Inuit organization may prohibit Inuk prospector from making money off gold discovery

The Kivalliq Inuit Association will have its decision to put a moratorium on all new resource exploration on its lands questioned next week at its board meeting in Baker Lake, Nunavut.

Exploration supporters say resource development gives communities a much needed economic boost

John Tugak prospecting on one of his properties. (Submitted by John Tugak)

John Tugak found gold not too far north of his home town of Arviat, Nunavut, while prospecting land he had rights to.

He only began prospecting in 2013, but last year Agnico Eagle Mines Inc., an international mining company with eight mines including two in Canada, optioned the property.

It was the first time the company had partnered with an Inuk prospector. It would mean royalties for Tugak — maybe even riches — if the deposit were to be developed and mined.

But the notable agreement may come to nothing in the face of a land-use moratorium imposed by the Kivalliq Inuit Association (KIA). 

The KIA manages Inuit-owned lands in the region, stemming from the 1993 Nunavut Land Claims Agreement. The umbrella Inuit organization NTI says it takes its lead in issuing leases from its regional partners. 

Gold dust visible in John Tugak's prospecting pan. (Submitted by John Tugak)

Tugak and Agnico Eagle were hoping to set up a mineral exploration camp and drill on the site this summer, but Tugak's lease on the property expires at the end of 2018 and, as he understands it, the association will not renew the lease.

On July 17, 2017 the KIA voted to close exploration on lands without existing mineral claims until a territory-wide land use plan can be finalized to protect wildlife.

While technically Tugak's claim predates the 2017 decision, he still believes the KIA won't renew his lease, as it has refused to renew his lease on two other properties — claimed even earlier. 

KIA decision to be challenged

Now, some Inuit in the region say the association did not consult with communities on what they want for the Inuit-owned lands KIA manages.

"This land claims agreement is all about beneficiaries benefiting from the agreement. For KIA to close it, it makes no sense at all," said Patterk Netser, the MLA for Coral Harbour and Naujaat.

Netser supports Tugak's claim and partnership with Agnico Eagle.

"These mineral explorations really boost our economy and that's what the land claims is all about."

The KIA will hold a board meeting in Baker Lake from Wednesday until Friday this week.

Tugak wants to attend and make his case for why the properties he leases from the association should remain open for development — but he says the KIA has already refused his request for time to speak at the meeting.

In response to CBC's request for comment, the KIA said they would say nothing until after the board meeting.

On March 9, the hamlet of Whale Cove passed a motion and sent a letter to the KIA, saying the community was not consulted on the moratorium. They're asking the KIA to allow exploration in the area — Tugak's exploration, in particular.

"This would guarantee continual employment for Inuit mine workers, as present mining operations deplete their resources and close," the letter states.

"When mine [closures] occur, what will happen to these workers and their families?" 

Stanley Adjuk, the mayor of Whale Cove, said he'll be at the board meeting as well, where he'll ask for KIA to rescind its moratorium on exploration. Adjuk hasn't been told when he'll be able to make his case.

The hamlet council for Arviat also passed a motion in support of Whale Cove's position.

Communities don't want draft land use plan used

The communities and Tugak are concerned the KIA is making decisions based on a 2016 draft of the Nunavut Land Use Plan that has not been approved.

The Nunavut Planning Commission — the organization responsible for the territorial land use plan — said the 2016 draft plan should not be used to make land use decisions.

At the Nunavut mining symposium earlier this month in Iqaluit, the commission said a new draft of the plan won't be ready until 2022.

The existing approved land use plan for the region — the Keewatin land use plan — does not protect the area where Tugak holds his lease.

John Tugak began prospecting in 2013. (Sara Frizzell/CBC)

"The reason I went after these properties is they're not inside the calving grounds, that's the main reason why I was hoping there would be no problem moving forward," Tugak said.

Louise Grondin, a senior vice-president with Agnico Eagle, says exploration in the region is expensive and certainty about whether land will eventually be protected would help them make investment decisions.

Balance between jobs and environment

Tugak works as a bookkeeper for the local church and the Arviat Housing Association, where he is also the assistant manager.

"Just about every week I receive files of resumés and file them away, and this has been ongoing for the past 10 to 12 years, filing resumés of people who are looking for jobs," he said.

"Hopefully the mining industry will be able to boost our economy and create jobs."

Tugak's daughter Corrine, 19, is following in her father's footsteps and has staked her own claims at two properties near her father's.

"There's a balance we need to find," Tugak said.

"We have a traditional way … which we need to protect [but] there's a balance for the need for jobs for my people so we can get by."