'State-of-the-art' caribou protection plans draw broad support for Sabina gold mine

Paul Emingak, executive director for the Kitikmeot Inuit Association, calls Sabina's latest plans to protect caribou 'state-of-the-art in the Arctic.'

Warm feelings for Back River gold project at round 2 of final hearings in Cambridge Bay

Paul Emingak, executive director for the Kitikmeot Inuit Association, calls Sabina's latest plans to protect caribou 'state-of-the-art in the Arctic.' (Sara Minogue/CBC)

An unprecedented second set of final hearings into a proposed gold mine in Nunavut's Kitikmeot region ended with broad consensus that the Back River project could provide jobs and opportunity — without harming already vulnerable caribou herds. 

"I will be returning to my community with very good news," said Shin Shiga, who travelled to the hearings in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, to represent the N.W.T.'s North Slave Métis Alliance. He arrived wary about the risks the project posed to caribou, and left confident in what he called a "very progressive project."

Vancouver-based Sabina Gold and Silver wants to build an open-pit and underground gold mine about 150 kilometres south of Bathurst Inlet. The Nunavut Impact Review Board initially rejected its plans after hearings in 2016 left open questions about caribou and climate change.

But the minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs ordered a second set of hearings, which wrapped up Saturday.

Jimmy Qirqqut of Gjoa Haven was one of many community representatives in Cambridge Bay last week to support the mine, and the jobs it could bring. (Sara Minogue/CBC)

'No impact on caribou herds'

Matthew Pickard, Sabina's vice president of environment and sustainability, spent much of the hearings outlining plans to protect caribou. 

"Our objective is to have no impact on caribou herds as a result of this project," he said. 

The proposed mine lies on the eastern fringe of the Bathurst caribou range and in the midst of the range of the Beverly/Ahiak herd, but does not significantly infringe on the calving or post-calving grounds of either herd.

This map shows the migration of the Bathurst caribou herd (left) and the Beverly/Ahiak herd (right) in relation to Sabina's Goose property, winter road and marine staging area. (Sara Minogue/CBC)

Pickard explained how Sabina began working on more robust caribou protection measures immediatley after its project was rejected.

He described strict guidelines for shutting down trucks, helicopters and even gold processing if caribou are present. The company also has a plan to shut down operations seasonally if caribou migrations change in the future. 

The Kitikmeot Inuit Association's executive director Paul Emingak characterized the plans as "state-of-the-art in Arctic Canada." 

'Our objective is to have no impact on caribou herds as a result of this project,' says Sabina's Matthew Pickard. (Sara Minogue/CBC)

Jobs, jobs, jobs

Support from many in the Kitikmeot region is related to one thing: jobs.

Former Nunavut Commissioner Edna Elias described her experience moving back to Kugluktuk.

"There's so many employable, able-bodied men, that should be out there looking for work," said Elias, before asking Sabina how it could help to reach those people to get them working.

Bernie MacIsaac, speaking on behalf of the Nunavut government pointed out that over 9,000 people in the territory rely on social assistance.

Gibson Porter, 20, who travelled to the hearings from Gjoa Haven, said he's one of them, but he doesn't want to be. "It's not healthy."

Gibson Porter, 20, sees a future with mining. (Sara Minogue/CBC)

"I want to see young people work," said Gjoa Haven elder Jimmy Qirqqut in Inuktitut, "because they have to learn to provide for themselves."

New life for Bathurst Inlet?

The project could have the biggest impact on the families connected to the former outpost camps of Bathurst Inlet (Kingaok) and Bay Chimo (Umingmaktok).

Connie Kapolak (left) spoke on behalf of the Burnside HTO and her relatives from Bathurst Inlet, Susie and Sam Kapolak. (Sara Minogue/CBC)

Connie Kapolak, chair of the Burnside Hunters and Trappers Organization representing both communities, spoke on behalf of family members who view the government's withdrawal of services over 20 years ago as a government betrayal.

"We're trying to go with Sabina and what they have to offer," Kapolak said.

Her group hopes to benefit by taking advantage of Sabina's summer resupply and potentially, jobs.

Mines not the answer?

While questions around caribou were addressed to the satisfaction of most, not everybody agreed that mines are good for Nunavut.

Jana Angulalik, 27, of Cambridge Bay, described the mine as a Band-Aid solution with no long-term benefits.

'What does it say to the rest of the world if NIRB's recommendations aren't taken seriously?' asked Jana Angulalik. (Sara Minogue/CBC)

She also questioned the process that led to the second round of hearings, which she said would have her ancestors "rolling in their graves."

"What does it say to the rest of the world if NIRB's recommendations aren't taken seriously?"

Doris Enzo of the Lutsel K'e Dene First Nation in the N.W.T. also had some words of warning for Nunavummiut.

She talked about how her community has faced a complete ban on hunting from the Bathurst caribou herd — formerly the lifeblood of the community.

Doris Enzo of the Lutsel K'e Dene First Nation shared her experience with companies that make promises. (Sara Minogue/CBC)

"For me, when a mining company comes up and says oh yeah, this is what we're gonna do, later down the road... they never keep their promise."

In this case, Sabina appears to have broad social licence to forge ahead.

And, it says, the company will be beholden by the terms and conditions set out by the Nunavut Impact Review Board and the people who own the land — the Kitikmeot Inuit.

NIRB has 45 days to issue its recommendation on the project to the minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs.