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OPINION | N.W.T. mines are COVID-19 time bombs — let's put people over profit

Thomas Gagnon-van Leeuwen says the operational mines in the N.W.T. are ticking time bombs that risk causing a COVID-19 outbreak. He says this could overwhelm the health-care system and extend the current measures by months.

It's time to put public health over industry health says organizer with Our Time Yellowknife

A file photo of a worker underground at Goldcorp Inc's Borden all-electric gold mine near Chapleau, Ont. 'The pandemic is a wake-up call: we need a new economy that puts people over profit,' states Thomas Gagnon-van Leeuwen. (Chris Wattie/REUTERS)

COVID-19 has forced everyone to make sacrifices.

Beyond the human impacts, many businesses in the N.W.T. have closed or curtailed their operations, leaving owners in a cash crunch and sending employees to the online unemployment line.

But in the Northwest Territories, one sector is largely exempt from the travel restrictions and ban on indoor gatherings that keep us safe.

Two diamond mines still operate in the territory. They are ticking time bombs that risk causing a COVID-19 outbreak. This could overwhelm our health-care system and extend the current measures by months.

The pandemic is a wake-up call: we need a new economy that puts people over profit. For the past year, I have been organizing with Our Time Yellowknife to promote just this. It's called the Green New Deal.

It would create thousands of good jobs to tackle the existential threat of climate breakdown. This could include addressing the N.W.T.'s dire housing crisis and investing in child care and healing programs, which are low-carbon sectors. It would uphold Indigenous rights and leave no one behind.

But what happens when the economy depends on resource extraction so much that governments put industry health over worker health?

COVID-19 has shown us what is truly essential: caring for elders, educating youth, having food on the table and a decent roof over our heads.- Thomas Gagnon-van Leeuwen

Look south of the border. Alberta has kept crowding workers in oil sands camps to extract barrels of oil worth less than a cup of coffee. As a result, an outbreak at the Kearl Lake camp has infected 37 workers with COVID-19. Most returned home as far as B.C. and Nova Scotia before showing any symptoms of the virus.

How can our government be so sure that what happened at Kearl Lake will not happen at Diavik or Gahcho Kué?

In this scenario, the main difference between Alberta and the N.W.T. is that Alberta has 704 ICU beds. We have six.

In a public health emergency, our government allows workers from the South to come work in the territory. This endangers not only workers themselves, but also the communities to which northern workers will return. The public health order that applies to the mines doesn't even make them segregate southern workers from northern ones.

Industry Minister Katrina Nokleby leaves it to employers, as "strong corporate citizens," to do so "as much as possible."

For the rest of us non-corporate citizens, there is the threat of $10,000 fines and jail time.

This policy flies in the face of the government's strict travel restrictions. Faced with this incoherence, N.W.T.'s Chief Public Health Officer Kami Kandola told the CBC last week that while diamonds are a luxury, the mining jobs and financial benefits they bring are "very real and important."

She added, "more people die and get sick if they do not have work."

Following this logic, we should not have closed any businesses or economic sectors. To get a haircut is a luxury, but hairdressers — and anyone else providing inessential services — also find the benefits of their businesses to be real and important.

This logic also implies that workers need to choose between their jobs and their health.

An aerial view of the Ekati mine, 300 kilometres northeast of Yellowknife. Dominion Diamond Mines, the controlling owner of the mine, filed for insolvency protection last week. (Dominion Diamond Corporation)

I empathize with the hard decisions that Dr. Kandola and Premier Caroline Cochrane have had to make under pressure. And while I urge them to reconsider this particular one, it is a symptom of a larger issue.

It's time to put people and the planet over profit.

COVID-19 has shown us what is truly essential: caring for elders, educating youth, having food on the table and a decent roof over our heads, and taking care of the land so that it may sustain us for generations to come.

Let's build an economy around that. 

That's what the Green New Deal is. Over 150 N.W.T. residents have signed an open letter in support. They include elders, grand chiefs, MLAs, union leaders, health-care workers, youth and artists. Premier Cochrane herself endorsed the Green New Deal while running for office.

Its time has come.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.

About the Author

Thomas Gagnon-van Leeuwen is an organizer with Our Time Yellowknife, the local chapter of a grassroots, youth-led climate justice movement for a Green New Deal in Canada. He graduated from the Faculty of Law at McGill University in 2014.

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