Thunder Bay

Red Lake starving for workers

A strong economy, stable population and lots of jobs sounds like a dream come true for many communities — but the mining town of Red Lake has almost zero unemployment and is starving for workers.

Northwestern Ontario mining community struggles to keep up with booming economy

The municipality of Red Lake in northwestern Ontario is struggling to bring in workers to help the community grow. (Jeff Walters/CBC)

A strong economy, stable population and lots of jobs sounds like a dream come true for many communities — but the mining town of Red Lake has almost zero unemployment and is starving for workers.

Red Lake's economic development officer figures the roughly 80 people in the community who are out of work "just don't have the skills, or can't work," Bill Greenway said. "So, there's zero unemployment here."

Red Lake's economic development officer Bill Greenway says a hot economy means employers have unfilled jobs. (Jeff Walters/CBC)

The town — located about 600 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay — also struggles with millions of dollars leaving the community every year.

Hundreds of contractors work in Red Lake. Many of them commute to work and, instead of living in Red Lake, they live in a bunkhouse operated by Goldcorp. That means they do not pay property taxes.

"You appreciate that the fly-in-fly-out workers are important," Greenway said. "[But] their income leaves with them."

He said a priority is getting contractors and miners to actually move to Red Lake, which has a population of about 5,000.

"It's also in the interest of the mines, too, because they have a very steady employee," Greenway said. "Contract miners are fantastic workers ... but, if you want to build a community, and you want to get more services in, you have to add to the population." 

If the population increases, the number of stores able to serve the community should increase as well. Greenway said a survey conducted by the municipality shows there's a demand for larger retail outlets, like a Wal-Mart or Canadian Tire.

Tim Horton's owner Ron Parks says he relies on immigrants to fill out his roster of service workers in Red Lake. (Jeff Walters/CBC)

The community loses about $24 million per year in out-of-town shoppers, according to the municipality. That figure does not include big-ticket purchases, like cars or trucks. New vehicles must be bought out of town, as Red Lake doesn't have an auto dealership.

Importing workers

One of the reasons many service businesses don't open in the community is the available workforce.

"I have 10 people from the Philippines that I had to import because I couldn't staff enough people," says Ron Parks, owner of the local Tim Hortons franchise. "If I didn't have the Filipinos here, I wouldn't be open." 

Another reason, according to Greenway, is the cost of developing land. He said many parts of the municipality cannot be developed because of environmental reasons, or claims being staked for gold and other minerals. One cannot build upon a piece of land once it's been staked.

Although the community has some unique issues when it comes to attracting workers, it also faces problems typically faced by other towns.

Workers in Red Lake can make good money, but many of them leave, with their pay cheques in hand, through fly-in-fly-out mining operations. The municipality is left with a stretched budget and struggles to repair crumbling infrastructure in the town. Pictured here is the Red Lake municipal office. (Jeff Walters/CBC)

"We have roads that need to be replaced," Greeway said. "[Our] water and sewer lines [are] aged and need to be replaced as well. These are ongoing issues, and they're not going to go away soon."

The municipality of Red Lake is spread out, and is comprised of five different town site. That involves maintenance for five fire halls and three water treatment plants — maintenance bills that add up quickly.

Greenway said the final hurdle to proper development in the area is electricity.

He says only one power line serves Red Lake, and it's almost at capacity. He says without an upgrade, the community will not be able to reach its full potential.

This is the second story in a three-part series on the community of Red Lake, called Small Town, Big World. On Wednesday, CBC News will look at the community's housing issues.



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