NDP calls for di­ver­si­fied econ­omy in the north

Saskatoon StarPhoenix - - FRONT PAGE - ALEX MACPHER­SON

The gov­ern­ment’s fail­ure to di­ver­sify north­ern Saskatchewan’s re­source-de­pen­dent econ­omy is mag­ni­fy­ing the ef­fects of Cameco Corp.’s de­ci­sion to tem­po­rar­ily close down two ura­nium op­er­a­tions, throw­ing 845 peo­ple out of work, ac­cord­ing to the Saskatchewan NDP.

Saska­toon-based Cameco, which its CEO has de­scribed as “pretty much the only game in town” in the north, on Wed­nes­day an­nounced plans to halt pro­duc­tion at its McArthur River mine and Key Lake mill in the face of what it calls “un­sus­tain­ably” low ura­nium prices.

United Steel­work­ers Lo­cal 8914 in­terim pres­i­dent De­nis O’Hara said the shut­down, which is ex­pected to be­gin in Jan­uary and last un­til late next year, will be es­pe­cially dev­as­tat­ing for north­ern­ers. On Wed­nes­day, the MLA for Athabasca echoed that con­cern.

“The pre­mier and the Sask. Party had am­ple re­sources to di­ver­sify the econ­omy, as op­posed to putting all the pres­sure on Cameco to cre­ate the jobs,” Buck­ley Be­langer told re­porters in Regina.

“None of that in­vest­ment was made and now one of the big­gest, largest em­ploy­ers in north­ern Saskatchewan lays off a ton of work­ers, you can see how dev­as­tat­ing this cut will (be) on our com­mu­ni­ties and, more im­por­tantly, our fam­i­lies,” he added.

Sta­tis­tics Canada re­ported this month that the prov­ince’s north­ern eco­nomic re­gion lost 2,200 jobs over the last 12 months, bring­ing the to­tal num­ber of po­si­tions down to 96,500.

Be­langer said while Cameco is a “great com­pany,” its de­ci­sion to sus­pend pro­duc­tion at the two sites means around 3,500 fewer north­ern­ers will be work­ing com­pared to a year ago.

“To­day now we’re see­ing ev­i­dence that if you ig­nore a cer­tain re­gion and cer­tain peo­ple, and you count on large com­pa­nies to do the work (and) not do your job as the pre­mier and the leader of the prov­ince, this is what hap­pens.”

Cameco is not the only com­pany whose em­ploy­ees could be af­fected by the shut­down. At least two large First Na­tions-owned firms rely on the ura­nium miner for some of their busi­ness.

West Wind Avi­a­tion, which shut­tles work­ers to and from Cameco’s op­er­a­tions, ex­pects to feel “some im­pact,” but the full ex­tent is not yet clear, ac­cord­ing to Dennis Bara­nieski, the com­pany’s vice-pres­i­dent of busi­ness de­vel­op­ment and cor­po­rate ser­vices.

A rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Athabasca Cater­ing Lim­ited Part­ner­ship, which pro­vides food, house­keep­ing and jan­i­to­rial ser­vices for all of Cameco’s north­ern op­er­a­tions, de­clined to com­ment.

The pro­duc­tion halt is not ex­pected to af­fect em­ploy­ees of Areva Re­sources Canada Inc., which owns 30 per cent of McArthur River and 17 per cent of Key Lake, ac­cord­ing to a state­ment from the com­pany.

“We know it was not an easy de­ci­sion but it is one that all the ma­jor ura­nium pro­duc­ers have had to wres­tle with given that mar­ket con­di­tions have been very un­favourable,” Areva Canada Re­sources CEO Vin­cent Martin said in the state­ment.

Pre­mier Brad Wall told re­porters that while he be­lieves Cameco CEO Tim Gitzel’s pledge that the lay­offs are tem­po­rary, the gov­ern­ment is mo­bi­liz­ing “rapid re­sponse teams” to pro­vide laid-off work­ers with tran­si­tion sup­port and coun­selling should they ask for it.

Cameco has said 45 per cent of its north­ern em­ploy­ees iden­tify as Indige­nous. Wall ac­knowl­edged that the tem­po­rary lay­offs will “dis­pro­por­tion­ately” af­fect Indige­nous peo­ple in the prov­ince’s north.

“We need to con­tinue to di­ver­sity the econ­omy,” he said. “The last three or four years have been dif­fi­cult (but) we’ve seen an uptick on the man­u­fac­tur­ing and the IT side and we’re go­ing to con­tinue those ef­forts.”

Cameco has been strug­gling since the 2011 Fukushima Dai­ichi dis­as­ter dras­ti­cally re­duced de­mand for nu­clear fuel, lead­ing ura­nium prices to fall by more than 70 per cent — a col­lapse from which the com­mod­ity has not re­cov­ered.

The com­pany re­sponded by cut­ting costs, in­clud­ing tem­po­rar­ily clos­ing its Rab­bit Lake mine in April 2016 and slash­ing its cor­po­rate work­force, but prices con­tin­ued to fall.

“There’s just to­day too much ura­nium out there,” Gitzel told the Star Phoenix on Wed­nes­day. “We didn’t think adding to that was help­ful. We have a good in­ven­tory of ura­nium at Cameco that can sus­tain us that we can put into prof­itable con­tracts.”

Ac­cord­ing to Cameco, the mine and mill are ex­pected to en­ter “care and main­te­nance mode” — which will re­quire 210 work­ers to over­see — be­fore the end of Jan­uary.

The com­pany noted that ad­di­tional tem­po­rary lay­offs at its Saska­toon head­quar­ters could fol­low as it re­views cor­po­rate sup­port for the idled op­er­a­tions.

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