3 mining operations build on-site COVID-19 labs in northern Quebec

There are now three mining or exploration sites in Cree territory which have on-site laboratories and whose workers have been granted an exemption from the need to self-isolate for two weeks.

Move means some Cree workers can see family for the first time in months

An underground miner at the Osisko exploration site near Waswanipi, Michelle Polson went several months without seeing her children in person because of COVID-19 restrictions. (Submitted by Michelle Polson)

From June to September, Michelle Polson didn't get a single cuddle or kiss from her two young children, daughter Payton, 10, and son Keyton, 8. 

Like other Cree working in the mining sector, Polson's life consisted of a brutal routine of 14-days working, followed by 14-days self-isolation, as required by the Cree Nation Government's COVID-19 restrictions. 

And it's not just workers in the mining sector.

Under the restrictions, all mines, exploration sites, forestry camps and Hydro-Quebec work sites are considered "at risk zones" and require Cree workers to self-isolate for two weeks when they finish their shifts, as a way to protect vulnerable populations in Cree communities from COVID-19.

It was really emotionally hard.- Michelle Polson, underground miner

"It was really emotionally hard being away from my family," said Polson, 26, who works as an underground miner for an exploration company at Osisko Mining's Windfall site, located on the traditional territory of the Cree Nation of Waswanipi, about 700 kilometres northwest of Montreal.

Only in touch from a distance

On any given day in the last week, there were approximately 425 people self-isolating across all the Cree communities, according to numbers informally tracked by Cree officials. Not all of them work in the mining, forestry or at Hydro sites, but many of them do.  

Osisko Mining and two other mining operations in the Cree territory have invested in on-site labs so workers like Polson can be with their families when they aren't working. (Submitted by Michelle Polson)

For Polson, the restrictions meant living in a trailer in Waswanipi when she wasn't working and only being in touch with family by video chat or outside from a distance.  

But then in August, Osisko Mining announced a more than $500,000 investment to build an on-site laboratory to process COVID-19 tests.

The type of testing it is able to do is equivalent to labs in the South, according to Cree officials. 

"I was so happy to see my family, to hug them and sit down and eat with them, laugh with them," Polson said when she talked of her first 14-days off after the laboratory was operational. 

"My mom cried ... my kids didn't leave my side," she said.

Priority for company

Though not required by the Quebec government, the decision to invest in the laboratory was necessary to create a truly safe site for all workers, contractors and nearby communities, according to Alix Drapack, senior vice-president for sustainable development at Osisko Mining.

And to allow Cree workers like Polson to be with their families when they weren't working.

"It was heart-breaking," Drapack wrote in an email, adding many Cree workers opted for a temporary lay-off and it was a priority for the company to make it possible for them to safely return to work. 

'My mom cried ... my kids didn't leave my side,' Polson said, when she and other Cree workers at the Osisko Mine near Waswanipi were exempt from needing to self-isolate for 14 days. (Submitted by Michelle Polson)

All workers at the Osisko site are tested twice, once when they arrive and a second time on day 10 of their 14-day shift. Cree workers are also tested a third time, right before they head home and are given a letter confirming their results. The protocols were developed in close collaboration with the Cree Nation Government.

It's a move appreciated by Cree partners, according to Waswanipi Chief Marcel Happyjack. 

An investment in my people.- Marcel Happyjack, Chief of Waswanipi

"Their help is not a handout, but rather an investment in my people," Happyjack said in a release issued by the Cree Nation Government. 

"I will always be grateful to Osisko for standing with [us]," Happyjack said.

Three operations now have on-site COVID-19 labs

There are now three mining or exploration sites in Cree territory which have on-site laboratories and whose workers have been granted an exemption from the need to self-isolate for two weeks. 

Other than Osisko, there is also on-site COVID testing at Stornoway mine near the Cree community of Mistissini and most recently, at Éléonore mine near the Cree community of Wemindji. 

Beginning this week, workers at Éléonore no longer have to self-isolate when they finish their shift.

Cree Nation Grand Chief Abel Bosum would like to see more developers follow the lead of Osisko, Stornoway and Éléonore and make the same investment in their Cree workforce. 

"Natural resource development doesn't have to be just about taking," Bosum said in a release. 

"If all developers in our territory behaved like this ... [we] could be even greater contributors to what will need to be the greatest economic recovery in the history of Quebec."