Inuit voices grow louder in fight over Nunavut mine expansion

Inuit communities in northern Canada say they fear mine expansion will harm wildlife and cultural practices.

An ice-covered fjord on Baffin Island, the fifth largest island in the world, in the territory of Nunavut in northern Canada [File: Michael Studinger/NASA/Handout via EPA]

Montreal, Canada – As the mayor of Clyde River, a small Inuit hamlet in the territory of Nunavut in northern Canada, Jerry Natanine had seen local opposition to an iron ore mining project building for years.

So, when a group of Inuit hunters this month set up a protest blockade at the Mary River mine on Baffin Island, in the Arctic Archipelago, he was not surprised. “They’re not here to listen to us at all,” Natanine told Al Jazeera in a phone interview, referring to Baffinland Iron Mines Corporation, which runs the site.

Seven hunters from small Inuit communities in the region blocked an airstrip and a tote road along which the iron ore is transported to a shipping port, about 100km (62 miles) away.

The hunters said Baffinland’s plan to expand the Mary River site, which has been in operation since 2015, could threaten the animals they rely on for survival and that are intimately tied to their cultural practices.

The company wants to double the mine’s output from six to 12 million tonnes per year as part of what it calls phase two of development. It also plans to build a 110km railway connecting the site to a port at Milne Inlet, as well as a second port dock, from which to ship the material that is mostly exported to Europe.

The expansion is still before the Nunavut Impact Review Board (NIRB), which held environmental assessment hearings in January and February. After more planned sessions in April, it will give a recommendation to the Canadian federal government on whether to approve it.

But in the meantime, Inuit community members say their concerns have not been adequately considered throughout the process – and their calls to have their voices heard are growing louder. “We have a very strong unity at this moment,” said Natanine. “If they [the hunters] want to fight further, they’ve got support.”

Residents of Inuit communities in the territory of Nunavut say they fear the expansion of the Mary River mine will affect their hunting and harvesting practices [Al Jazeera/Mapbox]

Blockade lifted

Marie Naqitarvik, a resident of the small Inuit community of Arctic Bay, is one such supporter. “The ice itself is red from the iron ore,” she told Al Jazeera about the mine’s effects. Many Inuit have been frustrated by the board hearings and feel their concerns are still being ignored, she said.

“This is where our ancestors survived, for us to be able to be alive. They went through starvation. They had to travel by dogs. The only way to survive was their diet, the animal. That’s why we’re here,” Naqitarvik said. “The only food we have [is] from the land.”

The hunters, who dubbed themselves the Nuluujat Land Guardians, agreed to end their blockade at the Mary River site on February 10 after they were promised a meeting with Inuit authorities to discuss the project.

They are expected to meet with the Qikiqtani Inuit Association (QIA), which is mandated to protect Inuit rights and interests on Baffin Island under the Nunavut Agreement, and Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated, which ensures commitments made under the Nunavut Agreement are respected. It is unclear when that meeting will take place.

Inuit hunt narwhal, a whale sometimes called the ‘unicorn of the sea’ due to its long tusk, in the summer in open water [Courtesy Build Films/Oceans North]

On the Mary River project, the QIA manages an Inuit impact and benefits agreement that was renegotiated with Baffinland in 2018.

“Right now as an organisation, we do not have a position of whether we support or [do] not support phase two,” QIA President PJ Akeeagok told Al Jazeera in a phone interview, saying the organisation is listening to Inuit communities before its board will vote on a position.

“It was very important that we hear first and foremost from Inuit, from the impacted communities. Unanimous no support is what we heard through the Impact Review Board so far … but as an organisation we have [not] yet decided whether we support [phase two] or not.”

Baffinland CEO Brian Penney welcomed “the move to a constructive dialogue” in a statement on February 11, while Canada’s Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal said he was “encouraged” by news that discussions would continue.

But critics say they want the environmental assessment process to slow down so the company can re-evaluate the effects on Inuit hunting and harvesting, as well as benefits to communities. Natanine said people are not against mining per se, which creates jobs, but they want to make sure their rights are protected.

“Inuit are being asked to carry so much risk, with very little benefit, or benefits that come in the form of money, which can’t replace our culture or the wildlife or our harvesting practices,” said Eric Ootoovak, chairperson of Mittimatalik Hunters and Trappers Organization (MHTO) in Pond Inlet, another Inuit hamlet on Baffin Island.

Ootoovak told Al Jazeera in an email that community members are especially worried because the mine’s shipping route cuts through narwhal, fish and ringed seal habitats. “Inuit here have used this area for harvesting for generations, and we need these animals as a dependable source of healthy traditional food and even income,” he said.

Company defends plan

Baffinland is jointly owned by The Energy and Minerals Group, a US-based firm, and ArcelorMittal, one of the largest steel producers in the world.

In an email to Al Jazeera, Baffinland said based on its proposed impact mitigation and monitoring plans, it is “confident the mine expansion can co-exist with healthy wildlife populations and continued Inuit harvesting”.

In a three-page background report also sent via email, the company said the mine provides much-needed economic benefits and jobs to Inuit. “Overall, Baffinland’s operations have directly and indirectly contributed over C$1.68bn [$1.32bn] to Inuit businesses and communities,” it said.

Unanimous no support is what we heard through the Impact Review Board so far ... but as an organisation we have (not) yet decided whether we support phase two or not

by PJ Akeeagok, Qikiqtani Inuit Association

Baffinland also pointed to a deal it reached last year with the QIA that introduces an Inuit-led monitoring programme for the phase two expansion, as well as economic benefits to five Inuit hamlets that would be affected.

But Akeeagok said the recent NIRB hearings – a process that he said allows “Inuit voices to really be at the forefront” – made clear Inuit still have many concerns. “The pace of the production increase is one we heard very loudly,” he said.

Stephen Williamson Bathory, a special adviser to the QIA, said Inuit “have grown frustrated over the phase two proposal itself”.

“We continue to have an open door both to the proponent [Baffinland] and Inuit to work on answering these questions. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen the proponent move towards reconciling the outstanding issues,” he told Al Jazeera.

As part of its phase two expansion, Baffinland plans to build a 110km railway linking the Mary River mine to a port at Milne Inlet [Al Jazeera/Mapbox]

Rising frustrations

Chris Debicki, vice president of policy development and counsel at Oceans North, an environmental non-profit that works in Nunavut, also questioned the full scope of the company’s plans for the Mary River mine.

While Baffinland is currently seeking approval for phase two of development, a June 2020 Moody’s Investors report obtained by Al Jazeera shows Baffinland plans to increase the mine’s output to 18 million tonnes per year in phase three. The report does not specify a timeframe for that next phase.

Asked about its phase three plan, Baffinland told Al Jazeera its proposal “would restrict ship movements to not more than 176 a year” from the port at Milne Inlet and it “has no intention of asking for permission to increase shipments through Milne Inlet beyond this level”.

The review board is currently only evaluating phase two.

“It’s a fundamental issue of transparency and it’s also a fundamental issue of whether or not we’re looking at the proper scope of this project – and we say we’re not,” Debicki told Al Jazeera.

“We’re talking about a development and development decisions right now that will shape the course of development for generations, probably hundreds of years, so it’s so critical to get this right.”

Inuit knowledge

Meanwhile, Inuit communities say their territories are changing already.

Inuit hunt narwhal – a whale sometimes called the “unicorn of the sea” due to its long tusk – in the summer in open water. But they are harder to catch and skinnier, and there are fewer of them, said Ootoovak. He also fears the Baffin Island caribou herd, which has already declined “due to natural cyclical rhythms“, will be affected by the railway linking Mary River to the Milne Inlet port.

Losing the animals would mean losing Inuit heritage and culture, too. “We won’t be able to teach our next generations the things we know about the places and animals we have relied on for generations. This will be lost,” Ootoovak said.

He told Al Jazeera he does not believe the company has incorporated what is known as Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, or Inuit traditional knowledge, into its plans. “This is real, living knowledge, but despite the concerns we have raised, the mining company continues to predict there will be no ‘significant’ impacts on wildlife, or on Inuit harvesting,” he said.

Further, Natanine said the consultation process has not been meaningful, while Ootoovak said the Mary River expansion has not received Inuit communities’ “free, prior and informed consent” – a concept laid out in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Canada plans to incorporate into law.

ArcelorMittal, one of Baffinland’s co-owners, also is a member of the “ResponsibleSteel” initiative, which “requires sites to apply the concept of free, prior and informed consent where they operate in proximity to indigenous peoples”.

Asked whether it is meeting its commitment under ResponsibleSteel, Baffinland said the permit process for current and proposed operations is regulated through the NIRB, as per the Nunavut Agreement.

“There is an obvious disconnect,” said Ootoovak. “People in the community of Pond Inlet, and many other communities, have serious concerns about a project that could operate here for over 100 years, and a mining company that is so unwilling to consider our issues and work with us.”

Baffin Island in the Arctic Archipelago is the largest island in Canada and the fifth largest island in the world [Al Jazeera/Mapbox]
Source: Al Jazeera