The path to production at Nunavut’s Hope Bay gold mine has taken a few detours over the project’s history. Since its discovery in 1988 by BHP Billiton, the property has been sold three times, first to Miramar Mining Corp. in 1999 and then to Newmont Mining Corp. in 2007. Newmont sold to current owner, TMAC Resources Inc., in 2014. Along the way, Hope Bay has also faced its share of regulatory and development setbacks.
So, when TMAC brought the mine into production and poured first gold in 2017, few people were happier than the company’s vice-president of corporate responsibility, Alex Buchan. A lifelong Northerner, he has worked for all three of Hope Bay’s owners since 2005, starting with Miramar as a community-relations advisor. And his time with the company is a case study in the combination of the work—and the breaks—that go into building a successful career from a modest start.
Like Hope Bay’s detours, Buchan’s path to TMAC Resources took a few twists and turns. Born in Iqaluit to an Inuk mother and Scottish father, he spent his early years in Pond Inlet and then Taloyoak, following his father’s assignments as a fur trader for the Hudson’s Bay Company. Like a lot of youth from remote communities, he went to Yellowknife for high school, living at the Akaitcho Hall student residence. When he returned to Taloyoak after graduation, he didn’t have much of a plan.
Buchan worked a few odd jobs and met the woman who he would eventually marry, prompting him to ponder his future. A chance meeting with territorial education officials touring remote communities put him on his career path. They suggested he sign up for the renewable resource technician program at Aurora College in Fort Smith. “I enjoyed the outdoors and I liked science. You put these things together and a career as a wildlife officer sounds pretty attractive,” Buchan says.
He wouldn’t be a wildlife resource officer forever, but that early experience proved pivotal for his later career in the mining industry. Buchan ended up working as a wildlife officer in Kugluktuk. A promotion to land claims coordinator two years later got him involved in negotiations around the creation of Nunavut in 1999. His next promotion put him in a wildlife department management position.
His diverse experience would prove valuable later, when Miramar was casting about for community relations help after the Nunavut Impact Review Board rejected the company’s application for its Hope Bay project. Buchan was cold-called with a job offer. Miramar figured he had the right combination of experience—wildlife management and economic development—to get their next application approved.
Buchan helped negotiate the Inuit Impact Benefit Agreement that paved the way for the mine’s approval. Eventually, Newmont bought Hope Bay and got approval for development. Then, suddenly, the company decided to put it on care and maintenance, citing geological issues and capital allocation demands within the company. Then TMAC Resources took it over with Newmont remaining as a major investor and put the project back on track with commercial production starting in 2017. As the mine’s ownership changed, Buchan was a constant presence at the Cambridge Bay office. In January 2019, TMAC rewarded his dedication with a promotion to vice-president of corporate responsibility.
It’s no surprise Buchan’s willingness to stick with the project led to his promotion. And it’s become central to his thoughts on career development. “If there’s a willingness to try or to learn, everything else will come,” he says. “Skills, procedures, all that sort of stuff will come as long as someone has a positive attitude and takes their duties seriously. Willingness to make a go of it—if they don’t have that, they won’t be successful.”
GET SCHOOLED: Alex Buchan says labour trends mean one shouldn’t expect to have the same job for their entire adult life. Education is the building block of a modern career, he continues, because it means more career options when economic disruptions—automation in the mining industry, for example—cause shifts in the labour market. “If you have a basic education and you make some good post-secondary education choices, you’ll have options. You might not know where you’ll end up, but you’ll have the choice to do different things.”
REPUTATION MATTERS: Basic skills like resumé writing are important, but above all, career growth comes down to reputation, Buchan says. This is one area where Northerners have an advantage: it’s easier to stand out in a small population. “It’s what you do on the job and the impression you make. It’s all on you. Especially in the North, because we’re so short on skilled people, people will notice you and approach you." You never know who is watching, so do the best job you can, Buchan says. “If people like what they see, they will ask you to be part of something new. That’s what happened to me. I was minding my own business working in the hamlet office when a mining company cold-called me and asked me to work for them.”
HELP OTHERS: Managing employees is not just about efficiency. It's also about growth for the company and the individual, Buchan says. The effort you put into helping people succeed reflects back on you. “You can set up people for growth.” He recalls supervising an administrative employee who wanted to quit to finish her high school education. Instead of letting her walk away, Buchan and TMAC modified her schedule so she could continue working and finish school. “That’s satisfying to me. You can set up training or add responsibilities to help someone [grow].... It helps your organization. It helps the community. It helps the territory.”