'EVERYONE THOUGHT WE WERE STUPID'
Rome wasn't built in a day. The massive, high-tech Raglan
mine promised to help the Inuit of northern Quebec leap into
the modern age. Instead, they found themselves stuck
in low-level jobs, working with outsiders they didn't like
and whose language they couldn't understand.
But the seeds of equality have begun to take root.
By JOHN STACKHOUSE
Friday, December 14, 2001 Print Edition, Page A16
Butting out his Export A, the young man looks for his coat and prepares to head into the frigid northern night. Since the sun went down at 3 in the afternoon, an Arctic storm has slammed down on the plateau where his people have hunted for millennia. Visibility is down to a few metres and the temperature is on its way below minus 20.
North of 60, the modern Inuk can battle the elements with a dinner of veal, mashed potatoes, salad and chocolate cake, watch the war in Afghanistan with his girlfriend and then bowl a few frames or catch a quick Jacuzzi before bed. Here, on a barren stretch of rock and ice so hostile that even his hardy ancestors never settled the place, Papigatuk is one of 104 Inuit employed at a northern mine that is more than an engineering marvel; it is an extraordinary attempt to bridge cultures.
Eighteen hundred kilometres north of Montreal, near the northern tip of the Ungava Peninsula, the people at this mine are both testing the strength of what this place is called in Inuktitut -- Katinniq, or "where three rivers come together" -- and challenging the identity of Canada's three founding solitudes.
Owned by an English-Canadian company, dominated by a French-Canadian work force and watched very closely by an aboriginal Canadian partner, the $550-million, ultramodern Raglan mining complex has Canada's founding races running up against each other in a way seldom seen before. In the open-pit and underground nickel mines, the belching mill, the high-tech geology labs and sprawling kitchen and recreation facilities, 430 French, English and Inuit workers are struggling to co-exist.
They have tried to overcome language barriers, vast cultural divides and, at times, rampant discrimination, not only for the sake of their jobs and the highly political deal that got the mine going, but for the Inuit of northern Quebec to gain control of their future.
Papigatuk knows just how hard that will be. He came to Raglan when work began in 1995 as a trainee operating heavy equipment and is one of the few original Inuit workers to have stayed with the project that promised to transform their region. Being trilingual, he was able to cross the solitudes better than most. He also was determined to get ahead, this year receiving his Class One operating licence, which makes him one of only eight people on the site who can command the mine's biggest trucks and graders.
But equally, he was able to understand the many racial forces working against him. "When we first started," he remembers, "we were nothing" to the mine's other workers, who are mostly Québécois. "Everyone thought we were stupid."
His supervisor, Sylvain Pomerleau, nods in agreement. Part Québécois, part Inuit, he grew up in the north struggling to understand his two realities. He continues to struggle, as he meets with his own managers, who are all French, and then relates their concerns to his 55 employees in the service yard, whose 23 Inuit workers are mostly in low-level positions.
When Pomerleau started at Raglan, the francophone miners told him to "go with your kind." He knew that they disliked how easily the Inuit seemed to lose interest in work when it was time to hunt, or tried to skip a shift because of a family dispute. As if they could come here to make money and have no responsibility to the work site.
He also knew the Inuit didn't like how the "southerners" and Falconbridge Ltd., the big Toronto company that owns the mine, seemed to have so little respect for tradition. As if they could come north to make money and have no responsibility to the land and culture.
Raglan's best workers, many of whom spent decades in the gold mines around Val d'Or, Que., have traditions of their own. Most speak only French and are in their 40s or 50s, members of the generation that came of age during the Quiet Revolution.
The Inuit tend to be in their 20s and 30s, children of Quebec's other modern revolution, the 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, which put $90-million in the Inuit bank account and gave them a greater voice in their own land, Nunavik, which spans the northern one-third of the province.
But attitudes on both sides haven't always kept pace with the political revolutions. "You can't change 10,000 years of tradition in 20 years," Pomerleau says.
Falconbridge is aiming to do just that with the Raglan mine, the biggest private project ever undertaken in Nunavik. The centrepiece of Falconbridge's corporate expansion in the 1990s, it also became a pioneer of affirmative action, with a deal between the company and the Inuit-owned Makivik Corp., which oversees development in Nunavik. The agreement aims to give the local population about $70-million over the life of the mine, and as many jobs as possible. "Our idea," says Al Giroux, the Falconbridge vice-president in charge of the mine, "is that the Inuit should be running this place."
Perhaps nothing else about the project has been more difficult for the company. Of the 430 permanent employees, only 61 are Inuit, and just half of those are skilled workers. Even more troubling, the Inuit turnover rate is about six times that of workers from the south, although the 13 per cent who quit last year represent a vast improvement from 54 per cent in 1998.
To find out why so many leave, Barbara Papigatuk was asked to conduct an exit survey. She found that, along with family concerns and poor advancement prospects, those departing often listed "racism" and "discrimination" among their reasons. Then she, like two previous Inuit-relations officers for the company, quit because of the awkward relationship between her people and her employer.
"There's not a lot of overt racism any more, but subtle discrimination on the site is rampant," says Papigatuk's husband, Paul, who is Markusie's older brother and sits on the mine's community steering committee.
"I wouldn't say there's apartheid on site. There's a two-tier system. It's a caste system."
From the surrounding barrens, the vast complex looks like a lunar station. On the outside, the mine appears very bleak, as giant rock crushers and smoke-spewing loaders grind their way into the tunnels that lead 270 metres below ground.
Inside, however, the operation is all about comfort. The company hired the former Club Med manager to ensure that workers are rested and content. There is a fitness centre, indoor track, basketball court and two bowling lanes, along with pool tables and big-screen TVs aplenty. The Jacuzzi and a tanning salon were added recently to win more favour from the workforce.
And then there's the kitchen, which puts out more than 1,200 meals a day, from French toast and bacon in the morning to an evening dessert tray with chocolate mousse, blueberry pie, fresh fruit and cookies. On a work site with no easy way out, good food may be the best disaster-prevention strategy of all.
The costs of such comfort is almost pocket change for Falconbridge, at least when measured against the value of what's underground. With 19.5 million tonnes of highly concentrated ore, the site -- located about 100 kilometres inland from the Hudson Strait -- is one of the world's richest nickel bodies. To get the metal out within 20 years as planned, the mine (named after nearby Raglan Lake) began commercial production in mid-1998 and now operates around the clock, 365 days a year, with fresh food and fresh workers flown in weekly from Rouyn-Noranda, in the south, as well as from some of the 14 Inuit villages along the coast.
The relentless efficiency behind the operation, however, does not allay a deep discomfort among many of the Inuit. Not only do they feel like a minority on their own land, they feel the majority is all too often trying to push them out. The Québécois eat together, watch French-language television and converse in their own language on the job.
Being miners, they also revel in gruff humour that mocks cultural differences, especially when a rookie is involved. The Inuit may not bear the brunt more than anyone else, but they aren't accustomed to such treatment. So they don't chuckle at the memory of being required to guide vehicles through snowstorms or having the heat in their rooms cranked down because they "should be used to it."
The feeling of discrimination intensified when company nurses started to reject Inuit requests for sick leave that seemed unfounded. To survive in a harsh environment, the Inuit believe that they should rest as soon as they feel weak. "The southerner keeps going to work till he can't get out of bed," says Warren Holmes, a senior Falconbridge executive. "The Inuit is feeling down and feels he's going to get sick, so he stays in bed. It's sort of the survival attitude. A southerner knows he can go to a hospital."
Attitudes quickly changed after an Inuk who'd been turned away from the nursing station and sent back to work had to be rushed to Montreal for a kidney-stone operation.
The most egregious claims of discrimination, however, come when Inuit see 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 technicians. "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."
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 a share of its profit that could be worth as much as the James Bay payoff, and suggested that its presence would transform the northern Quebec economy. Not only would the site cost $550-million to develop, the mine operation would spend $117-million a year, including $3-million in wages to northerners and $6-million in contracts to area businesses.
Company officials, touring the coastal villages, gave the impression that there would be an windfall of jobs too. "At that time, the sales pitch was to the effect that the Raglan project was to be a flagship
With only 8,500 Inuit in the region, and more than half of them under 25, such a promise, if 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 United 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 problems on the Inuit side, as well, with scores of new employees coming to a sophisticated work site not entirely sure how it was any different from, say, their local government office.
Among the first batch, time soon became an issue. Many showed up an hour or more late for a shift, throwing entire teams of workers off schedule. Some even skipped flights to the mine site, thinking they could start their rotation a few days later.
A schedule that requires someone to work 12 hours a day for 21 straight days and then take two weeks off is difficult for anyone. Gradually, the Inuit let it be known just how hard they found it to be away from their families and close-knit villages, especially on a 1,600-hectare job site without the screaming delight of even one child.
"The family is more important than the job," says Robert Lanari, an anthropologist working as a project director for Makivik Corp.
"For us, it's difficult to understand. We're not used to dealing with that in a capitalist society where work is a primary activity. It's almost more important than the family. I think the company is starting to understand this."
At the same time, some Inuit are adapting to the new demands. Puassie Uqittuq is a single mother and one of the mine's few long-term Inuit employees. As much as it pains her to be away from her eight-year-old daughter three weeks at a time, she says it is the only way she can save for the girl's education.
When Uqittuq was not much older than her daughter, the village school burned down, taking with it her dream of studying botany at university. Now 36, she wants her child, who lives with relatives, to become a nurse. To help make that happen, she has risen from being a janitor to supervising the housekeeping staff of 12. "I love my daughter a lot . . . I want her to go to university," she says. "She wants me to quit. I tell her, 'I'm working for your future.' "
Family is a big challenge to Falconbridge, but so is language. When the new Inuit recruits found they were receiving instructions, even on-the-job training, in French, they complained of discrimination -- as did the francophone supervisors, with the support of the province, when they were asked to learn English or Inuktitut.
Nonetheless, Al Giroux believes that he can get the number of permanent Inuit up to 85 next year, from the current 61, and then ultimately push it toward 200. The Falconbridge vice-president doesn't hide the fact his company is as frustrated as the local communities. It has spent $5-million on training 360 Inuit to work at Raglan, he says, but it will not compromise the safety or viability of the mine to put people in jobs for which they are not qualified.
A tough economy has made matters worse, forcing Giroux to cut costs and reduce the size of the work force, even as he is trying to attract more Inuit employees and is heading into contract talks with the union. If he doesn't chop $12- million from his budget by 2003, his own job may be on the line. To doubters, Giroux need only point to Falconbridge's operation in the Dominican Republic, where 1,300 workers had their pay and hours cut for three months starting in October.
Falconbridge also has postponed the bulk of its profit-sharing agreement with the Inuit for at least four more years. The Makivik managers, who watched their big stock portfolio drop after the Sept. 11 attacks, understood the company's situation. The warning to employees, most of whom have never been outside their region, was a bit slower to sink in, perhaps because Nunavik has never been so exposed to such international forces.
Until recently, the region's isolation has doubly punished the Inuit, saddling them with poor schools and few teachers to prepare their children for the future -- to work at a world-class mine, for example. Not many of the 700 people listed in his database, says Paul Okituk, an employment officer with the regional government, have more than a Grade 5 education. "I don't think we're joining the mainstream of society as well as we should," he says. "We're totally unprepared for what is happening to the rest of the world."
The hunting and fishing hamlet of nearly 1,000 people has been turned upside down in one generation, which helps to explain why so many of its residents have had trouble working at Raglan. Located on an inlet that leads to the Hudson Strait, it was one of the sites to which the federal government encouraged nomadic Inuit families to move in the 1950s. They have since struggled to cope with everything the modern world could throw at them.
Once shrewd hunters, the Inuit were encouraged to stay home and collect welfare. Then they were sold snowmobiles, and the provincial government ordered the community's entire population of sled dogs slaughtered, claiming there was not enough food to go around.
If nothing else, say Paul and Barbara Papigatuk, at least Inuit like them have learned how to adapt. For example, although neither of them speaks much French, they have a trilingual son living in Quebec City, and two of their three younger children attend Salluit's French-language school. For all their objections to the provincial language, which the Papigatuks see in a way as imperial, they know it will open doors for the next generation. Salluit, they keep telling their children, will never again exist in isolation.
As if to prove their point -- in lifestyle more than language -- the family piles around a kitchen table for a Friday-night dinner of tacos and French fries. Youngest son Andy is slow to come to the table because he wants to see the rest of Red Planet, the DVD he is watching on the family's big-screen Sony television.
By almost every visible measure, life now seems no different in Salluit than it is in suburban Saskatoon, except that during the second helpings of tacos, Jamie Papigatuk slips outside and returns with a frozen char, which her father slaps on a piece of cardboard on the kitchen floor, and slices open. Raw fish, they all agree, is still their favourite dessert.
In terms of prosperity, the James Bay and Raglan deals have brought Nunavik much closer to the south. The region's median income is close to that of all rural Quebeckers and only 15 per cent behind the Canadian average. But in a cash economy, the north can also be punishing. Feeding a family of four costs $215 a week, compared with $121 in Ottawa, according to a recent study.
Salluit is also not immune to the social pressures that have come with modern development, and with a population that is doubling every 20 years. Paul Okituk, the local employment officer, figures three-quarters of the community has a drinking or drug problem. Teen pregnancies are five times higher than they are in southern Quebec, and the suicide rate is nearly six times greater. With good health care still hard to come by, it's no wonder the average Inuk can expect to die at 65 -- 13 years before the average Quebecker.
Many feared that the big money pouring out of Raglan would only perpetuate the communities' many addictions. But it seems just as many employees are taking care of their lives, and bodies, now that they have demanding, full-time jobs.
Raglan pumps $3-million a year in salaries into Inuit communities, says Lanari, the anthropologist, but "how it is spent is another question. People feared it would go to alcohol and drugs, and some does. There is more alcohol and drugs in the community. But people are also spending the money on pianos, furniture, snowmobiles to go hunting."
At the same time, they have to contend with other mining companies' scouring the rugged landscape for deposits as well as the annual "Rambo season" with its influx of fatigue-clad American hunters and an even greater curse from the south: climate change. In Salluit, more than a dozen homes, including that of the Papigatuks, had to be moved last year when the permafrost under them started to soften.
Some older Inuit leaders -- the ones born in igloos who know little of schools, environmental assessments and bondholders -- yearn for the days when rhythms of life were set by the movement of a caribou herd rather than the whim of a nickel market.
But Nunavik, like many aboriginal communities, is increasingly run by a younger generation, who are as comfortable on trade missions to Hong Kong as they are skinning seals on the ice.
Investing much of the $90- million James Bay money in U.S. stocks, the Quebec Inuit have doubled their capital, and now live off the interest and dividends. With that, they have financed local businesses such as mini-tanneries, designed a new computer font for Inuktitut and developed a regional environmental research lab that monitors the land, water and wildlife that remains central to their identity. Their next goal is to win more autonomy from Quebec, which is why they have so firmly opposed the province's push to make Raglan a French-only workplace.
The Inuit's growing business and political savvy has made them an equal, of sorts, with Falconbridge, which seemed like such a giant when it arrived. As part of the original Raglan agreement, local communities enjoy seats on a joint committee to ensure that the company meets its commitments on employment, the environment and payments to the region. The company also seeks Inuit consent to every major decision at the mine. "We have only recently turned a light on in management's mind that the Raglan project is a visitor to our region," says Paul Papigatuk, who is on the committee.
To investigate complaints of discrimination and abuse, the mine has established a "respect committee." As well, it has overhauled its medical policy, allowing Inuit who feel ill to take time off work without a nurse's certificate. Thus far, there has been no apparent increase in lost time.
On a more sensitive level, the mine management is struggling to show Inuit employees that criticism of their performance is not the same as discrimination and that, when they're feeling unsure about something, it's okay to alert their supervisors.
Mine managers and Inuit workers know that developing an aboriginal work force in a unionized and francophone-dominated setting will be far from easy. Giroux wants to move beyond the original training programs that filled the place with Inuit cleaners and apprentices. Those jobs, while attractive for a time, led to few promotions, and plenty of turnover.
Instead, he wants to target enthusiastic Inuit employees and give them intensive on-the-job training that could move them ahead much faster than miners might in other places. Currently, of the 125 underground workers, only five are Inuit. "I've got all the janitors I need," Giroux says.
One potential remedy is to devote some parts of the mine to on-the-job training, allowing Inuit to learn the trade while actually producing ore.
Out in the service yard, the new approach is already under way, with Inuit being given fast-track training. Sylvain Pomerleau, the supervisor, says that not only have a good many francophone workers come around to the Inuit point of view, they even admit, occasionally, to being on Inuit land.
Falconbridge has made such an effort to retain Inuit workers that management is no longer blamed for any racism on the site. "It's changed totally in the last few years," Pomerleau says.
Langer has felt the frustration of waiting for advancement while the cadre of francophone operators appears to moving nowhere in a hurry. Still, with his 77-hour work weeks, he earns more than enough to support his wife and four children.
In the past year, he has bought a new Honda all-terrain vehicle and a new Polaris snowmobile, and plans to buy another Polaris this month when he is back home. Before this job, he says with a smile, he had never owned anything brand new.
Being ribbed by the southerners, he figures, is just part of mine life, like the pictures of girls in bikinis on the coffee-room wall, the raucous crowds around televised boxing matches and the mashed potatoes. In return for a secure union job that supports his family back home, he can put up with all of it.
"They say the mine is going to be here another 20 years," he says. "If that's true, I'll be here working another 20 years."
The next day, a new crew is due in, allowing a few dozen workers to go home. Langer knows that he will soon fly out too, as he makes his way home for Christmas. At the Falconbridge airstrip, he will be like the southern miners around him. They may not share a language or a culture, just as their nations do not share the same aspirations. But as different as their destinations may be, they are at least for the moment on the same journey.