NIRB sending community reps home, with Baffinland hearings suspended indefinitely
Going into virtual hearings was not possible, NIRB chair says
The Nunavut Impact Review Board is making arrangements to send home all 27 community representatives, after its hearings into Baffinland's Phase 2 expansion were suspended indefinitely.
Chairperson Kaviq Kaluraq said the board isn't in a position to say when the hearings could resume. But even before it can begin to talk about reconvening, the NIRB would need direction from Nunavut health officials.
The long-awaited nine-day hearings were supposed to bring to an end a regulatory process, which has been prolonged by delays and extensions. Technical sessions were scheduled to wrap up Thursday, followed by five days of open-floor questions from communities.
But the hearings were forced to halt on Wednesday night following Iqaluit's first confirmed case of COVID-19, and with it, the banning of all indoor public gatherings.
Kaluraq said the decision to suspend the hearings was made by Nunavut health officials. The hearing had been given a special exemption by Nunavut's chief public health officer to be able to have a gathering of a maximum of 150, which exceeded the territory's public health restrictions at the time.
"We waited for guidance from the chief public health office on what to do next, and we received that people can travel home," Kaluraq said.
"Once they get home they have to follow COVID-19 isolation guidelines and staff are working to make those travel arrangements, as well as inform participants of those details."
No possibility to switch to all-virtual hearing
Certain aspects of the hearings in Iqaluit were already being held virtually to accommodate travel restrictions into Nunavut, which require non-residents to obtain special permission to enter the territory. But Kaluraq said the board couldn't change the format on the fly to make it fully virtual.
"Any kind of decision of that matter requires reflecting on the situation and gathering more information, as well as having that reviewed by the board," Kaluraq said.
"So it's not a matter of you can just go and all of a sudden change that format. The organization needs to pause and look at possible next steps, Kaluraq said. "So there's really no alternative beyond what has happened, which is to suspend the hearing and wait and see what guidance we get."