Health & Safety
‘We’re left behind’: Inuit mine worker blasts COVID-19 rules keeping him from job
By David Venn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
For the better portion of the last two years, Rankin Inlet resident Kumanaa Autut has been at home instead of working at the Meadowbank mine.
In his place are rotational workers from the south, while the Government of Nunavut keeps territorial residents away from the mines due to COVID-19. Autut, 67, doesn’t think that’s fair.
“The gold mine is at my house, it’s on my land,” Autut said. “My land, my gold.”
The mine, operated by Agnico Eagle Mines Ltd., first sent Nunavummiut staff home in March 2020 and, most recently, on Dec. 24, after a dozen cases were confirmed across the company’s three Nunavut mine sites: Meliadine, Meadowbank and the Hope Bay property.
Although Nunavummiut directly employed by the mine receive 75 per cent of their pay when they are at home, contractors don’t get the same treatment, as is Autut’s case.
For 10 years, Autut has worked for a contractor who supplies dynamite to Agnico Eagle.
Since the pandemic began, he has been off and on employment insurance and the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, which only offered a small fraction of his annual salary and much less than the 75 per cent annual salary that direct employees receive.
Autut hasn’t received any benefits since Dec. 24, his last day at work, although his employer recently offered him 75 per cent of his salary as of January.
On top of that, he said he’s missing out on the pension contributions that usually come with his salary.
“It’s been pretty hard on me and also on my family because we have to pay the bills,” he said. “It’s been stressful.”
Agnico Eagle is close to bringing workers from Nunavut back to work, says company spokesperson Sonja Galton, who adds there is only one active COVID-19 case left at the Meliadine mine.
The company is in the midst of getting approval from Nunavut’s chief public health officer, Dr. Michael Patterson, and will be provided updates when that happens, Galton said.
“We are now in the final stages of implementing the correct protocols that will need to be in place … to establish a return date and bring everyone back safely,” she wrote in an email.
Patterson provided some detail on the process during Thursday’s COVID-19 update. He said bringing Nunavut workers back to the mine has to do with the company’s comfort level with increasing the risk of COVID-19 spreading in communities, how easily the company can prevent spread on site and how often staff bring COVID-19 to the mine site from the south.
Autut, who is fully vaccinated and has had his booster, understands that communities need to be kept safe from COVID-19, but if Nunavummiut are following safety protocols, he said, they should be able to work.
“(Southern workers) are going to work and I’m stuck at home with nothing,” he said. “And this is my house, this is my land. That’s not right. That’s not right at all.”
For Autut, being replaced by southern workers means less money, opportunity and experience for Inuit.
He said he wants the Kivalliq Inuit Association and Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. to lobby for Nunavut workers to return and for the Government of Nunavut to weigh the benefits of sending workers home versus missing out on benefits.
“We’re left behind, and this mine is not going to be forever,” he said.
“This is our opportunity to get people to work at the mine to be a carpenter, to be a plumber, to learn a trade. This is our chance.”
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