NDP calls for diversified economy in the north
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.