North

Indefinite Ekati layoffs create 'hardship' for Indigenous employees

The layoffs have been a major blow to many families in the Tłı̨chǫ region who rely on Ekati for financial stability, says Tłı̨chǫ worker who was temporarily laid off in March.

More than 20 families affected by layoffs in Yellowknives Dene communities

An aerial view of the Ekati mine, 300 kilometres northeast of Yellowknife. (Dominion Diamond Corporation)

About six months into being laid off, Ekati Mine worker Jake looks in his deep freezer and wonders how much longer his dwindling supply of country food will last.

"If we ration now, we should probably be good until the end of the year but after that it's unknown territory," he said.

Jake is a Tłı̨chǫ worker who was employed at the Ekati Diamond Mine for years, and like hundreds of other workers he was temporarily laid off in March.

CBC is using a pseudonym, because he fears retribution from the employer if he speaks out. 

The layoffs have been a major blow to many families in the Tłı̨chǫ region who rely on Ekati for financial stability, he said.

"In the North, we are all family oriented, so it hasn't only impacted me but it's also impacted my family. It's been a hardship for me, it's also been a hardship for my community," he said. 

If the mine starts up again, he said he'll be ready to return to work with "high spirits" but said his "faith in the company is shaken."

He wants to work and has the skills, but competition is stiff in a job market saturated with an influx of qualified people out of work.

Jake takes odd jobs and contracts. He cashes in recyclables to make side cash to fill his gas tank and put food on the table. 

His pantry supplies are dwindling, and he can no longer afford to support his elderly parents, who are retired and have little income themselves. 

It's been a hardship for me, it's also been a hardship for my community.- Jake, Ekati mine worker.

With caribou declining, there is also less certainty harvesters like him will be able to gather enough to cover the lost income used to purchase groceries.

Jake says he doesn't speak on behalf of all workers, but that many are reluctant to speak up about the impact of Ekati's closure.  

"They have that mentality of keep your head up and keep moving forward. It's just a bad day not a bad life," he said.

"I'm just hoping for that email … hoping for that call to say we're going to go back to work and it's all going to be OK."

Uncertainty a repeat of 2018

In 2018, after the Washington Companies absorbed Dominion Diamond, workers like Jake were already fearful of layoffs.

The Tłı̨chǫ  government spoke out on behalf of its members who were employed at the mine, stating that they would not accept any reduction in the number of Tłı̨chǫ employees at Ekati

At the time, Grand Chief George Mackenzie said the company had a duty to Tłı̨chǫ citizens through an Impact Benefit Agreement signed with the First Nation — a private agreement which includes employment opportunities for the people whose land the company mines upon. 

Jake said workers like him haven't just lost their jobs — they've lost an important element of social life as their crews disperse back to their communities.

Jake said mine workers have sacrificed a lot — missing birthdays, weddings and funerals.

With some company benefits, workers can access six mental health sessions but therapy will not pay the bills, he said.

"We sacrificed half our lives just to make sure they have food on the table," he said. 

He fears he and other Ekati workers may have to pick up and move south to find work, which will create "a lot of strain for families."

"Why aren't [leaders] investing in people when we're suffering the hardest?" he said.

When asked for specifics on how many employees could be laid off permanently, and whether those layoffs would impact northern Indigenous workers, Dominion Diamond did not provide exact numbers. 

Instead, in an email to CBC, a spokesperson said "our management team has worked tirelessly to avoid having to separate anyone from the company, including by cutting expenses, furloughing employees while still paying benefits, and modifying our operations to run as efficiently as possible."

The spokesperson added that as decisions are made, the company "will be direct and transparent with [their] employees and the union."

In the meantime, Jake says he hopes more workers at Ekati will speak out. 

"It's going to get hard before it gets better, just don't give up, keep trying. Voice your opinion," he said. 

Yellowknives Dene Ndilo Chief Ernest Betsina says regardless of Ekati's fate, he plans to pressure the territorial government to support six remediation projects on Yellowknives Dene land.  (Sara Minogue/CBC)

More than 20 YKDFN families hit by economic withdrawal

Between Ndilo, Dettah and Yellowknife, there are more than 20 Yellowknives Dene employees and their families who have been reading about their futures from the media, said YKDFN Chief Ernest Betsina.  

"They're wondering how they're going to make payments, how they're going to put food on the table, how they're going to pay bills. It really affects the bottom line for our families," he said.

"Our members are unsure right now and I'm just hoping the company would share more information with Yellowknives Dene," he said. 

For many families, Christmas will be thin and he is eager to see YKDFN members back on the job.

Betsina said that regardless of Ekati's fate, he plans to pressure the territorial government to support six remediation projects on Yellowknives Dene land. 

"We would clean up our areas for us, for our people. YKDFN wants to clean up these mine sites. There's a will right there, why doesn't the GNWT step up to the plate now and let's start talking and seriously start negotiating a sole-source contract with YKDFN." 

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