The labour divide in Yukon mining

How much of the wealth generated by the Yukon's mining industry stays in the territory? It's hard to say. But some of it can be seen boarding a flight to Vancouver every other Wednesday.

How much of the wealth generated by the Yukon’s mining industry stays in the territory?

It’s hard to say.

But some of it can be seen boarding a flight to Vancouver every other Wednesday.

In the Whitehorse airport’s check-in line stand miners who have just come from their two-week shift at Capstone’s Minto mine, 240 kilometres north of the city.

They’re mostly young, and mostly men.

Speaking about their jobs, they express the same camaraderie you’d hear from soldiers.

“It’s like family,” one says.

Of more than 30 workers aboard the bus that departed the mine site earlier that day, all but a few are flying Outside. But a single bus probably isn’t an accurate measure of the mine’s balance between local and Outside help.

Minto has approximately 300 workers. Northern residents make up slightly less than one-third of this workforce, according to Capstone’s most recent numbers from mid-2011. Twenty-four were aboriginal.

Similarly, a recent survey of the Yukon’s three operating mines found that slightly more than half of the territory’s hardrock miners reside in the territory. That’s according to the Mining Industry Human Resources Council, which conducted the study for Yukon College.

The Yukon’s three producing mines together employ 930 workers, the study said. Of those, 493 are Yukon residents, with the rest living Outside when they aren’t working a mine shift.

These numbers matter because local miners pay taxes and spend much of their money in the territory.

Matt Harder is one of them. The 29-year-old grew up in Watson Lake and now lives in Whitehorse.

He was a year away from completing a theatre degree, and deep in debt, when he signed up for a job at the Minto mine, four and a half years ago.

Harder doesn’t hesitate when he’s asked what he likes the most about his job. “The money,” he said with a chuckle.

Last year, Harder earned $97,000, thanks to overtime he racked up. That makes it hard to return to working in theatre, although that remains a dream and he still helps at Whitehorse’s Wood Street school.

Harder helps run the mine’s mill, where ore is pulverized and metals are separated from the rock. But he started as a “grunt,” dousing waste rock with a hose in the mine’s tailings facility.

During his time at the mine, Harder has seen a lot of turnover. Few workers from the mine’s startup remain, he said.

That’s one finding of the council’s report, which notes the Yukon’s mines have an unusually high turnover rate compared to other Canadian jurisdictions.

The biggest challenge of mine life? Finding a girlfriend who is fine with a man being away every two weeks, said Harder.

He lives with his best friend in Whitehorse. “If you had your own place, it would be empty and freezing every two weeks.”

Social life at the mine has improved during his time there. There are board game nights and a nice gym.

“The food is really good, actually. Some people complain about it, but I think they’re just looking for something to complain about. As long as it’s free and I don’t need to cook it.”

Night shifts, like the one Harder just ended, can also be especially gruelling. For the past two weeks, he worked 12 hours each day, from 5 p.m. until 5 a.m.

Capstone’s managers say they’d prefer to hire local workers, like Harder, if they could. As it stands, they fly in skilled workers from as far away as Newfoundland on rotation.

The biggest challenge is finding skilled labour. On Wednesday, most of the workers flying Outside appeared to have trades’ tickets or university degrees.

Largely hailing from B.C. and Alberta, they count as home big cities like Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary as well as smaller towns like Quesnel and Campbell River.

“We wind up with every strain of flu and cold in Canada,” Harder said with a laugh.

Mine training in the territory remains a piecemeal affair. That’s why Yukon College and the Yukon Mine Training Association are looking at consolidating their operations and creating a new school of mines.

Curtis Wettstein is one worker waiting to board the plane.

He’s a short-term planning engineer, who landed a job at Minto after completing his degree three years ago. He’s flying home to Calgary.

He has thought about moving to Whitehorse, but he worries about missing his friends and family. And the mine is willing to fly him up from his home city.

Many of the workers are young and single. “A lot of them do a lot of travelling,” said Wettstein. “They don’t really go home.”

He’s enthusiastic about mine life. “It’s a great place,” said Wettstein. “It’s a really good company to work for.”

Harder likes it too. But he’s under no illusion about why he’s working there. “If I could get paid this much in town, I would,” he said.

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