Baffinland not meeting Inuit employment goals at Mary River: QIA

Inuit are losing out because of 'a general lack of effort' from Baffinland, argued the Qikiqtani Inuit Association in its review of the Inuit Impact and Benefit Agreement for the Mary River Project.

The Qikiqtani Inuit Association says Baffinland has shown 'a general lack of effort' in implementing the IIBA

A view of Baffinland Iron Mine's camp at Milne Inlet in Nunavut in August 2014. (Baffinland)

The Qikiqtani Inuit Association says Baffinland is falling behind in employment and training goals outlined in the Inuit Impact and Benefit Agreement for the Mary River Project. 

The regional organization has released its first three-year review of the agreement, arguing that Inuit have lost out on what was owed to them — including contracts, jobs, training and social programs. 

"The lost benefits have been substantial," the report reads, arguing that "a general lack of effort by Baffinland" is partly to blame.

But the Inuit organization acknowledges its own failures.

"QIA underestimated the complexity of IIBA implementation and the degree to which the organization would be expected to lead it." 

The seven-page report goes on to outline how the Qikiqtani Inuit Association believes Inuit are losing out and what the two groups need to do to fully implement their original agreement.

Baffinland 'not reaching targets'

One of the main criticisms in the report is that Baffinland has fallen behind in its goals for hiring Inuit. 

In the 2013 agreement, Baffinland and QIA set a "Minimum Inuit Employment Goal" for the purpose of guaranteeing Inuit are given preference through the company's hiring process. 

"QIA and Baffinland agreed to a Minimum Inuit Employment Goal of 25 per cent for Baffinland staff and for all new contracts awarded in 2016," the organization wrote. 
Not only has Inuit employment not reached the goal of 25 per cent, it's been "steadily decreasing" each year since the agreement was signed.

Not only has Inuit employment not reached that goal, it's been "steadily decreasing" each year since the agreement was signed. 

"We're not reaching our targets in employment. There's no question about that," said Todd Berlingame, Baffinland's vice-president of sustainable development, in an interview with CBC.

Berlingame also said he can't predict when the goal might be reached.

"It's really hard to put a number on it. These are targets, right? They're not fixed thresholds that are hammered into stone. I mean we've got to be able to see some improvement," said Berlingame.

"The trend is going in the wrong direction right now and we need to start by reversing that trend."

'Room for improvement'

Berlingame says there are "a variety of reasons" why Baffinland has not reached its Inuit employment goal, but acknowledges there is a lot of "room for improvement" when it comes to training.

"It's a very challenging situation," said Berlingame. "Not everyone wants to work on a rotation. Not everyone wants to work on a mine."

One possible solution the company is exploring is allowing for flexibility in employee shifts around significant hunting times in nearby communities, he said. 

"This is not something that Baffinland has ignored. Nor QIA for that matter. It's recognized as an issue."

QIA's review pinpointed another issue with training at Baffinland, writing that "almost none of the $2 million guaranteed for Inuit education and training has been spent by Baffinland."

"Virtually all of the training provided to Inuit has been delivered as part of normal operations and cannot be attributed to the IIBA," the review stated.

Baffinland says 'financial times' are tough

But Berlingame says one of the main reasons why Baffinland has not yet reached its employment targets is because the price of iron ore has dropped so dramatically since the agreement was drafted. 

"The world has changed significantly since the agreement was signed," said Berlingame. "It's been a struggle."

When the Inuit Impact and Benefit Agreement was being negotiated, Baffinland put forward a production scenario of 18-million tonnes of iron ore per year, based on a price of $140US per tonne, he said.

With the current market price for iron ore is hovering around $60US per tonne, Baffinland is producing a fraction of its previous goal: 3-million tonnes per year.

"We need to reach a threshold of production to be a sustainable operation," he said. "At 3-million-tonnes a year, this operation does not make money."

QIA/Baffinland relationship 'a bit testy'

That financial reality has made the relationship between QIA and Baffinland "a bit testy," said Berlingame — a statement few would argue given that QIA has said the mining company owes it millions in advance royalty payments.

Berlingame says Baffinland is ready to work with QIA to find solutions to the challenges it faces in finding, training and retaining Inuit staff. 

"We're going to work through this. I'm confident of that," he said. 

"To be very frank, we're really looking forward to rebuilding or building a trust relationship with QIA. We would not want to move into an area of the relationship where it's confrontational."

The Qikiqtani Inuit Association put forward a number of next steps for the implementation of the agreement, including creating strategies to promote, monitor and evaluate Inuit employment. 

The group wrote that it has not ruled out the possibility of negotiating a change to certain provisions in the Inuit Impact and Benefit Agreement, if the priorities it has set out in the review are not met.