Judge orders crew flights to go ahead this week at Nunavut mine blockade

A Nunavut judge has ordered flights to be allowed at the Mary River Mine this week so stranded workers can travel home.

Injunction hearing adjourned to Saturday between Baffinland and Inuit protesters

Snowmobiles and caution tape block the runway at Mary River mine on north Baffin Island. Protesters say they will allow one flight in each week. Baffinland says that's not enough. (Submitted by Lee Inuarak)

Staff at the Mary River mine will be able to fly out this week, despite an ongoing blockade at the mine's airstrip. 

Nunavut Justice Susan Cooper made a temporary court order on Wednesday, for transportation to be accommodated. 

That's until an injunction hearing takes place on Saturday at 9:30 a.m. between Baffinland and the group of protesters, who are calling themselves the Nuluujaat Land Guardians.  

The order is to allow staff at Mary River to move freely through the project site, including the mine and the port, and on the airstrip so they can go home. 

The logistics of how that will happen will be sorted out between the parties, Cooper said. 

The blockade is in protest of an expansion at the Mary River Mine and the damage it could do to the environment. 

Protesters are also calling on their regional Inuit organization to represent them better in negotiations with the mine, or to let their communities represent themselves.

There are 12 people staying in tents and a nearby hunters cabin. 

Baffinland's Udlorikak Hanson says operations are at a standstill with all flights, including food, supply and crew changes, suspended at the mine since Feb. 4 when the blockade began. There are around 700 people on site.  

"They're welcome to stay on site, if they just move over, so that we can have free transportation on the tote road and on the airstrip," Hanson told CBC News. 

The protesters' lawyer, Lori Idlout, asked for the Wednesday hearing to be delayed, to review over 400 pages of legal documents filed by Baffinland, some on the evening before, and to prepare arguments. 

She said her clients "have been reasonable in their approach." 

The protestors say they will allow flights in and out once each week, and have already let vehicles through that carry staff and medical supplies.  

According to an affidavit by lawyers, the protesters said they have been harassed on site "by revving engines, honking horns, and operating heavy mining equipment" during the night time to interrupt their sleep. 

The affidavit names five men as defendants, Namen Inuarak, Tom Naqitarvik, Jonathan Pitula, Christopher Akeeagok and Andy Kalluk. Two others are unnamed. 

Inuarak, a spokesperson for the group, told CBC News the protesters have no intentions of holding workers at site.

Baffinland says it's not opposed to one flight a week for now, but it does want its airstrip free for regular use. 

"We certainly don't like that limitation," Baffinland's lawyer Brad Armstrong said.

Baffinland Iron Mines Corporation says operations are at a standstill. It's taking protesters at a blockade to court again on Saturday. (Submitted by Baffinland Iron Mines Corporation)

The mine says it has met with Inuit organization leaders, the Hamlet of Pond Inlet and the RCMP to try to find a way to end the blockade. 

"Baffinland cannot allow any activity to continue that causes a safety concern to any of the people on site," the company said in a Tuesday release.

"At this time, all attempts to negotiate the reopening of the Mary River airstrip made no progress and Baffinland is considering all options to reopen the airstrip."

On Facebook, the Inuit owned contractor Qikiqtani Industries Limited called for protesters to let its staff leave. The company is a subsidiary of the Qikitaaluk Corporation, which is owned by the Qikiqtani Inuit Organization. 

"They have a right to stand up for what they believe is right and fair. They don't have any right to withhold food or necessities. They have no right to keep anyone from being able to go home," the social media post said.   

Municipality calls on Inuit leaders to keep protesters safe

Meanwhile the Hamlet of Pond Inlet is calling for an urgent meeting with the premier, its MLA, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. and the Qikiqtani Inuit Association. 

It's asking for them to answer the protesters, before the blockade is forcibly removed. 

"I am asking for a meeting to be held as soon as possible to allow protesters to stand down, knowing that their concerns will be heard," Pond Inlet Mayor Joshua Arreak said in a letter Wednesday. 

If an injunction is granted "the RCMP are likely to move quickly to end the blockade," he said, adding that he wants no harm to come to the protesters.

The blockade started last week during environmental hearings for the mine. QIA president PJ Akeeagok said the concerns communities are protesting are legitimate — both for current and future mining.

"It's abundantly clear that at this stage of the NIRB (Nunavut Impact Review Board) process, the proposal is not adequately developed," he said. "The questions that are being asked at this stage is alarming to me." 

It's also clear, he said, that communities near the mine don't support the expansion as it is proposed. 

The QIA board of directors has yet to state publicly if it supports the expansion or not. Akeeagok said the board wanted to hear from the communities first.

Environmental hearings for the expansion will continue in March. After that, the Nunavut Impact Review Board will make a recommendation about the project to the federal government.

The protesters at the blockade are calling themselves the Nuluujaat Land Guardians. Baffinland has taken the group to court, in an effort to clear its runway and trucking road for use. (Submitted by Lee Inuarak)