What is Gahcho Kué doing to protect its workers from COVID-19?

·3 min read
'There seems to be some kind of top secret exposure control plan that [the minister] can’t even share any information with me on the floor of this house,' said Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly Tuesday. (CBC - image credit)
'There seems to be some kind of top secret exposure control plan that [the minister] can’t even share any information with me on the floor of this house,' said Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly Tuesday. (CBC - image credit)

A Yellowknife MLA grew frustrated Tuesday as he sought to learn more about what the N.W.T. is doing to protect workers at the Gahcho Kué mine from COVID-19.

An outbreak was declared at the mine on Feb. 3. Mining operations were suspended three days later. To date, 12 out-of-territory workers and eight N.W.T. residents have been connected with the outbreak.

Frame Lake MLA Kevin O'Reilly put questions to Shane Thompson, the minister responsible for the Workers Safety and Compensation Commission. He wanted to know whether northern and southern workers had separate living quarters; whether people were wearing masks on the site; and what the protocols were for cleaning washrooms.

To each question, Thompson had the same answer: it's up to the mine's owner to develop its own COVID-exposure plan, which must be approved by the WSCC and the chief public health officer, but is not dictated by them. "We have to respect that," Thompson said. "It's their plan."

To that O'Reilly responded, "There seems to be some kind of top secret exposure control plan that he can't even share any info with me on the floor of this house."

The frustration evident in his voice is similar to that raised by many business owners earlier in the pandemic, who were charged with drafting their own COVID-19 exposure plans. Though WSCC and the office of the chief public health officer were available to help business owners draft plans, some expressed frustration at the lack of direction, and the inconsistencies that came about as a result.

Reached for comment, De Beers Canada, which owns the Gahcho Kué mine with Mountain Province Diamonds, was happy to share details from its COVID-19 exposure plan.

"If we were asked to do so, Gahcho Kué Mine would be pleased to provide information regarding COVID-19 protocols and additional actions taken at Gahcho Kué Mine during the past week to MLA O'Reilly and all MLAs," spokesperson Terry Kruger said in an email.

Kruger confirmed that masks are in wide use in all common areas "where physical distancing is not possible."

He also said employees and contractors "work as a team, regardless of where they are from."

All employees heading to the site undergo rapid antigen tests before traveling, and must test negative. They take further tests at regular intervals.

"The use of face coverings, physical distancing protocols, good hygiene practices, daily health monitoring, documentation of daily contacts and other measures are also in place."

Mountain Province Diamonds, which jointly owns the mine with De Beers Canada, announced plans to resume production at the end of last month.

No vaccines for non-residents

Kruger also said the company is promoting vaccination opportunities for all N.W.T.-resident employees and contractors.

He was clear that non-resident employees were not, at this point, included.

Inuvik Twin Lakes MLA Lesa Semmler raised concerns Tuesday that non-resident mine workers were getting prioritized to receive the vaccine ahead of local N.W.T. residents.

Health Minister Julie Green assured her they were not.

"The N.W.T. will not, will not prioritize non-residents over residents," Health Minister Julie Green said in response. "When all eligible residents have been vaccinated, and if there is vaccine … available, then the chief public health officer will look at the possibility of vaccinating rotational workers who are from outside of the territory."