Dec '10/Jan '11

Canadians Abroad

Mining Santa’s workshop: Agnico-Eagle’s Plummer works among the reindeer in Finland

By Heather Ednie

Carol Plummer

In the fall of 2008, Carol Plummer was relocated to Agnico-Eagle Mines’ (AEM) Kittilä operation in Finland, where she embraced the challenges of life across the seas. The former mine manager at AEM’s Lapa Division in Quebec was to oversee the completion and commissioning of surface facilities, mine and pit development, and the safe startup of the 3,000 tonne per day gold operation. Life in the Arctic Circle presented plenty of highlights and challenges, but Plummer had the savvy and smarts to make the best of them and enjoy the experience.

Sending Plummer to Finland to run the Kittilä operation in its first years of life was a strategic move for Agnico-Eagle; a Canadian mine manager would ensure the company culture would be developed overseas. “Our company culture is based on competence and respect, thus it translates well globally,” Plummer explains. “Agnico-Eagle has gone from having one mine to six mines in the last few years. Key people have been transferred from the core group to each of the new mines, to assist with the transfer of AEM culture.”

Babel fish

Plummer thrived for many years in the bilingual environment of Agnico-Eagle’s Quebec operations, but language was more of a barrier at Kittilä. Finnish is a difficult language to learn, as neither the vocabulary nor the grammar resembles English or French. “Although I have learned some words, I am not able to speak or understand Finnish,” she admits. Plummer says she would prefer to speak the same language as the employees as it would foster communication and understanding. “Since that’s not possible, we find other ways. We have two full-time translators on site, with the goal of ensuring clear communication and that new procedures meet the needs of both the operators and our AEM standards.”

Plummer’s appetite dictated some of the first Finnish she learned. “In grocery stores, you have to weigh your own fruits and vegetables, and put the price sticker on the bag,” she explains. Having to sort through a number of bins and stickers to find the correct code can pose quite the challenge. “Once I learned my colours it became much easier to pick the correct code for red peppers versus yellow or green ones.”

Selecting meat was an even greater shopping challenge. Several times Plummer thought she was buying pork and it turned out to be ham. “This also happened with a turkey breast and something I am still sure was a roast beef,” she recalls. “My husband would ask what was for supper and then add, ‘are you sure?’ For the first six months here, I would often say ‘I think we are having…’ and we’d see once it came out of the oven.”

Home away from home

The Kittilä Mine is located 150 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, but in terms of flora and fauna, infrastructure and services resembles northern Quebec and Ontario, which are home to Plummer. “There are lots of trees, lakes, hills and wildlife,” she explains, although some of the wildlife differs from the critters spotted near Val-d’Or. “The reindeer are all owned by the local people, but are allowed to roam free for most of the year to forage. Thus, it is common to be caught in a ‘reindeer traffic jam’ on the way to work as they wander along the road.”

One key advantage is found at the local airport — a portal to Europe — which boasts regular flights to Helsinki year-round and direct international flights during the high season. “We have enjoyed visiting a bit of Europe while living here,” she confesses. “I still enjoy telling people that last year we flew to Paris for the weekend. We left Kittilä after lunch and were there in time for supper! This is not something that you can do from Canada … unless you have access to a private jet.”

The right ingredients

The mining industry in Finland has been slow for a number of years, leading to a shortage of miners, operators and engineers. However, although there were few people with mining experience available when AEM began to build the mine, the Finnish workers in general are well educated and eager to learn and adapt. AEM quickly found a solution — they hired a variety of people who were interested in learning, along with a handful of key individuals with a lot of experience. “We started training programs well before the mine opened and brought in experienced operators from Canada for a short period to help with the start-up,” Plummer adds.

An additional perk to operating in Finland is that the educational system there is very open to providing services to the mining industry by holding courses to meet specific needs. “We have hired people from trades courses, supervisor training courses and currently have four engineers who graduated in other fields completing a mining engineering course at the University of Helsinki,” Plummer says. In essence, Finland’s workforce is willing and able to “train up” to the high standards AEM demands.

According to Plummer, the similarities between Canada and Finland are many, especially in terms of peoples’ values and interests. “As with our employees around the world, people take pride in a job well done,” she explains, adding that family, sports, hunting and fishing are all important to AEM employees in both countries. “Last year, both the Olympics and hockey playoffs were a major topic of conversation,” she recalls. “There was lots of joking and friendly competition between the guys in the hockey pool.”

Needing a red-nosed reindeer

Reindeer roaming free

The move overseas was not without its challenges. Plummer says living in the Far North, with 24-hour daylight in the summer and 24-hour darkness in the winter, can be tough. “The daylight is great, since I can go out cycling in the early morning with full sunlight and no traffic,” she says. “However, the darkness of the winter is difficult to get used to. I find that during the week it is fine, since I am used to arriving at the mine in the dark and leaving in the dark during Canadian winters. But the weekends are a bit different, when you are looking out the window at noon into a deep dusk that makes your body think it is only 6 a.m.”

Another challenge arises from the time difference (seven hours with Montreal and Toronto), which makes keeping in touch with family and friends difficult. “Skype is a wonderful thing, but people have to have their computers turned on for it to work,” she laughs. Gone are the days of ringing up loved ones in the evening for a chat. “Instead, I catch people when they are lingering over coffee on a weekend morning, by which time we are getting ready for supper,” she explains. “Sometimes we set up a time to call via email a couple of days beforehand — it works, but takes away from the spontaneity.”

Plummer, her husband Denis (who is one of the mine’s safety counsellors) and their border collie have embraced the experience wholeheartedly, but she admits it has not always been easy. “My husband and I found it difficult to be so far from our families, especially our two grandsons,” she explains. “I might consider an overseas assignment again in the future, but would like to spend a few years based in Canada while my grandchildren are small.”

Plummer has recently returned to Quebec as general manager of the Kittilä expansion project, and is building on the knowledge she gained while in “reindeer land.” “Kittilä is the largest mine I have been in charge of, and it is also the first time I have had an operating mill in addition to the mine,” she says. “I am sure that all of this will serve me well in my future career.”

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