It didn’t take much convincing for Greg Hanson to join the team at First Nations Insurance Services (FNIS) after his retirement last fall.
While many people in this province, especially in the north, have been waiting for an upturn in uranium mining in Saskatchewan, another valuable commodity is still forging ahead with its own agenda.
For SSR Mining, that agenda includes many employment opportunities for First Nations people in the north.
SSR Mining owns and operates the Seabee gold mine, located 125 kilometres northeast of La Ronge and is a viable option for northern residents as a stable employment opportunity.
Recently, the Chiefs and Councils of both the Lac La Ronge Indian Band and the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation were given a tour of the Seabee operation to see firsthand what kind of work might be available for their people.
“We had them up to the site, the first time in eight years, I believe,” said Blair Gunter, SSR Mining’s Environment and Community Relations manager.
“It’s very important to us because we want to be good neighbours with the First Nations in the area,” he says. “We are really working hard on building a solid relationship with people up there.”
With Cameco’s uranium mining operations basically put on hold in recent years, Gunter says a focus has shifted to their gold mining operation.
Many former Cameco mine workers have some transferable skills to what is required for work at the Seabee mine.
“If you can find trained people already, that’s perfect for what we need,” says Gunter, who added there are also entry level positions available which give people the opportunity to learn skills needed to work at a mine.
While Seabee has not set precise employment targets for First Nations people, Gunter says the company is definitely planning to hire more as the mine operations continue and thrive.
“I think it’s something that will work out well for all parties concerned,” says Gunter.
The Seabee gold mine operation was initiated by Claude Resources before that company was bought out in 2016 by Silver Standard Resources for $337 million, before it changed its name to SSR Mining, as it is known these days. SSR Mining is based in British Columbia with other mines located in Nevada as well as Argentina.
The Seabee gold mine has been operating since 1991. In 2018, the mine delivered record gold production and is forecasting continued growth.
You might notice that the staff at Canada North Environmental Services have a jump in their step these days.
Everyone at CanNorth is still riding high after the business received a perfect score of 100 per cent in a COR (Certificate of Recognition) audit last year conducted by Energy Safety Canada.
“It was pretty awesome and really spoke to the kind of staff we have at CanNorth,” says Lisa Folden, human resources manager at CanNorth’s office in Saskatoon. “We were pretty proud of the accomplishment.”
CanNorth is a private environmental consulting company which is wholly-owned by Kitsaki.
The process, which is totally voluntary for CanNorth, was challenging as it included an exhaustive review of policies, procedures, and documentation. That also included in-depth observation and interviews with a third of CanNorth’s staff, from top to bottom.
“Everything had to be checked and balanced,” Folden says.
Businesses that undergo the rigorous certification need 80 per cent to pass. For CanNorth to score 100 per cent is virtually unheard of, Folden was told.
The first time CanNorth was tested, in 2013, they achieved a 97 per cent score. But that was not good enough, Folden says. Management and staff truly wanted to do better, so they focussed on employee training and consistency in their documentation.
It worked. Evidently.
Folden was worried because the audit examination team was not letting on how well CanNorth was doing. What she didn’t realize was how good they were actually doing. But she’s not surprised.
When the final report was sent, Folden and the CanNorth staff were over the moon with some of the statements issued.
“The health and safety culture created and fostered at CanNorth provides the foundation for such amazing performance,” the report read. “Your bright and competent staff apply the established systems masterfully and allow for continuous improvement.”
Folden couldn’t agree more. “It’s a whole culture buy-in from our staff.”
The report went on to say CanNorth is a model organization and something other businesses should model themselves after.
“One hundred per cent commitment is apparent from the general manager to the newest hire.”
COR audits are highly regarded in the industry as proof of highly trained staff.
CanNorth, which also has another office based in Markham, Ontario., tries to utilize Indigenous culture in the communities it is involved in as well as employment and educational opportunities for Indigenous peoples.
It’s been a rough go for Cameco in recent years as commodity prices for uranium continue to decline.
Uranium, along with other commodities in Saskatchewan like potash, have been struggling to keep their collective head above water.
As well, Cameco is still feeling the effects from the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. That instantly put the breaks on nuclear expansion plans across the world. Reverberations were felt all the way back to Cameco’s head office in Saskatoon as prices now are at least 70 per cent lower than they were in 2011.
Cameco’s stockholders have seen their dividends shrink dramatically by 80 per cent in that time frame as well. Recently, Cameco announced a $200-million loss for 2017. Cameco has cut production already at its Saskatchewan Key Lake and McArthur River mines resulting in layoffs for hundreds of employees while the firm awaits a rebound in market prices.
The trickle-down effect to suppliers has been even more dramatic. For Kitsaki, that has a direct affect on operations for both Athabasca Catering and Northern Resource Trucking.
“It was a multi million-dollar loss in revenue for us,” says NRT’s Dave Mcllmoyl, “It’s significant.”
For now, NRT has been kept busy hauling propane and other goods to northern communities using ice roads, But once spring arrives, those roads will dry up, so to speak. “It’ll be quite slow for us.”
The uranium slowdown has forced Mcllmoyl and his crew to seek out new work in order to keep NRT’s employees on the road. They’ve landed a few new contracts hauling fuel and cement once the spring and summer months arrive.
“On one hand, it’s frightening for us. But on the other hand, it’s good for us. It makes us hustle and get out there.”
With a respected name in the trucking industry, NRT is positioned well, Mcllmoyl believes, He expects once Cameco’s business returns to a more solid footing, there will be no reason to give up the new work NRT has uncovered. New business is always welcomed and will be maintained, he says.
“With the equipment we have and the skill set of our drivers, we’re in a good position.” NRT also benefits from having a great long-term safety record.
Athabasca Catering also took Cameco’s recent decline on the chin.
“The biggest problem for us is our mandate is to employ northern people, and with that business in decline and into care and maintenance, it just means that those employment opportunities have been reduced,” says Alan Cole, Managing Director of Athabasca Catering. “And really, there are few other employment opportunities in the North.”
The company has historically provided Cameco with keeping the mining camps running efficiently with food services, housekeeping, janitorial and other services. But when the Key Lake and McArthur River mines went into care and maintenance, Athabasca Catering’s services were reduced also.
Once Cameco gives the green light to production at Key and McArthur again, Cole and his people are ready since a contract has been signed that gives Athabasca Catering solid footing into the future.
“Essentially, we’ve secured a significant amount of employment for our northern folks for the next two generations, really.”
Cole, who has worked in the industry around the world, became managing director of Athabasca Catering a little more than a year ago. He is confident he will be able to generate new revenue for the company by looking past the uranium decline.
“That’s my mandate for the year,” says Cole. “That’s the key piece we’re adding to increasing our profitability.”
But once Cameco sees itself ready to reopen the mines, Athabasca Catering is ready to return to work.
“Cameco has made it quite clear that it is their intent to bring everyone back again.” Cole has maintained a strong business relationship with the senior executives at Cameco during these turbulent times.
“It’s about keeping the relationships open. It’s not about me. It’s not about Athabasca Catering. It’s about the people of the North, That’s all it’s about in the long run.”
There are signs, however, that the market is poised to return to a more sustainable future after the world’s largest uranium miner- Kazakhstan’s state-owned business KazAtomProm – has decided to reduce production by 20 per cent over three years.
Cameco and KazAtomProm are the two major suppliers of uranium globally.
But news that there are dozens of new nuclear facilities being planned in India, China and Russia is music to Cameco’s ears, As a major supplier of the world’s highest-grade uranium, Cameco is hoping for a market rebound to help reverse fortunes.
Market analysts have been vocal about Cameco’s leadership providing solid planning as the company weathers the storm. For instance, Cameco has wanted to avoid locking in contracts amid such low prices which would severely strain any potential for growth.
It’s now a waiting game,., waiting for the down market to end. And Mcllmoyl and Cole are patient men.
When a large and well-known conglomerate like Jacobs Engineering Group calls and asks for help, you don’t ask too many questions. You just say yes.
Canada North Environmental Services LP (CanNorth) has been subcontracted to work with Jacobs (formerly CH2M Hill) to complete the environmental work for portions of the Enbridge Inc. Line 3 Pipeline Replacement Project that runs from Hardisty, Alberta, to Gretna, Manitoba.
“It’s huge,” says Jocelyn Howery, CanNorth’s hydrology division manager and the Enbridge Project Manager. “It’s definitely one of our biggest projects on the books this year.”
CanNorth will be working with Jacobs and the Enbridge environment team to ensure that the project’s impacts on the environment are mitigated. This work includes identifying nesting birds and rare plant occurrences along the pipeline right-of-way, conducting water quality monitoring during creek crossings, and completing archeological surveys.
“This is a very high-profile project and it’s exciting to be involved,” says Howery. As one of the biggest pipeline projects in the country, it is under great scrutiny by the National Energy Board.
With multiple locations along the line being worked on at once, as many as 10 CanNorth employees will be working on the project this year near Kerrobert and south of Regina.
A major aspect of the project is the involvement of local First Nations people. Last year, while the CanNorth team worked near Provost in Alberta, members of the Ermineskin First Nation worked alongside CanNorth’s trained biologists as field assistants. This partnership provided a valuable learning and training experience for locals who may want to enter the environmental field.
CanNorth has a staff of about 60 people, including staff at a risk assessment office in Markham, Ontario. The risk assessment division started in 2016. Of that number, Howery says there are 44 people who are professional environmental consultants, which makes CanNorth perhaps the largest environmental consulting firm in the province.
As the First Nations Insurance Services slides into its fourth decade, Helen Burgess still believes the basics haven’t changed for the business.
Burgess, who steered FNIS for 20 years before relinquishing the general manager duties last summer, says her job as helping to protect people and teaching them to prepare for their future has not wavered in all her years.
“I have tried, we all have tried, to help educate the people on the importance of our services,” says Burgess, who is now in her 21st year with FNIS. “We want people to know it’s not just a deduction off your paycheque … It boils down to education. In that regard, that has been the biggest change.”
Helping people understand the importance of insurance as well as the concept of saving for retirement has always been a priority to First Nations Insurance Services.
Part of that is the strength of FNIS and building relationships with its clients, something that was celebrated last June as the firm held its 30th birthday.
Around 75 people attended the event, held June 8, 2017, at the Saskatoon Inn as part of a two-and-a-half day annual benefits workshop. Former employees, corporate partners, insurance carriers and others got together for an evening of celebration which included a performance by Voices of the North. The party gave FNIS a chance to look back and pay tribute to those who had worked tirelessly to help the business flourish.
For Burgess, it was a chance to say goodbye from her chair as general manager, a position she devoted much of her time and energy to for those 20 years. It was under her leadership that FNIS really began to grow into the successful enterprise it is today.
“I made the decision last spring that I wanted to ease into retirement,” says Burgess, who is still a licensed agent for the company as well as providing assistance where needed.
“(The time) has gone by so quickly. It’s hard to imagine that much time has elapsed.”
However, the focus of helping First Nations boards and their respective organizations has not wavered. Even the FNIS staff has not changed or altered much over the years with many people still working with 20-plus years under the belt. That plays into what Burgess says about the importance of building relationships.
“We care about all our clients.”