Dispatch: Double cutters

Family and core values at a Nunavut mine site

 by Ashleigh Gaul

At the Hope Bay mine site, the only time you won’t see Robert Akoluk with his twin brother John Haniliak is when John goes out for a smoke break. A couple hours after lunch, John pulls off his rubber apron and double-filter gas mask and heads for the core yard in his coveralls. “Smoke?” says Robert.

“Smoke.”

“Smoke.”

Robert stays behind at his core-cutting station, splitting core cylinders of white quartz lengthwise down the middle with a diamond-tipped saw. 

Robert and John are known around the Northern mines for two things: 1) They work three or four times faster than any core-cutting team in the country and 2) The tale of how they got here comes as close to a mining love story as the industry probably gets.

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Born on the land near Bathurst Inlet in the early ’50s, Robert and John were separated at birth because in trapping days, says a nephew of theirs, “families did what they could to start a family, and if someone needed a child…” But when settlements came to the Kitikmeot, Robert’s family settled in Bathurst Inlet, in the north, and John’s family moved south to Bay Chimo. No one ever told them they were twins.

One day in the late ’80s, each went on a separate hunt near the Hope Bay mine site, at Doris Lake. 90 kilometres from the nearest town, they ran into each other on Ski-Doos. They noticed the resemblance immediately. (Though Robert’s gotten a little fatter since he quit smoking, they have the same drawn jaw, handlebar moustache and smiling eyes.) Back home in Bay Chimo and Bathurst Inlet respectively, they started asking questions and, eventually, getting answers.

A couple years later, when BHP Billiton bought Hope Bay and started drilling for gold, Robert got a job in the core shack, processing rock samples. It only made sense to recruit his brother to work with him in the shack’s two-station core-cutting room.

They go where the work goes, which means they’re sometimes separated as they shuffle through Nunavut’s stop-and-start mines and exploration sites: Lupin; Hope Bay; Goose Lake; Snap Lake, to name a few. Since the early ’90s, Hope Bay’s changed hands four times and one of the only constants has been Robert and John. They sometimes help new owners and their consultants navigate around the mine site, picking out important archaeological sites and sensitive hunting grounds on the property. They’ve been offered many promotions, but always turn them down, saying simply: “We cut core”—12 hours a day, seven days a week, three weeks in, three weeks out.

Before John comes back from his smoke break, Robert stops his saw and moves to John’s unmanned station. Robert’s known around site as the mischievous twin, cracking jokes and pretending to sleep at the morning meetings, sometimes rearranging John’s tools—a chipping hammer and grease pencil—at his station. The walls are peppered with graffiti from their idle hours: “John Haniliak/May 13/09;” “John Haniliak/Oct. 4 2013;” “Robert Akoluk/Oct 11/2013;” a Sharpie drawing of an inukshuk on a hill;” “Welcome to core shack” in red and purple bubble letters.

But this is just a short break and it’s a busy day. Robert’s got a different plan. He takes out the filters in his brother’s mask and replaces them with new ones, then wipes the face and goggles with a wet nap. When John returns from his smoke break, Robert’s back at his own station, cutting core. 

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