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Uncertainty at Ekati mine takes toll on workers, union says

After a bid to buy Ekati failed last Friday, Dominion Diamond Mines says it could make some of its temporary layoffs permanent.

More job losses expected after sale of Dominion Diamond’s mine collapses

'It's very frustrating, as a union, to have to sit on the sidelines and watch billion-dollar corporations play monopoly with people's lives,' said Todd Parsons, president of the Union of Northern Workers. (CBC)

Job losses loom at Ekati, and uncertainty over the future of the N.W.T. diamond mine is taking a financial and emotional toll on workers, says the Union of Northern Workers (UNW).

After a bid to buy Ekati failed last Friday, Dominion Diamond Mines says it could make some of its temporary layoffs permanent. The company says its objective is to get the mine back up and running.

It did not offer any numbers for potential job losses. 

News that the proposed sale to The Washington Companies had collapsed went out in a Canada-wide press release before local management or the union could speak to Ekati workers, an Oct. 13 news release from the union states.

Kurt Bergstrom is the UNW's regional vice president for the Kimberlite region, and a worker at Ekati who was temporarily laid off when the mine shut down in March.

"The unfortunate news released late last week by the employer is a major setback in what was looking to be a promising restart to their operations and getting our brothers and sisters back to work," said Bergstrom in written statement.

"I want to assure our members that the union will continue to reach out to the employer and put workers' best interests at the forefront."

The union says the lack of transparency around the future of the mine is hard on those who count on Ekati to support their families and communities. 

An aerial view of the Ekati mine, 300 kilometres northeast of Yellowknife. The mine had been producing diamonds for almost 22 years when its owner shut down production in March. (Dominion Diamond Corporation)

"The pandemic has had a devastating impact on many sectors," reads a statement from UNW President Todd Parsons. 

"And it's very frustrating, as a union, to have to sit on the sidelines and watch billion-dollar corporations play monopoly with people's lives."

Parsons said the territorial government has to protect Northerners from corporate entities with "no personal stake in our future and who answer to no-one but their shareholders."

The union said it's waiting for more information from Dominion on the future of Ekati. 

CEO resigns after bid fails

After the bid by The Washington Companies to buy Ekati's assets and liabilities failed, Dominion Diamond CEO Pat Merrin resigned, said a Dominion spokesperson in an email.

Merrin left to "focus on his role at the Washington Companies," where he is chief of operations, the email states. 

In the interim, Dominion Diamond's chief financial officer Kristal Kaye, its chief operating officer Mike Welch and chairperson Brendan Bell are working on an "alternative plan to secure a strong and stable future for the Ekati Mine."

A group of creditors that opposed the Washington Companies' bid showed interest in Ekati's assets. 

Dominion says it will take whichever path gets Ekati back up and running. Without a committed buyer, the mine will stay on care and maintenance.

Government 'hopeful' for another buyer

Meanwhile, N.W.T. Premier Caroline Cochrane says the government is keeping an eye on what happens next.

"We're concerned about our residents, those are jobs out there. We're concerned about the royalties and the taxes that mining brings in. There's a lot of benefits."

Mining makes up almost 40 per cent of the territory's GDP.

Cochrane says if a new buyer doesn't surface, her government plans make up for lost jobs through remediation projects at Ekati and beyond. 

'We're concerned about our residents, those are jobs out there,' said N.W.T. Premier Caroline Cochrane. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

There are millions of dollars in securities for the mine site, and across the N.W.T. there are many other mine sites and unremediated drill camps that could mean jobs, she said. 

Still, no buyer for Ekati is a "worst-case scenario," the premier said. 

"We're hopeful, very hopeful that another buyer will come forward," said Cochrane.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said the Ekati mine shut down in May. In fact, it shut down in March.
    Oct 14, 2020 9:50 AM CT

With files from Mario de Ciccio

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