Nunavut mine blockade to continue until concerns are addressed, say Inuit hunters

Hunters have blockaded the airstrip and tote road to a Nunavut mine to express their concern that Inuit voices are not being heard in environmental hearings about a planned expansion to the Mary River mine. 

Environmental hearings are underway for an expansion to the mine

Pond Inlet community members stand in solidarity with protesters at the Mary River mine outside the environmental hearings happening in the community until Saturday. (Submitted by Enooki Inuarak )

Hunters have blockaded the airstrip and tote road to a Nunavut mine to express their concern that Inuit voices are not being heard in environmental hearings about a planned expansion to the Mary River mine. 

Namen Inuarak is one of about seven hunters at the blockade. The protesters are from the two communities closest to the mine site, Pond Inlet and Arctic Bay. 

It took the hunters two days to snowmobile to the remote airstrip. On their journey they hunted two caribou which they will use for food, while awaiting more supplies from their communities. 

The protest started around 10 p.m. on Thursday as a two-week long scheduled review of the expansion is wrapping up. 

Baffinland's Mary River mine is about 160 kilometres south of the community of Pond Inlet and 1,000 kilometres northwest of Iqaluit on Baffin Island.

Inuarak told CBC in a call from his satellite phone that he's been thinking about the protest for about a year now. 

He says the hunters plan to protest until their concerns about the expansion are addressed.

Some hunters worry that the mine expansion threatens wildlife, including marine mammals that communities depend on for food.

Hunters groups worry that increased shipping from the Mary River mine through Milne Inlet and Eclipse Sound will have negative effects on marine wildlife. (Submitted by Baffinland)

The blockade is a line of their snowmobiles and two wooden sleds with gear, the hunters are staying in a tent in the middle, Inuarak said. 

Inuarak said the group told the mining company, Baffinland, of its plan to protest and the mine allowed them to set up their blockade. 

Along with the airstrip, the snowmobiles block the tote road that trucks use to haul iron ore from the mine site to the port at Milne Inlet where it is shipped out. 

Emergency medical flights will be allowed to land, but Inuarak says that no other planes will be allowed to. The mine is fly-in only and supplies and shift changes are done via airplane. 

Since March, Inuit workers at the mine have been on leave with pay, so that workers from the South can come in and out without bringing COVID-19 to Nunavut's communities. 

"I don't think this is extreme, this is our land — our home — being destroyed and we have to think about our future — our children — it is for them," Inuarak said in Inuktitut. 

Friday it was –36 C in Pond Inlet, according to Environment Canada. There is a cabin nearby, where the group can go warm up, Inuarak said. 

However, Inuarak said because red iron dust is covering the snow, they can't melt and drink the snow, so they have to travel nearly 50 kilometres to get ice for drinking water.

Community members from Pond Inlet stood outside the community hall Friday evening, where the environmental hearings are ongoing to show their support for the blockade. 

Charlie Inuarak is the chair of a newly created group to advocate for the communities surrounding the mine — the North Baffin Association — he is also an Elder advisor for the protest. 

In an interview with CBC Nunavut's Qulliq morning show, he said the protest was peaceful and asked protestors not to destroy any of Baffinland's equipment. 

Tom Naqitarvik is another of the hunters at the blockade at Baffinland's iron mine.   

"Baffinland is making money and we are given very little money and we know that money will not bring back wildlife," he said in Inuktitut in a video posted to Facebook.

Hunters groups are concerned that caribou would not be able to cross a railway that is part of the proposed expansion and increased shipping will drive away marine wildlife.

The mining company, Baffinland, said in a Friday morning release that it's in communication with the hunting group and respects the right to peacefully protest. 

The Mittimatalik Hunters and Trappers Organization speak at environmental hearings for an expansion at Mary River Mine. (Submitted by Shelly Funston Elverum)

The fraught hearings are looking at a proposal to double the amount of iron ore shipped from the mine through a habitat for the world's largest population of narwhal.  

Versions of this expansion have been under regulatory review since 2014. For the past two weeks, local hunters groups, Inuit organizations, environmental groups and governments have been engaged in what was expected to be the final meetings.

However, earlier this week a motion was accepted that set more hearings for March as the five communities surrounding the mine say their questions are not being answered by the mining company.

Affected communities don't support mine expansion 

On Friday morning, the hearing started with a presentation from the Mittimatalik Hunters and Trappers Organization, a hunters and trappers organization from Pond Inlet, the closest community to the mine. 

Hunters and trappers organizations are a feature of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement meant to protect harvester rights. It's not confirmed if the organization is associated with the protesters, but it does not support the expansion. 

Marine mammals are already changing their patterns with the current mine output, making hunting more difficult, especially in spring and fall, said Eric Ootoovak, chair of the Mittimatalik Hunters and Trappers Organization. 

The organization says it can't support a proposed railway or increased shipping. It says Baffinland hasn't considered how vulnerable narwhal are to climate change or how ship noise would mask communication between narwhal mothers and calves.

It also wants to know more about the amount of metal that could be introduced into the food chain through iron dust caused by mining operations.  

Iron dust from mining operations coats snow around cabin near the Mary River mine. (Submitted by Mittimatalik Hunters and Trappers Organization)

He says there remains a disconnect between Inuit and Baffinland. 

Baffinland has said shipping will be done in a way that narwhal can adapt to the number of ships and, because shipping will only be done at certain times of the year, seals will not be affected. The company says caribou will be able to cross the proposed railway. 

The tension lies in whether there's been enough research done to prove those statements. If the expansion goes ahead and the mine is wrong, Inuit in the surrounding communities fear losing the food sources they rely on. 

"Baffinland acts as if it is owed the right to develop this mine and says that it will lose money and have to close the mine without an expansion," Ootoovak said. "But they need to get permission to do this work." 

Communities say the research they've received from the mine leaves many questions unanswered, while the mine says it needs the expansion to happen now to keep its operation profitable. 

The mine's current environmental monitoring program is half-staffed by Inuit. Baffinland has promised to create an Inuit-led monitoring program that would be ready by the time the expansion is constructed.

It has made several promises to the communities in an effort to get the expansion approved, including signing an agreement worth $1 billion over the life of the mine with the regional Inuit organization that represents the affected communities. 

The agreement is another source of tension in the hearings because the hamlet councils and hunters groups in the communities felt their concerns were not being addressed in the agreement despite it being signed with the Inuit organization — the Qikiqtani Inuit Association — that was supposed to represent them. 

The mine says it expects a total of $2.4 billion to be paid out as royalties to the regional and territorial Inuit organizations over the life of the mine.

Pond Inlet RCMP are monitoring the situation and told CBC it is a peaceful demonstration at this point with no immediate disruptions.

Written by Sara Frizzell, based on interviews by Beth Brown, Salome Avva and Rosie Simonfalvy