Attitudes quickly changed after an Inuk that was turned away from the nursing station and told to go back to work had to be rushed to Montreal for a kidney-stone operation.
"I think (that southerners) think most of the Inuit are stupid. I just feel it. When I'm trying to learn a job, they explain it like I'm a little child, even though I understand everything they're saying."
The most egregious claims of discrimination, however, come on the job, where the Inuit see the French miners holding the best-paying positions, while they stagnate in the mining equivalent of McJobs. Even on their own land in the Far North, they feel like they are reliving someone else's Deep South. And few more than Samwillie Oweetaluktuk.
The bright 21-year-old came to the mine in 1999, fresh out of an innovative geology training program funded by Falconbridge and the provincial government. Of the 16 who enrolled, only five finished the course, but all were hired as geological technician trainees. "With the white man's job, it's almost like hunting," Oweetaluktuk says. "I feel like a white man hunting for ore."
He enjoys his job, studying core samples, charting data and pulling down close to $50,000 a year, plus medical costs, free eyeglasses, 30 per cent off a home computer and a pension. But outside the lab, he can't help but notice how the other Inuit workers populate the most menial jobs on the site, as cleaners, dishwashers and drivers.
"I think," he says, that southerners "think most of the Inuit are stupid. I just feel it. When I'm trying to learn a job, they explain it like I'm a little child, even though I understand everything they're saying."
This was not supposed to be the way. When the ore body here was discovered in the 1930s, Inuit interests were not much of a concern. Only money was. It wasn't until the 1960s that developing the mine seemed feasible, but then world nickel prices plunged and plans were put on ice. Only by the 1990s were prices again at an economic level, and costs finally in line, thanks to new technologies for ice-breaking vessels, Arctic drilling and modular buildings.
In 1993, Falconbridge and Makivik signed a memorandum of understanding. With 6,700 employees in 14 countries, the mining company seemed like a giant marching into Nunavik. It pledged $70-million, almost as much as the James Bay payoff, in royalties and profit-sharing - and suggested that its presence would transform the northern Quebec economy. Not only would the mine cost $800-million to build, it would need $117-million a year to operate, including $3-million in wages and $6-million in contracts to area businesses.
Company officials, touring the coastal villages, gave the impression that there would be a windfall of jobs too. "At that time, the sales pitch was to the effect that the Raglan project was to be a flagship for Falconbridge," Paul Papigatuk remembers. "In other words, a model mine that would employ close to 100 per cent as possible Inuit employees for the 20-year life of the mine."
With only 8,500 Inuit in the region, and more than half of them under 21, such a promise, if it was ever made, would have been almost impossible to deliver. Moreover, the company could not staff a mine from scratch. To get up and running as quickly as possible, Raglan had to bring in most of its workers from the south. Then, once the mine was open, the workers unionized, joining the Quebec branch of the Steelworkers of America, and entrenched their seniority.
The union rules, ensuring that the new Inuit employees could advance only by a gradual process, quickly frustrated young workers like Papigatuk, who had to wait five years for his Class One licence when he was probably qualified in half that time.
But there were also problems on the Inuit side, with scores of new employees coming to a sophisticated work site not entirely sure it was any different than their local government office.