Cameco Canada Storyteller

Storyteller #15 – from Canada, about social life on-site

Time to introduce some storytellers from the McArthur River uranium mine in Saskatchewan, Canada. This person, a man, a white-collar with Cameco, working 7/7 (seven days on-site, seven days off-site), talks about the social life on-site:

The social life here compared to the one back home? Here it’s a… there is more visiting, like I communicate a lot more with people up here. At home I sit and recluse, just relaxing and just be with my girlfriend and… I don’t hang out with a lot of people. I only have a few friends that want to go and fish and such. I’m more social here. I don’t know if it’s because of the situation or something else. When I’m home I only contact maybe one, two friends if they want to do something. It’s a lot more social here, but you know, there are all walks of life of the people here, we are 500, so I can’t speak for everybody. There’s always somebody to talk to basically. Around 8-9 pm there’s almost no one around at camp because people need to get up around 5 am in the morning.

Aboriginals Book Canada Documentary Movie Researcher Sweden

On language and indigenous people

Aboriginals Cameco Canada Supplier Uranium

Aboriginals and the labour process (part 4)

Two short questions are still left hanging from my visit to MCA in Saskatchewan and from reading the CVMPP-reports:

What about the contractors? In the reports, contractors are not really dealt with, but they still represent a significant part of the labour process. Just as on site, they had their rooms in a building beside the Cameco employees, but they shared the other facilities (restaurant, wellness facilities etc.). Interestingly, most of the large, visible contractors on site are owned by indigenous bands. In the report on socio-economic benefits it is stated that “the uranium mining industry contributed significantly to the business capacity of northern Saskatchewan (e.g., growth in contracts from northern suppliers from S23 million in 1989 to S464 million in 2011)” (2013: 8; although down to S308 in 2014). In the report, the uranium companies are called upon to explore how small northern companies can have contract opportunities, but beyond this, the contractors are not really included in the reports and analyses by CVMPP.

What about the communities? What seems to be a recurring issue, when mining companies operate or seek to operate on indigenous people’s land, is how the companies could/should approach the complexities of indigenous communities. In the socio-economic report one of these complexities is addressed under the heading “On local participation” that: “While the uranium mining companies indicated that they try to respond to community interests, they have found it challenging to communicate effectively with a large number of communities (57) located across the vast region of northern Saskatchewan.” (2013: 10) Several views on what dictated community relations were expressed during my visit and in the reports aspects such as accessibility to educated labour, particular need for labour, how vocal the community is etc., were mentioned. This echoes research on what happens when capitalism and science meet indigenous wisdom and folklore, in that the complexity of the latter discourse often have to be reduced so as to fit the former discourse.


Aboriginals Cameco Canada Management Music Worker

Goffman and the Wolfpack

“How long would it take for me to know what’s really going on here?”, I asked. “About three to four months”, the worker answered. I looked at my watch. Twenty hours to go before my flight back to Saskatoon.

It takes time to get to know the social codes of a wolfpack. Arriving, staying at and leaving the McArthur River mine site, I kept thinking of the sociological opportunity to study social life in a very confined context. Workers, managers and contractors work, eat, sleep and play within the gates, for at least seven days at a time.

The sociologist Erving Goffman, particularly in his studies of life on an island (Presentation of self, 1959) and at a mental institution (Asylums, 1961), shows that regardless of how much rules and routines are imposed on subordinates under such circumstances, an organizational underlife develops, where “locals” and “inmates” reserve a space for themselves. These are not only stories of control, but also of autonomy, discretion and freedom (which counters many scholars’ reading of Goffman, who rather only see him as a functionalist). These are stories, however, that largely escape the researcher as a paratrooper, flying-in, flying-out. A frustrating feeling.

Below, you can listen to the song “Wolfpack (meeting the Other)”, through which we try to address this issue, by clicking on the audiofile here (you might have to reload the page for it to show):

Wolfpack (meeting the Other)

Lyrics: Johan Sandström
Music: Johan Sandström and Tommy Jensen
Instruments, vocals: Tommy Jensen

Can you show me
What’s going on
What’s everybody looking at
But no one sees

Can you tell me
What’s on your mind
What’s left unspoken
But that everybody knows

It’s the wolfpack
Howling in silence
Watching you move
Letting you go

It’s the wolfpack
Howling in silence
Watching its space
Letting you stay

I say letting you stay
Letting you stay

Can you move me
Tell me a story
Look me in the eyes
Speak from your heart

Can you fool me
Tell me a lie
Look me in the eyes
Say you don’t care

It’s the wolfpack
Howling in silence
Watching you move
Letting you go

It’s the wolfpack
Howling in silence
Watching its space
Letting you stay

I say letting you stay
Letting you stay

Let me show you
A story you know
A story you feel
But that’s never been told

Put into words
Put into colors
A humble return
A powerful tool

It’s the wolfpack
Howling in silence
Watching its space
Letting you stay

Cameco Canada Emily Researcher Uranium

On Cozying Up to Corporations

Below you’ll find a post from our guestblogger Emily Eaton, Associate Professor at the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, University of Regina, Canada:

“I read with interest the January blog post “Empathizing with the subjects of study” and was reminded of a conversation I had with Johan when he visited the University of Regina. At that time we discussed Organizing Rocks’ relationship to Cameco Corporation, the owner of the uranium mine and mill at the centre of this study. I was happy to hear that the Organizing Rocks project is funded by public money because it has already been well-established that corporate funding of research influences projects to their core, shaping the design, methods, analysis and dissemination of research. In other words, social science research cannot be ‘dis-interested’ when funded by private corporations.

Yet, the Organizing Rocks project has had to engage with Cameco Corporation in order to gain access to the project’s research site, which is a fly-in/fly out mine and mill in northern Saskatchewan where workers stay at gated work camps. Johan disclosed in an email to me that he offered to pay all his expenses associated with travel and room and board, but that the corporation declined and paid for everything. The corporation also helped arrange access to many of the workers that Johan was interested in interviewing.

According to Kirsch (2014) this kind of ethnographic research within the corporation “poses a risk of co-optation, because the tendency of ethnographers to empathize with the subjects of their research may influence their findings or temper their critical perspectives.” Here I side with Johan and Tommy in suggesting that empathizing with research subjects is always a ‘risk’ no matter whether they are those suffering the impacts of extraction or those working within the extractive machine. Empathizing with subjects is not something to be warded against or denied, but rather, a way of getting deep into people’s stories and connecting with them on a human level. I must agree that those working for corporations, whether they are out-of-scope workers, or management are whole human beings with complex relationships to the work they do. In fact, in my experience researching the oil and gas industry in Saskatchewan, such workers and management can offer strident critiques of their industries from places of intimate knowledge. Such people ought to be engaged and often need the protection of confidentiality in order to speak their truths to probing outsiders.

The more pertinent question, I think, in relation to the Organizing Rocks research project is what Cameco is getting out of the research and relationship. We have already established that they are not intervening in or influencing the research trajectory, collection of data, etc. In fact, Johan suggested they have been remarkably accommodating in granting access to their personnel and operations. If the corporation is not getting anything tangible out of the research, why would they pay for travel and open themselves up to probing researchers? When corporations offer ‘no strings attached’ funding or perks (such as travel and accommodation) social scientists consider their research conflict of interest-free. Yet corporations still get something out of these relationships. In this case, they strengthen their ties to the University of Saskatchewan and a group of public policy researchers at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy who have significant input into and influence on public debate in Saskatchewan. This is not uncontroversial, many critics are already wary of Cameco’s relationship to the University of Saskatchewan. Furthermore, in its support of the Organizing Rocks project the corporation fosters positive public relations and scores points as a good corporate citizen. All of these soft benefits play into the corporation’s ‘social license to operate’, which is required not just in the northern communities where they extract and mill, but across the province among a population that has seen nuclear energy and the uranium industry as a controversial issue and a site of fractious politics for over 50 years.”

Aboriginals Canada Music Saskatoon

A song for Saskatchewan (and La Loche)

After Johan’s first visit to Saskatchewan in June 2015, he wrote a lyrics and a basic chords structure for a song. The song was more or less a way to digest some of his impressions from walking and meeting people along 20th street in Saskatoon. For some reason, however, the lyrics came to him in Swedish… He sent the stuff to Tommy, who arranged the song and we recorded the bulk of it in a hotel room in Kiruna (while doing field work). We didn’t publish it, thinking a song in Swedish wouldn’t fit the international twist to the project. But, when the news of the tragedy in northern Saskatchewan reached us here in northern Sweden (the shooting in the community of La Loche, four dead, seven injuried, click here), our thoughts immediately went back to the song. So, we send our deepest regrets to the families affected and to the La Loche community with a Swedish song called “Fyrtorns blues” (“The Lighthouse blues”). Click (you might have to reload the page for the soundfile to show):


En fyrtorns blues

Lyrics and music: Johan Sandström
Instruments and lead vocals: Tommy Jensen
Backing vocals: Molly Jensen

Den är fyra filer bred

Vägen till slätten

Förbi ett fyrtorn fullt

Bredvid ett tempel utan liv

Ett kylslaget kliv

Ett fyrtorn fullt


En man möter din blick

En kvinna står tyst

Blicken är trött

Spriten klingar av

En arbetshäst har dött

Ett sprucket nav


Inga spår, inga skulder

Ingen ser när du gråter

Regnet döljer dina tårar

Fukten smeker dina kinder

Dom ser dina märken

Men inte din vandring

Din lampa har slocknat

Som ska guida dig hem


Han älskar dom alla

Vit eller svart

Lång eller kort

Nykter eller full

Men han kommer inte in

Han kommer inte in


Dörrarna står öppna

En osynlig mur

En gräns han känner

Men som han inte ser

Det är ett liv bakom muren

Skapat av andra


Inga spår, inga skulder

Ingen ser när du gråter

Regnet döljer dina tårar

Fukten smeker dina kinder

Dom ser dina märken

Men inte din vandring

Din lampa har slocknat

Som ska guida dig hem


Kaffet värmer dina händer

Kylan är hård

Du ser dig omkring

Letar efter liv

Ett kylslaget kliv

Ett fyrtorn fullt


Inga spår, inga skulder

Ingen ser när du gråter

Regnet döljer dina tårar

Fukten smeker dina kinder

Dom ser dina märken

Men inte din vandring

Din lampa har slocknat

Som ska guida dig hem

Aboriginals Cameco Canada Saskatoon Supplier Uranium Worker

Aboriginals and the labour process (part 3)

One issue related to the labour process at MCA and to life in northern Saskatchewan that has received a lot of attention is health and well-being.

In a CVMPP report from December 2014, the effects of the uranium industry’s health and wellness programs on direct employees of AREVA and Cameco are studied (predominantly based on surveys; gaining generalizability but losing context). Reading the report with my visit to MCA as a sounding board, there are three spaces in which health and wellness are dealt with: (i) on site, at work, (ii) off site, off work, and (iii) in-between.

On site, at work, it is about the actual workplace and life on site, and what stands out are automation, good food and the risk of cancer. The report says that: “Modern mining operations are less physically demanding than in the past and this decrease in physical exertion, along with living at an industrial site where there is a good variety and supply of prepared foods, can result in weight gain and associated increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke and some cancers. […] …a shift to mechanized and computerized processes.” (2014: 2-7) Further: “Most RSN workers in the uranium industry, though active, feel that the physical demands of their jobs are only ‘intensive sometimes'” (2014: 7-1).

Modern mining, that is, is becoming more automated and less physically demanding, combined with an on site life with extensive and inviting choices of food. The image of the miner, hollow-eyed, down-to-the-bones marked by the mine, withers and an image of a sligthly overweight office worker emerges. During my days at MCA, there were a lot of physical, after-work activities (weight-lifting, raquetball, basketball etc.) to in some extent compensate for this. The food is an issue, however. Although there’s no pop (läsk in Swedish) in the cafeteria, my experience is that it was quite easy to put together rather fat, sugar-intensive and fine-tasting plates during (and between) meals. Diabetes is also a problem in the north. Besides offering a lot of physical activities on site, one of Cameco’s responses was to market a so-called “Heart Smart plate”, but from what I could pick ut on it seemed to be a difficult sell. Many workers on site joked about gaining weight at work. I can understand them.

Also related to work in the uranium mine is the risk of cancer due to exposure to radiation. In the report it is early on stated that “current exposures are so low that it would be practically impossible to correct for the effects of smoking and residential radon exposure” (2014: 2-4). The rate of cancer is lower for men and similar for women in northern Saskatchewan compared to in southern Saskatchewan. Tied to the healteffects of automation, some of the work tasks being automated also had the effect of minimizing the risks with workers’ contact with the uranium mined. One example is the loading, where the driver steps out of the vehicle and uses a joystick to control the vehicle by distance when scooping the uranium.

Off site, off work, it is about life in the communities. The report says that: “The proportion of residents in northern Saskatchewan indicating “very good” or “excellent” mental well-being is the lowest among northern health regions/census divisions in Canada” (2014: 2-16). It also states that injuries (off site, off work) are the leading cause of death in northern Saskatchewan and that suicide is the leading cause in that category (the highest rate is among men in their twenties). The rates of heavy drinking is also higher in northern compared to southern Saskatchewan. In CVMPP’s socio-economic report from 2013 it is also stated that: “The community well-being index (an indicator of overall community well-being, including income, education and housing) indicated, overall, that scores were higher in Saskatoon, Air Ronge and La Ronge than the other case study communities and the north as a whole. This disparity in community well-being, as evidenced by this indicator, appears to be widening over time.” (2013: 15)

Off site, off work, there are real health and well-being challenges for many communities. Reading about this raises my curiosity for the in-between site/work and off site/off work.

In-between, it is about the connections between the health programs and life in the northern communities. The CVMPP is a testimony to the necessity of highlighting these connections, but to some extent this is weak in the reports. The 2014 report says that: “Although there is broad recognition and awareness of health programs offered at McArthur River and McClean Lake, the majority of respondents reported that they have not changed their personal attitudes or behaviours as a result of the programs” (2014: 3-6). But, it also states that there are some positive health and safety effects of the programs on their community life (c.f. 2014: 6-9, 6-10, 6-11, 7-4, 7-5).

In the report, the path forward is not clear and maybe that would have a been a task too grand for a single report. It might more be a way to facilitate a further discussion, but there seems to be a basic (and very common) assumption in that increasing participation in capitalistic life enhances health and well-being. Citing statistics from the government of Canada, the report states that: “There is a growing body of evidence to support the idea that income and social status are the most important social determinants of health” (2014: 2-4). To some extent this is debatable, but to a large extent this is more complex.

Aboriginals Cameco Canada Saskatoon Worker

Aboriginals and the labour process (part 2)

The way the labour process at MCA is organized spills right into the homes and the communities. The impact seems especially strong in northern, aboriginal communities.

The report by the CVMPP from 2006 explicitly deals with the theme “How FIFO [fly-in/fly-out] impact the workers’ family or community”. It says that: “Given that the effects of the rotation system had a limited impact on communities, there were very few recommendations as to how appropriate sources of support could be provided to the community as a whole” (2006: 41; emphasis added). It also states that: “Workers are generally satisfied with the current rotation system and there is limited room for improvements. While various problems associated with the work rotation system did come to light through the research process, people were generally content with things the way they were.” (2006: 34)

That many were satisfied with the rotation system reflect my observations from MCA, but that the labour process only has limited impact on family and communities does not. This view can only be defended with a very limited view of the labour process, something that we seek to challenge in this research project. Using the same report to build the case, an observation that is gender-related comes to mind: “It seems clear that the espouse or partner left to deal with the household, generally the female, bears the brunt of the effects of the work rotation system. They are essentially a single parent part-time and have to assume all of the household responsibilities while their partner is on site.” (2006: 15)

Several workers (all but a few were men) whom I talked to at MCA praised their partner for being strong and supportive, but their partner was usually at least partly dependent on extended family and/or neighbors when the espouse was on site. Something that I didn’t hear about in the interviews (not surprising perhaps), but that was outspoken in the 2006 report was that the older kids often had to assume a parental role early on and that “Many saw the absence of a parent as an opportunity for children to act out or to get into trouble” (2006: 18). This is not a case of limited impact. The labour process at MCA, that is, has significant effects on family and community life.

Something that also echoed in my interviews on site at MCA, was also mentioned in the same report:

“While responses varied to some extent, most people felt that the rotation system had an impact on their ability to partake in community life, especially in ongoing activities (e.g., sports teams) or special events (which were often missed due to the rotation schedule). On the other hand, the rotation system seemed conducive to traditional activities such as hunting and fishing, and people generally felt it enabled them to spend time on the land.” (2006: iii)

Again, impact of the labour process on family and community cannot be said to be limited. It disables participation in community life, it also enables participation in maintaining traditional life, although I experienced this as more complex on site than stated in the report. Being able to work for Cameco at MCA enabled many to stay in their communities and during their week off they could really be engaged with family and community life, and spend time trapping, fishing, hunting etc. But, there were also stories of how working the rotation system at MCA over time made the workers more attuned to a more capitalistic (some would say modern) way of life, which did not go hand-in-hand with life in the community (where sharing is more common) and a more traditional way of life. Hence, I heard several stories of aboriginal workers eventually moving their families to urban life in the towns of Prince Albert or Saskatoon.

The integration of aboriginals/RSN in the labour process, that is, is not free from tensions. On the whole, some would argue that it is a way for the national and provicincial governments and the mining companies to co-opt indigenous people (making sure their land can be used for mining) whereas others see it as empowerment of communities that face many social challenges.

Aboriginals Cameco Canada Management Uranium Worker

Visiting the Key Lake mill

Key Lake is where the uranium from MCA is processed, turned into “yellow cake” (which in the end is black), and then exported. The mill is about 80 km from the mine, about an hour drive on roads controlled by Cameco, and on which the slurry trucks go back and forth. Aboriginals entitled to be on the land are also allowed on the roads.

I ride with Ryan and although the landscape is covered with snow, it’s a beautiful area. Rolling hills, many lakes, short trees (many marked by last Summer’s severe forest fires). Had it been back home, a cabin here and there would break the view, but up here it’s not as common. Arriving at Key Lake, I get to meet staff in the administration and several workers at the mill as well as visit the camp site for lunch (including the Sunday donut). My guide in the mill is Kevin, the mill manager. Below is a short report and some pictures.

Safety first, so I’m all dressed up, from head to toes. One impression is that there are not many people in the facilities, reminding me of the works in Kiruna (big buildings, few people). I meet and talk to five operators, all of them are aboriginals, four from different communities (Pinehouse, Patchuak, Cumberland house) and one from Prince Albert. All of them had also gone through internal trainings and worked their way up to reach the highest level for an operator – from level 1 to 10 (you don’t need a chemical or metallurgy degree to work as an operator). Their work is in the control room, controlling the different processes, but they also walk and inspect the facilities everyday. Same type of work as in the works in Kiruna.

Another impression is the lime ‘dust’ coloring the inside of the first facility Kevin takes me to (which houses the last part of the process). Kevin pointed out that it’s not really a problem but that they will clean it up. I couldn’t help thinking it was beautiful. I remembered having a similar feeling during the tour of the works in Kiruna when confronted with all the pipes, machines, stairs, dust, noise, etc., and with the idea that all of this actually work together somehow. Although these facilities house processes that put a lot of strain on our natural environment and where humans have to deal with hazardous materials in their everyday working life, there is nevertheless some kind of industrial aesthetics to them. A strange combination of feelings, for sure (ergo, there’ll be a song about this in the future).

Thanks to Kevin, I get a good tour and a good introduction to the process. It was also easy to feel the difference in terms working climate between Key Lake and MCA. My impression is that it’s a bit rougher at MCA, reminding me about a similar difference between the mine and the works in Kiruna. To some extent, a similar rhetoric or jargon among the workers also exist. In Kiruna it’s between those who get the stone up versus those who get the stone out. At Key Lake a common strategy used to tease MCA seemed to be that: “anybody can dig dirt but we do the magic and turn it into money”, or “it’s at Key Lake where the magic happens”. Consequently, the room where the experts in metallurgy work (all with higher education degrees, a demand making it much more difficult to recruit aboriginals/RSN) is called “the magic room” and the metallurgs are called “magicians”.

Aboriginals Cameco Canada Management Supplier Union Uranium Worker

Aboriginals and the labour process (part 1)

The presence (past and present) of indigenous people in northern Saskatchewan significantly influences the labour process of MCA. It’s quite a contrast to Kiruna where the Sami people have a more peripheral, even marginalized position.

People established in northern Saskatchewan are sometimes referred to as Residents of Saskatchewan’s North (RSN). There are about 37000 RSN and more than “85% of the population in northern Saskatchewan identify themselves as Aboriginal [Cree, Métis, Dené] […] The population is young and growing” (CVMPP 2015: 2-5).

According to a recent report from the government of Saskatchewan, the mining industry in northern Saskatchewan employs about 3400 persons of which half are RSN. It also says that 43% of all mine workers are indigenous. Behind this development lies strong legal rights awarded to indigenous people in Canada and what seems to be an explicit political will in Saskatchewan to put pressure on companies to build capacity in the north. We don’t see this in Kiruna, in the county of Norrbotten nor in Sweden in general, which might explain why the Sami people do not play a significant role in the labour process in the Kirunamine (whether this would be a good or a bad thing is another issue).

AREVA and Cameco, running the uranium mines and mills in the north, have to sign two partnership agreements with the Province of Saskatchewan, one human resource development agreement and one mine surface lease agreement, both directed at capacity building in the north (hiring RSN, developing their business opportunities, help provide education/training opportunities etc.). The “surface lease agreements for northern uranium mining projects require companies to participate in a community vitality monitoring program” (2013: 3, the Community Vitality Monitoring Partnership Program, CVMPP). Cameco recommended me to read the reports by the CVMPP and they provide useful information with which to compare my impressions from visiting MCA.

Zooming in on the reports, one report from 2013 targets the socio-economic impacts of uranium mining in northern Saskatchewan. On site, I heard several times that the mine paid well (just as in Kiruna) and in the report it says that “The uranium mining industry provides some of the highest-salaried positions in northern Saskatchewan” (2013: 7), but also that “the average household income and median household income for the population as a whole, when adjusted for inflation, actually decreased between 1981 and 2006. The gap between the average and median household income, an indicator of income inequality, also steadily increased” (2013: 8). The uranium companies are therefore called upon to provide more opportunities for Aboriginal/northern workers in supervisory positions and professional jobs, which reflect what seem to be key challenges in the north. Under the heading “employment” the report states that the number of RSN:

“employed directly in the uranium mining industry increased fourfold from 201 in 1981 to 832 in 2011. The proportion of the direct workforce (i.e., those workers hired directly by the mining companies) made up of RSNs appears to have reached a plateau during the last decade (e.g., about 46% in 2011). When considering both the direct workforce and the workforce hired by long-term contractors (e.g., security services, food services), the proportion of RSNs rose to 47% (2011). This fell short of the 67% target rate set by the Joint Panel in the 1990s, although each of the mining companies continuned to try to find innovative ways to address this gap.” (2013: 7; emphasis added)

One reason for this ‘plateauing’ is the lack of education among RSN: “While the number of northerners 15 years and older with at least a high school certificate or equivalent has increased substantially from 1976 to 2006, education attainment rates in northern Saskatchewan have not reached parity with provincial rates” (2013: 6). Even larger communities in the north usually cannot provide education beyond grade twelve. Basically all aboriginal people I talked to on site at MCA and Key Lake had no higher education, but many had to some extent worked their way up the hierarchy through Cameco’s own training and through work experience. This often meant operating more advanced machines underground in the MCA mine or achieving the highest level of control room operator at the Key Lake mill. In the report, uranium companies are called upon to provide bridging programs between high schools and colleges/universities, but also to invest in early childhood development.

The same year, 2013, a report on RSN in supervisory positions in the uranium industry is published. Although clearly written “from an industry perspective” (2013: 31), it addresses what seems to be an ‘indigenous glass ceiling’: “From 1992 to 2012, the number of RSNs in supervisory postions increased from 18 to 71 or an increase of 394%. Despite this progressive trend, the ration of RSN in supervisory positions versus all supervisory positions continue to remain constant and below 26,4% (Cameco, 2013).” (2013: 8) Again, it is stated that RSN “lack the needed formal education and skills” and that the “uranium mining industry is also becoming far more advanced and technical, requiring specialized training in various occupations” (2013: 26). Other aspects of why there is a lack of RSN in supervisory positions are “that when RSNs do move up in their position it is a ‘sink or swim’ opportunity”, that “where unions are active, they can also be viewed as a factor whether RSNs have opportunities to gain experience” (not all mine sites are unionized), and that “Cultural misinterpretations and misunderstandings continue to occur at the mine sites” (2013: 27).

Some of these problems were addressed already in a 2006 report from the CVMPP. Interesting information is put in the appendix of the report, however, due to the authors not regarding it as central to the specific report and because these problems were not central to the findings of the report. Under the heading “Lack of Northerners”, it is stated that: “Some respondents were unhappy with the proportion of Northerners working at the mines, which they felt was low” (2006: 56). Cultural tensions are also mentioned, but under the heading of “Racism”, where it says that: “Many mine workers, their spouses and community members said that racism was a problem at the mine site. These respondents were discouraged by the lack of Northerners assigned to senior positions” (2006: 56).

In the 2006 report, a “Community Bias” is also addressed: “Some respondents felt that the company was biased in favour of certain regions/communities. In addition, some respondents felt that individual communities were treated differently by the company, either because one community was more vocal or because of their status as a reserve community.” (2006: 56-57) In the socio-economic report, however, this is linked to education and the access to skilled labour: “Some communities has a greater percentage of their workforce employed in the industry than other communities despite being a substantially larger distance away, which tends to relate to the availability of skilled labour in a given location” (2013: 14).

A lot of the responsibility to deal with how to increase the number of aboriginals in supervisory positions is again put on the companies: “based on the long term nature of the uranium industry, it is encouraged that the uranium mining industry partner and invest (where appropriate) in early childhood development and primary education” (2013: 32) and that companies “develop and implement a RSN specific (potential consideration of northern and First Nations culture and socio-economics) leadership program” (2013: 33).

It is as if all roads lead to rather vague recommendations that the companies should use their power to change the labour process to benefit RSN more. To my knowledge, Cameco is doing a lot and perhaps it should do even more given the power asymmetries between company and communities, but this strong corporate focus also shadows the role and responsibilities of other actors.

Aboriginals Cameco Canada Documentary Moviemaking Researcher Saskatoon Uranium

Challenges for the mining industry in Saskatchewan

On his trip to Canada, Johan took the chance of placing professor Greg Poelzer in front of the camera (arranged and managed by Max Poelzer) to talk about the challenges to the mining industry in northern Saskatchewan. The emphasis on capacity building in the north, particularly in aboriginal communities, is strong and not something that we experience back home in the north of Sweden.

Cameco Canada Management Worker


Work at the McArthur River uranium mine (and at all other Cameco mines in northern Saskatchewan) is predominantly divided into two shifts, one day and one night shift. 12 hours of work per day, lunch included.

The absolute majority of workers do seven days on site, then seven days off (7/7). Top management on site, however, works Monday to Thursday and then Friday to Sunday off. Some of the workers are offered two weeks in, two weeks out, but this seemed more common among contractors and for workers living outside Saskatchewan.

During the four days I spent on site, I was interested in how people experienced this system as we know that it exist to some extent in Kiruna and that there is a general, global trend in the mining industry to organize labour this way. Before arriving at MCA, I had also read the reports published on the Community Vitality Monitoring Partnership Process website on the effects of fly-in/fly-out (FIFO) work, workers’ health and on socio-economic matters related to northern Saskatchewan, but I’ll not touch on these in this blogpost. Here I focus on the several workers I got to speak to on site.

They obviously spend a lot of time away from their families and local communities, and life on site is very special given that they eat, sleep, work and play inside the gates so to speak (there will be a Goffmanian analysis of this in the future). Overall, people seemed very satisfied with the system. I cannot recall anyone that I talked to being overall dissatisfied. Not surprisingly perhaps given that they didn’t know so much about who I am and why I’m asking (beyond my two-minutes introduction). Their argument, however, was usually that the fly-in/fly-out (FIFO) life enabled them to stay in their communities (they didn’t have to move to get work, Cameco picked them up) and they got to spend quality time with their families or enjoying their favorite leisure time activities the week they spent at home.

A very positive aspect mentioned was also that life on site was so intense that many grew friendships for life. A “second family” or a “family away from home” were very, very common expressions. Many gave examples such as inviting all who they work with to their wedding or spending a lot of off-work time together. I guess this is not so surprising given that you cannot really hide on site and get to know both good and bad sides in each other. You get very close to each other. I will write more about this later on (to some extent this also taps into some stories from Kiruna on the strong social and emotional ties created between workers underground, as in the post “What is said underground stays…” from August 28). It fascinated me because this observation is a contrast to what seems to be a general idea about how organizational solutions such as FIFO-life fragmentize social relations and triggers further individualization. These people tell of social relations going deeper than ‘normal’ work relations. Then again, fragmentation might still be an effect, but one that is dispersed from the workplace to the communities. More on this later on.

For sure, there were negatives with FIFO-life. In the conversations many rather bluntly stated that: “I’ll miss half of my kids’ lives”, but once home, they could go all in, when the kids left for school and when they came home. Skype, Facetime etc., also helped reduce the distance. They also said that it was difficult to be engaged in community life (ex. sports teams, charity work and other things that demanded a more continuous presence back home) and more or less all addressed the extra burden placed on their partner (predominantly a wife, whose perspective would shed important light on FIFO-life; we’ve just got to know of the interesting research in this area conducted by Robyn Mayes and colleagues – to be explored!). Most mentioned the extra help they get from neighbors and friends back home when they’re on site with things like shoveling snow in the Wintertime. In different ways, FIFO-life extends into the community back home, that is.

The most frustrating thing about FIFO-life according to several workers, however, was the fact that they were a flight away from home. If anything would happen, they couldn’t just hop in the car, on the bus or the bike and go home. They were to some extent stuck on site. The perception of Cameco was in general good in terms of arranging a flight out should there be an emergency.

Coming back to Saskatoon, I interviewed a couple of workers at a contractor spending a lot of time on site at MCA and I confronted them with my impression of everybody being overall satisfied with the fly-in/fly-out (FIFO) life. They basically said that its right, but that it might be explained by that people not able to cope with FIFO and camp life often find this out rather quickly and quit. Sure, they knew of a couple of guys that keep working although they really don’t like the set-up. They usually go to their room after dinner, don’t socialize. It’s not good for work environment, not preferable, but it’s their choice, the workers I talk to argue.

I did meet some workers traveling a long way to get to one of the pick-up spots for the Camecoflights. One came all the way from Nova Scotia (about 5000 km from MCA). Needless to say, although he liked his work and his colleagues at MCA, he would prefer a job closer to home. Although his colleagues joked about how they took care of him (gleam in the eye), facing the long travels to and back from work is not the only burdening aspect; there is also the rather strong provincial patriotism regarding who should get jobs in the mining industry in northern Saskatchewan (I encountered this statement later on: ‘why can’t we hire a guy from Saskatchewan?’).

Writing this, I realize, prompts other blogposts:

How does FIFO and camp life influence worker-management/union-management relations? After all, you’re stuck with each other. Frictions at work follow you to dinner and when playing cards.

How does FIFO and camp life differ between aboriginal and non-aboriginal workers? Life on site was socially complex and I’m not capable of untangling it all, but a lot of the complexities had to some extent to do with aboriginal and non-aboriginal workers.

How does the provincial patriotism work and how is it played out in practice? More than half the workers at MCA are from northern Saskatchewan and the absolute predominant part of them are aboriginals.

How does the reports published on the Community Vitality Monitoring Partnership Process webiste resonate with my own impressions?

Not the least, which questions do all of this ask to our Kirunacase?!

Cameco Canada Management Uranium Worker

Down the uranium mine

Follow Johan underground in the McArthur River uranium mine (MCA).

Safety first. I’m taken to a locker room where I get the gear and the information necessary to be allowed underground. I then meet my guide, Curtis, a maintenance foreman. He used to work with oil sands in Alberta, but the long hours commuting to work meant too much time away from home and family in Saskatchewan. He has now been with Cameco and at MCA for about six years and is glad he made the change.

Curtis explains how the mine works by drawing on the whiteboard in his office above ground. He’s a good educator. At MCA, the methods they use are raiseboredrilling, blasthole stoping and boxhole boring, a unique combination for a uranium mine. One thing that strikes me and that I didn’t know a priori was that every hole they drill and extract from is filled with concrete, making Cameco a very large producer and user of concrete.

There are no roads to take you underground. Everything – humans, tools and machines – are transported with the hoists (more or less big elevators) down the mine, at about 600 metres underground. Given the size of the machines that work underground, it was a bit mindboggling. I rode the hoist with about a dozen people and it was crowded.

When underground, it is wet and greasy and the ‘artificial’ winds are cold and strong in some areas, given the ventilation system (the air in the mine is renewed about every 15 minutes). There is basically no traffic, which is a big contrast to the Kiruna mine and its 600 km roads underground. There is still a rather complicated road system at MCA. Curtis estimates that it takes about six months to learn how to get around underground (but we still got lost, sorry Curtis :-). He says that visitors are usually surprised that there are light and concrete roads in the mine. I’m not.

The first thing Curtis do when arriving underground is to sign workers’ safetycards. This is a routine, every day, sometimes two times a day. Every worker has a card and has to fill it in every day. Part of the card asks the worker if he or she has done anything to improve safety today. I look at Curtis with some skepticism. He picks up on it and says that it doesn’t have to be big things. It can simply be to make sure that work stations and walkways are free from rubbish. My impression is also that the card-checking seems to be a rather old-fashioned type of management control, but from what I could observe, the control of the cards also meant that a face-to-face conversation between manager and worker took place in which other work-related things also were discussed (I’ll come back to the relation between worker/manager at a fly-in/fly-out site such as MCA in another blogpost).

We take coffee with a group of workers. Curtis introduces me and the project, and all go silent. I guess I’m used to the reaction by now, but eventually the ice is broken and I get to talk to a couple of workers about their experiences working at MCA. Curtis then sets us up in a small truck and we start the tour of the mine. Everywhere we go there is a mix of meeting machines/technology (”every machine is a million dollar down here”) and different workers. Curtis does a good job introducing me and I get to talk to Ray from Prince Albert, Steve from Cumberland, Ralph from Saskatoon, a worker from Nova Scotia, and many more. I get to see the raisebores and the stopeblasting, learn the underground signal system for vehicles (green and red lights, ropes to pull to switch the light), see the officer who walks the mine measuring the air quality (see picture “Air quality”), see the loaders (which is semi-automated so that contact with uranium is minimized; see the pictures “The remote” and “Driving by distance”), meet with a mine rescue team practising (as in most mines, the biggest risks are fire and water) etc.

Talking to Shane, a young, aboriginal worker who has worked his way up the underground hierarchy, now operating the most advanced machines, Curtis points to the road we’re standing on: “There’s uranium”. Shane brings out the hose and clears the uranium from other material, and for sure, there it is, on the road, black and thick, like oil on the ground (see the picture “Uranium”). I ask Curtis about radiation and he shows me his meter, a slight reaction but nowhere near any risks to us.

We make our way back to the hoist. Time to go up.

Cameco Canada Saskatoon Supplier Uranium

Arriving at the McArthur River uranium mine

Hosted by Cameco Corporation, Johan spent four days in November at the McArthur River mine site. Below, a short text about his first impressions.

At noon I arrive at Westwind Aviation hangar 3A in Saskatoon. It’s a good day. The air is high, not too cold. The bag is checked and together with three other workers, I board the plane. After a short stop in Prince Albert (“there is no paradise without PA”) to pick up a group of workers, we land at McArthur River (MCA), two hours after leaving Saskatoon.

Everybody on site are FIFOs (fly-in/fly-out). I count to 14 different pick-up spots, all in Saskatchewan (although Flin Flon is a bordertown to Manitoba), all but two in small communities in northern Saskatchewan.

My host, Ryan from HR, picks me and another person up by car. The others go by bus. The camp, where all stay, is less than five minutes away, towards the mine. From camp to the mine and the administration building is a 15 minutes walk, but buses run when shifts start and end, as well as for lunch. It is advised not to walk alone, particularly as a wolfpack has been seen nearby. Wintertime, particularly in January and February, also provides a reason not to walk. It is not unusual with temperatures well below 40 degrees. Add wind to this and it is better to stay inside or use the vehicles.

I check in at the McArthur River Lodge (well, we all do), managed by Athabasca Catering, a company owned by five first nation (aboriginal) partners. My room has a large bed, a TV and two closets. Toilet and shower are found in the corridor. Some rooms have their own bathrooms or is shared with one other room. All Camecopeople stay at the main building, whereas the contractors stay in buildings just outside the main one. Everybody shares all the other facilities in the main building, however. The restaurant, the gym, the indoor arena, the lounge etc. In a building close to the main one, there is a golf simulator and a room to practice archery (used to be a curling hall).

MCA is a dry facility. You cannot even possess alcohol. Want to make a noise? Between 5 and 9 in the morning and 5 and 11 in the evening are your windows of opportunity. Other times, schhhhh. Yes, there is wi-fi, although a slow one. The cafeteria/restaurant is always open and you can help yourself to whatever you need, whenever you need it. Hot meals are served for lunch and dinner.

Driving from the airport to camp and then to the admin building, my impression is that at MCA, everything is close. The uranium mine site is much more compact compared the Kiruna mine. Less rocks, less people, less movement, less noise. In lack of a better way of describing it, I felt like: “Is this it?”.

Arriving at the admin building, Ryan takes me through the “Safety first” rules and asks me about the project. Time flies and we go back to camp for dinner. I meet some of the other staff, have a meal, check out the lounge (icehockey game on the big TV, some watch, others just socialize), then off to bed. First day out of four starts softly. Next day takes me underground.