Pond Inlet protesters say mine expansion ignores Nunavut Agreement

Protests continue in Pond Inlet, Nunavut, on Saturday, as a two-week environmental hearing on an expansion at the Mary River iron ore mine wraps up.

Baffinland Iron Mines wants to double Mary River mine's output, construct railway

Sheena Akoomalik brandishes a copy of the Nunavut Agreement during a protest outside the Pond Inlet community hall Saturday. Two weeks of environmental hearings for an expansion of the Mary River iron ore mine finish Feb. 6. (Submitted by Shelly Funston Elverum)

Protests continue in Pond Inlet, Nunavut, on Saturday, as a two-week environmental hearing on an expansion at the Mary River iron ore mine wraps up.   

At noon Saturday, around 50 residents gathered outside the community hall where the hearings are happening. It was – 32 C with the windchill, according to Environment Canada. 

"We protested and chanted, 'Nunavut Land Claims Agreement, protect our rights, protect our people, protect our animals'," said resident Sheena Akoomalik. 

At the protest, she brandished a copy of the Nunavut Agreement. She said the legal agreement between Nunavut Inuit and the Canadian government, and its protections for land and harvesting rights, are being ignored. 

"We're trying to make a statement here in Pond Inlet and we want all of Nunavut's support that the wildlife, food, is irreplaceable. "This is not a small deal, this is a big deal and we want to be heard." 

Heard by the mine, but also by Inuit leaders, Akoomalik said. 

Baffinland Iron Mines Corporation wants to double its annual mining output to 12 million tonnes from six million tonnes. To do this, it would build a railway and increase shipping through its port at Milne Inlet. The waters surrounding the port are a crucial habitat for narwhal in the Canadian Arctic. 

The company says, while there will be some impacts to the environment from more mining, it can do the work sustainably in a way that won't have lasting effects on wildlife, land and water. 

Communities, and the experts they have hired, say the mine's research is wrong. Over the past two weeks, representatives attending the Nunavut Impact Review Board hearings in Pond Inlet and Iqaluit have said they know an expansion will damage caribou, seal and narwhal.

Elder and hunter Elijah Panipakoocho speaks at a Nunavut Impact Review Board hearing in Pond Inlet. He says hunters have always worked alongside the mine staff to protect wildlife. Now he sees that patience wearing out because animals are leaving. (Zoom)

Elder says hunters have helped the mine, now they're upset

Today, regular residents in Pond Inlet are making their own submission about these concerns to the review board and asking questions to the mine, Inuit organizations, and the territorial and federal government. 

"There was a promise of cooperative working. But now we seemed to have stalled," Pond Inlet Elder Elijah Panipakoocho said in Inuktitut. 

Panipakoocho, who also sits on the board of Pond Inlet's Mittimatalik Hunters and Trappers Organization, participated in early wildlife research done when the mine was preparing to open. 

 "When the mine first started we would be helping them to try to make them understand how the wildlife exist and how they would be affected, the caribou and the narwhal," he said. "We worked hard, based on the Inuit way and the southern way of doing things." 

But he said, the caribou are now gone, and the seal that can be hunted in the fall during freeze-up at Milne Inlet are not so abundant. 

"The hunters need to be happy and the mine needs to be happy. But it's very difficult as a hunter to have any more patience with the situation," he said. 

Right now, communities also struggle with the spread of iron ore dust from the mine, and have concerns that more dust will contaminate their water and food chain with trace metals. Baffinland says the railway and a new indoor crushing facility will decrease dust. 

'Peaceful' blockade continues at Mary River

Meanwhile, protesters from Pond Inlet and Arctic Bay who call themselves hunters continue to blockade the airstrip and trucking road at the mine. This blockade began on Thursday evening. 

They say their protest is peaceful and no one is in danger. They do carry firearms, as part of their safety equipment needed in the remote northern location, where there could be polar bears. 

Ships in water in background, land with operations in foreground.
A view of Milne Port. If an expansion is approved, Baffinland would increase the number of ore carriers that visit during the ice free season. (Submitted by Baffinland Iron Mines Corporation)

Akoomalik says it was emotional for residents to see those men travel two days by snowmobile to make that strong statement. 

"It was a very powerful statement that the hunters made that has the whole of Pond Inlet support," she said. "Money talks, and so does our action — our actions talk." 

She acknowledged that the mine creates jobs for Inuit, but said damage done to wildlife will impact at least half of the residents in the territory. Baffinland says it directly employed 288 Inuit in 2019, and awarded over $288 million in contracts to Inuit owned companies. 

On Friday morning, the mine said it respects the people's right to protest, but it has yet to make any other statement about the blockade to the public. 

Versions of the expansion project have been proposed by Baffinland since 2014. The mine first started shipping iron ore in 2015. The company expects the project's lifespan to be around 30 years. If other deposits are developed, it could apply to continue mining, Baffinland said. 

Inuit own the surface and subsurface rights where the Mary River deposit is, and surface rights where the railway would be built. 

Final hearings for the expansion have been underway for two years, and have seen many delays. 

Protesters gather outside the community hall in Pond Inlet for the second day. They say an expansion at the Mary River iron ore mine on Baffin Island goes against Inuit harvesting rights. (Submitted by Shelly Funston Elverum)

Baffinland says it is listening to Inuit. 

"We have not always done things the way that we have wanted or the way that others may have wanted us to do. But we have been learning from Inuit and we'll be applying these lessons to [the expansion]," Baffinland's vice president of sustainable development, Megan Lord-Hoyle, said at the hearings Saturday.

Because of low iron ore prices in recent years, the company says it has yet to make a profit at the Mary River Mine, though it has $3.5 billion invested in the project. 

It says a railway to Milne Inlet is the best way to mine more iron for less.

Still, Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated, the organization that represents Inuit in Nunavut, said Thursday that billions promised to Inuit in royalties are likely a decade away. 

Acting president James Eetalook says after six years of production, it hasn't seen any royalties for mineral rights. The regional Inuit organization, the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, has received millions from the mine in land leases for the use of Inuit-owned lands.

The mine also has an Inuit Impact Benefit Agreement with the Qikiqtani Inuit Association.