A Vancouver-based exploration company has been drilling for copper on the Bluenose East caribou calving grounds in Nunavut — despite strong opposition in both Nunavut and the N.W.T.

Between mid-July and mid-September, Tundra Copper Corp. — owned by Kaizen Discovery — drilled nine holes from a 20-person exploration camp in the heart of the caribou calving grounds southwest of Kugluktuk.

The company was given the green light to proceed without a public hearing by the Nunavut Impact Review Board last July, despite strenuous opposition from Northwest Territories Tlicho and Sahtu leaders, the North Slave Métis Alliance, the nearby Tuktut Nogait National Park Management Board, the Nunavut government and the N.W.T.'s Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Bluenose East caribou range

The Bluenose East caribou range (dark green circle) extends to N.W.T.'s Dene communities of Deline, Gameti and Wekweeti, but the calving grounds (light green circle) lie entirely on the Nunavut side of the border. (N.W.T. Department of Environment and Natural Resources)

The Bluenose East caribou herd straddles the N.W.T./Nunavut border, with the calving grounds almost entirely on the Nunavut side. The herd has declined rapidly in recent years — from an estimated 186,000 in 2003 to fewer than 40,000 in 2015 — prompting discussions aiming at a three-year recovery strategy starting this fall.

In Deline this week, the Sahtu Renewable Resources Board is holding hearings that will lead to a severely limited in hunt in communities that have relied on the herd for generations.

"We're talking about how we're going to, you know, manage the harvesters," said David Codzi, president of the Ayoni Keh Land Corporation in Colville Lake, according to a transcript. 

"I've noticed that the impact of exploration was mentioned just a little bit," he said. "But … you know … the Tundra Copper Corp., that variable is a little bit more bigger than just a little bit."

"I agree with you," said Bruno Croft, manager for research and monitoring with ENR's North Slave office. "We need to work together and raise the awareness of the importance of the calving ground.

"Everybody has got to show up and raise their voice."

Multiple calls for project not to proceed

It's not clear how the Nunavut Impact Review Board reached the conclusion that Tundra Copper's project was "unlikely to arouse significant public concern" — a stipulation for projects that aren't subject to public review.  

The hamlet of Kugluktuk, the Kitikmeot Inuit Association and the Kugluktuk Hunters and Trappers Organization supported the project, with some terms and conditions.

Others opposed it entirely.

Kevin Klengenberg

Kevin Klengenberg submitted this comment to the Nunavut Impact Review Board regarding the Tundra Copper exploration project. (Sara Minogue/CBC)

"The GN … has serious concerns with this multi-year program," reads that government's submission form, filed on the review board's public registry. "The GN recommends prohibition on all development within calving grounds … as such, we have no option but to recommend the project not proceed."

"GNWT supports the Government of Nunavut's position … that industrial activity of any type … should not be permitted in calving areas," wrote Joel Holder on behalf of ENR in a letter to NIRB dated May 4, 2015.

The N.W.T.'s Tlicho Government, whose members also harvest from the Bluenose East herd, weighed in on April 16, 2015, also calling for a halt to the project and noting that it was "enormously troubled" by the manner in which it learned about it.

"None of NIRB, the Government of Nunavut, the Government of Canada or the project proponent has so much as contacted Tłı̨chǫ Government with respect to this proposed activity, let alone consulted with us or attempted to accommodate our rights and interests in a substantive and meaningful way."

But the Nunavut Impact Review Board ignored this advice, issuing its decision July 7, barely a week before drilling began.

Nunavut minister 'disappointed'

In an unusual follow up letter, Nunavut's environment minister, Johnny Mike wrote to NIRB Aug. 21 expressing his "disappointment" at the decision.

Johnny Mike

Nunavut Environment Minister Johnny Mike expressed 'disappointment' with the Nunavut Impact Review Board. (Courtesy Johnny Mike)

"I do not believe that our concerns were adequately incorporated in arriving at this recommendation," wrote Mike, fresh on the heels of imposing the first emergency hunting ban on Baffin Island caribou. "Or that the recommended terms and conditions will sufficiently protect critical Bluenose East caribou habitat."

Elizabeth Copland, chairperson of NIRB, replied that the board gave "full consideration" to the comments, from the GN and all interested parties, noting the 44 terms and conditions imposed on the company, and the fact that Tundra Copper moved its drilling schedule to later in the summer to avoid the crucial calving months of May and June.

But Copland goes on to note that this project highlights problems with land use planning in Nunavut, including the "significant jurisdictional and practical limits on the board in terms of using a project-specific screening assessment to implement what would essentially be a ban on all development within caribou calving grounds."

For its part, Tundra Copper acknowledged, in a letter dated June 4, 2015, the "efficiencies attainable" by consulting in Nunavut before formulating plans and submitting permit applications. 

The company called it "an oversight attributable to the company's lack of experience in Nunavut; nevertheless a lesson well learned and an error that will not be made again."

Reach: sara.minogue@cbc.ca