Some fear outcome inevitable as 2nd round of Sabina gold mine hearings get underway in Cambridge Bay

'I just don't see this project... not getting approved,' says a regulatory research specialist with the Yellowknives Dene, who won't be at this week's hearings.

'I just don't see this project... not getting approved,' says Alex Power with the Yellowknives Dene

Sabina's proposed gold mine in Nunavut's Kitikmeot region has some in the N.W.T. worried about the impact on the Bathurst caribou herd, which has been in precipitous decline. (Petter Jacobsen/Tlicho Government)

People are gathering in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, this morning for the second round of public hearings into Sabina's proposed Back River gold mine — but not everyone who took part in the first round will be there.

"We've already done this hearing and we don't have the resources to do it again," said Alex Power, a regulatory research specialist with the Yellowknives Dene First Nation.

The First Nation fears the proposed mine could further decimate the fragile Bathurst caribou herd it's relied on for centuries.

The Nunavut Impact Review Board echoed that concern in June 2016 after its first round of public hearings on the project when it recommended the mine not proceed.

But the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs asked the board to reconsider, after the Nunavut government and the Kitikmeot Inuit Association argued any threats to caribou could be managed — and the jobs could be a lifeline to struggling communities.

Power fears that could make the outcome of this round of hearings a foregone conclusion.

"I just don't see this project... not getting approved."

Stricter caribou protection

Sabina's proposed gold mine lies on the northeast edge of the Bathurst caribou range, but some in the N.W.T. fear the herd is so fragile, another gold mine could be the final straw.

The mine would lie well east of the current spring calving grounds, but some Inuit argue the herd is known to have calved on the eastern side of Bathurst Inlet. If that were to happen again, it would force caribou to cross an inactive winter road. 

The black outline shows the Bathurst caribou range planning area. Sabina's Back River project lies right on the eastern line between the N.W.T. border and Bathurst Inlet (Kingauk). (GNWT)

The project also lies within the range of the Beverly/Ahiak caribou herd.

This time around, Sabina has proposed strict measures to protect any caribou in the area.

The company says it will only operate its winter road until April 15 in order to avoid disrupting any of that herd's spring migration.

Sabina's Goose property and proposed winter road to Bathurst Inlet (Kingauk) lies within the Beverly/Ahiak caribou range. (Sabina)

It has also promised a rapid shutdown of operations if caribou unexpectedly arrive in the area during the calving or post-calving season, and planned operational shutdowns in the future if the calving grounds shift to be in the area of the mine.

The company's own experts argue the plan "meets or exceeds that of other northern mines."

If not now, when?

That doesn't change anything for the Lutsel K'e Dene First Nation. It opposed the project during the initial environmental assessment, and feels the same way now.

"Now here we are, arguably in a worse situation than last year, with caribou awaiting a designation of "Threatened" under the Species at Risk Act, while we participate in several adjacent processes to protect what's left of the herd," reads an April 24 letter from Lauren King, manager of the First Nation's wildlife, lands and environment department, to the Nunavut Impact Review Board.

"If now isn't the time to take every possible step to maintain the caribou in the North, when is?"

But the prospect of jobs could outweigh fears over harm to caribou.

Sabina estimates the project could employ up to 900 people, and inject much needed cash into the surrounding communities.

Undermining the process?

The Yellowknives Dene will send one community member to Cambridge Bay to speak about concerns for the caribou herd. But Power won't be going, and the First Nation won't be doing any technical analysis of Sabina's latest plans to protect caribou. 

To Power, it feels like the Yellowknives Dene have already lost what he sees as a "war of attrition." 

"To their credit, Sabina did make positive changes to their mitigation plan, but the fact that the hearing is being revisited at all is concerning," he said.

"When the board's recommendation came out, Sabina immediately wrote a letter to the minister petitioning that they reject the board's recommendations, and that's what the minister did. It would be naive to think that this went unnoticed by other developers and it sets a really negative precedent.

"It serves to undermine the public's confidence in the regulatory process."

CBC North's Sara Minogue is in Cambridge Bay for the hearings. To reach her, email