Qikiqtani Inuit Association rejects Mary River expansion

The Qikiqtani Inuit Association says it won’t support an expansion at Nunavut’s Mary River iron ore mine on North Baffin Island, because communities impacted by the mine aren’t comfortable with it.

Board of directors says its decision reflects the wishes of impacted communities

The Milne Inlet port site in winter. The Qikiqtani Inuit Association's board of directors has decided not to support an expansion at the Mary River mine. (Nick Murray/CBC)

The Qikiqtani Inuit Association says it won't support an expansion at Nunavut's Mary River iron ore mine on North Baffin Island, because communities impacted by the mine aren't comfortable with it. 

That news came in a Friday evening press release following a meeting by the board of directors for the Inuit organization that represents the Qikiqtaaluk region.

The board said it's open to more mining on Inuit-owned lands if that development includes Inuit from the start. 

But it won't support Baffinland's ask for a railway on North Baffin Island or more shipping at Milne Inlet, because it isn't clear how doubling the amount of iron ore mined will impact the environment. 

"Inuit did not participate in the development of the proposal, and key information about project impacts remain unclear," QIA president P.J. Akeeagok said in a statement dated Friday.   

Concerns include excess dust, limited use of Inuit knowledge, and harm to caribou, seals and narwhal. 

An expansion at Mary River, which would see output increase to 12 million tonnes of iron ore mined from six million, has been under consideration by the Nunavut Impact Review Board (NIRB) since 2014.

Despite this new stance from the regional Inuit association, the project will continue to be reviewed by the NIRB. When that review is completed, the board will make recommendations about the project to the federal government, who has the final say. 

But the Qikiqtani Inuit Association leases the land at Mary River to Baffinland, and the mine is required by the land claim to negotiate with QIA, so its support — or lack thereof — is still significant.

Environmental monitoring already exists at the mine, and half of the staff who do that work are Inuit. 

Last summer, Baffinland and the Qikiqtani Inuit Association agreed to create an independent Inuit-led environmental monitoring program once the project was approved. 

But in ongoing environmental hearings for the proposed expansion, community hunters groups said that plan is backwards. 

Now the board says Inuit and the mine need to make a plan for how to manage the environment, before any changes are approved. 

"QIA's board gave priority to Inuit perspectives from impacted communities," the release said. 

Baffinland says it wants Inuit to have control of environmental oversight at the Mary River mine. It's ready to pitch new ideas that work for the Inuit organization. 

"Consultation is, and will remain, an important ongoing process throughout the development and operation of Mary River," Baffinland said in a statement Saturday.

Rejection comes in wake of community protests

Communities nearest to the Mary River mine have been clear that they don't support an expansion as it is being proposed.

Because of this, environmental hearings held in February weren't able to finish in the two weeks allotted by the Nunavut Impact Review Board. 

As those hearings closed, hunters blockaded the mine for a week to protest damage to the land, while communities across Nunavut supported them with their own peaceful displays.   

And before Friday's decision was announced, a group representing seven communities in the northern Qikiqtaaluk, called Qikiqtaaluk Uangnangani Katujjiqatigiit, said last week it will continue to push for separation from the Qikiqtani Inuit Organization. 

Its leadership claim Inuit aren't being represented well in resource development. 

"For many years we have been talking about forming our own Inuit association for north Baffin," reads a letter sent by the organization to the hamlet of Clyde River and shared with CBC News. 

"We have tried different tactics including petitioning and presenting the petitions to [Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated] to no success. That has not deterred us from the goal," the letter said. 

The non-profit said it is planning to hold elections in 18 months for positions on its board. 

Environmental hearings for the proposed expansion at Mary River will continue April 12 to April 21 in Iqaluit.