Air officials said the company will continue to fly to Resolute even after Polaris shuts, they acknowledged that changes might eventually have to be made.

"We served Resolute for 12 years prior to winning the Cominco contract, and we plan on serving Resolute for some time to come," said Jim Ballingall, First Air’s vice-president of marketing.

"I wouldn’t want to make a commitment, but right now, in the short term, I don’t see any major changes."

GN studies shutdown

During the Nunavut legislature’s February sitting in Iqaluit, Rebekah Uqi Williams, Resolute’s MLA, questioned the Nunavut government about its plans for helping High Arctic residents cope with the economic shock of the closure.

But in an interview last week, Williams said few Nunavummiut stand to lose jobs in the shutdown — because the mine employs so few Nunavummiut to begin with.

"I don’t think it’s going to affect a lot," she said.

Gordon MacKay, the director of the Nunavut government’s Division of Minerals, Oil and Gas, said a study on the likely impacts of the shutdown will be conducted "well in advance of the mine closing."

So far, though, no firm plans for such a study have been made, and no programs to help laid-off mine workers are in place.

MacKay said it’s hard to calculate how the closure will affect Resolute. New mineral or gas finds, or an increase in eco-tourism, could counteract the harm the shutdown might cause to the High Arctic, he said.

"There are other variables on the horizon that would have to be considered," he said. "It’s a very active area with a lot of potential."

Short-term gains?

Polaris’ shutdown could even be a temporary boon to Northern businesses and workers, suggested the mine’s manager.

John Knapp, who oversees the Polaris mine for Cominco, said the planned two-year clean up of the mine site will be contracted out, and Nunavummiut will have a good shot at those jobs.

Regulatory agencies, like the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs and the Nunavut Water Board, require that Little Cornwallis Island be returned "as near as possible to its original state."

Cominco’s clean-up plan must be screened by the Nunavut Impact Review Board.

Tenders for the clean-up contracts will likely go out late next winter or spring.

The Nunavut government’s own pocketbook won’t be much hurt by the Polaris pullout.

The mine sits on Crown land, and pays its annual lease-fees to Ottawa, not the territory. The fees come to $34,000 per year, but none of that money is directly earmarked for Nunavut.

The mine is required to pay corporate-income tax to Nunavut, and the mineworkers also provide money to the GN through their payroll taxes.

Mine a good neighbour

Aziz Kheraj, who runs Resolute’s South Camp Inn, said the mine has been a good neighbour. Whenever Resolute residents have approached Polaris for donations, he said, the company has given generously.

"The mine supports the community tremendously in various ventures, financially and with contributions and grants and things," Kheraj said.

"When we wanted to build a gymnasium here back in 1990 they gave $100,000 to the community."

The mine also provides college scholarships to any Resolute Bay youth who graduates from high school.

Polaris will definitely be missed, Kheraj said. "The extent will only be known after it’s gone."