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Workers trapped at Nunavut mine in midst of COVID-19 outbreak growing anxious, says employee

A worker at the Hope Bay mine says the government of Nunavut's response to the COVID-19 outbreak has been a "complete mess" and they are "mishandling" the situation.

All travel to and from the mine has been cancelled after 9 people have tested positive

A worker at the Hope Bay mine says the government of Nunavut's response to the COVID-19 outbreak has been a 'complete mess' and they are 'mishandling' the situation. (Submitted by Alex Buchan/TMAC)

Anxiety and depression is growing among workers trapped at Nunavut's Hope Bay mine because of a COVID-19 outbreak, according to an employee at the site. 

CBC has been in contact with a worker at the mine and has agreed not to name them due to fear of retribution by their employer. 

The mine is experiencing an outbreak of COVID-19. The government confirmed seven new positive cases in a news release on Monday, bringing the total number of positive cases at the mine to nine. Four more people have been deemed presumptive positives; they're waiting for final results from southern labs. 

"Nobody currently at site wants to be here living through this but everyone's hands are tied because of the restrictions the government [of Nunavut] is putting on us," said the mine employee. 

"I know the current management and senior staff here, and I can tell just by looking at them the level of stress they are under. If it was up to them and the company we all would've been gone a week or more ago." 

The employee says the main stress for workers is not knowing when they will be able to return. All mine workers in Nunavut come up on charter flights from southern Canada. 

"I hold responsible for this complete mess and mishandling of the situation, the government of Nunavut," the employee said.

TMAC Resources Inc. owns the Hope Bay mine, which is 125 kilometres southwest of Cambridge Bay. The government news release Monday said all non-critical travel to and from the mine, including scheduled shift changes, have been cancelled.

Nunavummiut who work at the mine were sent home at the start of the pandemic to ensure COVID-19 wouldn't enter Nunavut communities. 

The longer we sit here and wait frustrated the messier it's going to get.- Hope Bay employee

"We have absolutely no word or idea when we will be leaving," said the employee. "That is perhaps the most stressful and frustrating part."

A letter from TMAC Resources Inc. sent to mine employees Tuesday, obtained by CBC, says it hopes to have an approved travel plan for getting employees home from the Nunavut government in the next 24 to 48 hours.

The worker says employees have been rotating out on a three-week schedule and were supposed to leave the mine by Sept. 29. Work has ceased at the mine except for staff who are performing critical jobs to keep the camp functioning. 

The employee says they are cautiously optimistic about the promise to get people home. 

"I'll believe it when I see a plane land," said the employee.

A file photo of Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. The community is 125 kilometres from the Hope Bay mine. No Nunavummiut have been working at the mine since the pandemic began. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Rapid response team deployed 

The Nunavut government said Monday that 12 staff are in isolation at the mine. It said the ones continuing to work are "following strict measures to keep isolated from those around them, including wearing masks."

Nunavut's rapid response team was deployed to the site last week to deal with the outbreak, including two nurses and a logistician trained to trace, track and contain the virus and help reduce the risk of further transmission.

The news release Monday said the team will isolate in their home communities upon their return.

The employee wants to know why they can isolate at home while mine workers have been forced to stay on site. 

CBC contacted Jason Neal, president and CEO of TMAC Resources, and Nunavut's Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Michael Patterson; neither were available for comment by time of publication. 

The employee says he's heard workers talk about ways to shut down the mine so they can leave, such as a strike, or power outage, forcing an evacuation.

"It could be just talk out of frustration at this point," said the employee. "As this drags on over days I think it becomes more of a serious issue."

'Bunch of pissed off people'

The employee says there are no senior management or executives on site but there are department superintendents and supervisors.

"No security whatsoever. Nothing but a bunch of pissed off people getting increasingly frustrated every day," said the employee. 

"The longer we sit here and wait frustrated the messier it's going to get. Some have already quit their jobs." 

The employee says the lack of communication is also keeping people on edge.

The employee says workers have reached out to the government of Nunavut about the situation, but no one has heard back. 

Communication from TMAC Resources has come in the form of letters, like the one sent Tuesday, or to senior staff on site who pass on the message to staff. 

Nunavut's Health Minister George Hickes has assured Nunavummiut that risk to residents is low.

About the Author

Jackie McKay

Reporter

Jackie McKay is a Métis journalist working for CBC in Nunavut. She has worked as a reporter in Thunder Bay, Yellowknife, Whitehorse and Iqaluit. Jackie also worked on CBC Radio One shows including The Current, Metro Morning, after graduating from Ryerson University in 2017. Follow her on Twitter @mckayjacqueline.

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