A look at Nunavut’s Meliadine, where the future is flecked with gold
“At Meadowbank, you can’t see the gold, but here, it’s visible”
RANKIN INLET – As you pull away from the last row of houses in Rankin Inlet and head inland, over Apache Pass, cabins start to dot the tundra.
It signals a departure from this growing community in Nunavut’s Kivalliq region, but it also marks the start of Agnico Eagle Mines’ new all-weather road.
It winds about 24 kilometres towards the company’s Meliadine gold exploration camp, to what is likely to become its second gold mine in Nunavut.
After the Nunavut Impact Review Board refused Agnico Eagle’s initial application to build a two-lane road, the company came back with a single gravel roadway.
It’s a public access road — with some safety restrictions — and it’s opened up the Meliadine Lake area for hunters and campers.
“We want the road to be open access to the public during the life of the mine,” said Stéphane Robert, Agnico Eagle’s manager of regulatory affairs. “That’s what we’ve proposed.”
The roadway is quiet on a Thursday morning, but it fills with local weekend and even evening traffic.
The roadway passes along the newly-built bridge over Char River, and about halfway in, the white dome tents and colourful sea cans of Meliadine’s exploration camp come into view.
The exploration area spans a stretch of 80 km, with Meliadine Lake wrapped around its northwestern portion.
About 85 staff are employed at the camp this summer: drillers, field workers, geologists, engineers, cooks and other maintenance staff. Seventeen of them are Inuit.
Unlike Agnico Eagle’s Meadowbank mine, which uses mostly open pit mining, the company is also digging deep at Meliadine.
The underground ramp is already 125 metres deep; once the mine is in operation, they hope to have gone 650 metres down.
Crews of seven workers — one daytime and one at night — are doing that by advancing an underground ramp tunnel about four metres each day, by placing explosives in holes along drill patterns and repeating the blast cycle.
In the bright June sunshine, a cart of four workers emerge from the darkened ramp, including construction staffers Raymond Mercer and Ben Angoshadluk.
Both are from Rankin Inlet and employed with the mining contractor, CMAC, hired to work on site.
Mercer has experience in underground mine construction from previous experience mining in Val d’Or, Quebec.
“It’s interesting… it’s definitely a different experience,” he said.
Asked if he enjoys working closer to home, Mercer laughs. “There’s not much difference,” he said. “Home is still away.”
Angoshadluk, 23, started working at the camp just last week, shortly after graduating from a pre-apprenticeship program at Rankin Inlet’s trades school.
He’s keen on his new job — and being underground — and hopes to work his way up to becoming an electrician.
Angoshadluk has had his eye on mining for a while, since Agnico Eagle sent him to do a job training program at Meadowbank while he was still in high school.
“I found out I wanted to be an electrician from there,” he said. “It’s quite a ways [to go], but it’s exciting.”
A couple of kilometres separate the ramp from the main camp. There, the “core shack” houses hundreds of core samples laid out on wooden tables.
Each of the smooth cylinders extracted from the earth holds the mine’s potential. Some are noticeably flecked with quartz and a shiny orange-brown.
“At Meadowbank, you can’t see the gold, but here, it’s visible,” Robert said. “The geology is different is this region.”
But the presence of gold and its grade is only determined once the samples are sent to southern labs.
Agnico Eagle has said the mine could produce 400,000 ounces of gold per year over its 13-year lifespan, which hopes to run from about 2018 to 2030, and possibly longer.
Once in operation, Meliadine will employ about 700 people. Agnico Eagle said it invested in 13,000 hours of training for Inuit beneficiaries last year, with hopes that many of those workers will come from local communities.
That’s what Aaron Kigeak hopes too. He’s filling up a fuel truck at the exploration camp, where he’s been employed since Agnico Eagle bought the site in 2010.
Up the road, his son Mik, 18, is painting a sea can. The teen just arrived on site yesterday as part of a summer program Agnico Eagle runs, where it hires some of its employees’ adult children for the summer, in the hope of drawing them into the industry.
Kigeak’s son just graduated from high school in Rankin Inlet.
“There’s not much to do for school kids in Rankin,” Kigeak said. “A lot of them use drugs and alcohol.”
Working at Meliadine is a win-win situation, Kigeak said. It’s a chance for his son to make some good money over the summer and then help him decide if he wants to register for training or apply for a permanent entry level position.
That’s a big decision to make. The mine’s two-week-on, two-week-off schedule means committing to six months of the year at the exploration camp.
But at this phase in the project, the camp’s smaller staff and facilities make the job easier to navigate for some.
Everyone knows everyone else’s name. With the site’s high number of Québécois staff, there’s plenty of French spoken, and Inuktitut too.
But in the open, the common language of communication is English.
The main camp facility is a series of inter-connected hallways, leading to dormitories, offices, a weight room and the kitchen and dining area.
From there, the smell of curried haddock and ground lamb welcomes staff at lunch time. The windows of the dining area look out over an arm of Meliadine Lake.
It’s from there that staff saw a herd of caribou on a distant shore in 2012, ready to pass through the camp site on their annual summer migration.
While the Qamanirjuaq herd’s migration patterns vary through the region, in both 2012 and 2013, caribou crossed directly through the site.
That has led to Meliadine’s proposed policy: when more than 50 caribou are spotted nearby, the mine will suspend all its outdoor activities until the herd passes through.
That’s one of many mitigation measures spelled out in the company’s final environment impact statement, released last month.
Next, the Nunavut Impact Review Board will host final hearings on the mine in Rankin Inlet, between Aug. 21 and Aug. 27, which will include technical presentations, community roundtables and a site visit.
Agnico Eagle officials expect a response from the NIRB by the end of 2014, and then it would go to the federal government for final approval.
From there, Meliadine could have its project certificate to move forward by early 2015.