Hunters have blockaded the airstrip and tote road to a Nunavut mine to express their concern that Inuit voices are not being heard in environmental hearings about a planned expansion to the Mary River mine.
This protest started around 10 p.m. Thursday night as a two-week long scheduled review of the expansion is wrapping up.
Baffinland’s Mary River mine is about 160 kilometres south of the community of Pond Inlet and 1,000 kilometres northwest of Iqaluit on Baffin island.
Charlie Inuarak is the chair of a newly created group to advocate for the communities surrounding the mine — the North Baffin Association — he is also an Elder advisor for the protest.
He says hunters are concerned that the expansion will reduce animal populations.
“Hunters have set up tents on the airstrip and on the roads protesting no one listening to concerns from the hamlet and the hunters,” Inuarak said in Inuktitut.
In an interview with CBC Nunavut’s Qulliq morning show, he said the protest was peaceful and asked protestors not to destroy any of Baffinland’s equipment.
Tom Naqitarvik is one of around seven hunters at the blockade at Baffinland’s iron mine.
“Baffinland is making money and we are given very little money and we know that money will not bring back wildlife,” he said in Inuktitut in a video posted to Facebook.
Hunters groups are concerned that caribou would not be able to cross a railway that is part of the proposed expansion and increased shipping will drive away marine wildlife.
Inuarak says he’s not sure how long the protest will continue. Protesters are from at least two communities, Pond Inlet and Arctic Bay.
The mining company, Baffinland, said in a Friday morning release that it’s in communication with the hunting group and respects the right to peacefully protest.
The fraught hearings are looking at a proposal to double the amount of iron ore shipped from the mine through a habitat for the world’s largest population of narwhal.
Versions of this expansion have been under regulatory review since 2014. For the past two weeks, local hunters groups, Inuit organizations, environmental groups and governments have been engaged in what was expected to be the final meetings.
However, earlier this week a motion was accepted that set more hearings for March as the five communities surrounding the mine feel their questions are not being answered by the mining company.
Affected communities don’t support mine expansion
The hearing on Friday morning started with a presentation from the Mittimatalik Hunters and Trappers Organization, a hunters and trappers organization from Pond Inlet, the closest community to the mine.
Hunters and trappers organizations are a feature of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement meant to protect harvester rights. It’s not confirmed if the organization is associated with the protesters, but it does not support the expansion.
Marine mammals are already changing their patterns with the current mine output, making hunting more difficult, especially in spring and fall, said Eric Ootoovak, chair of the Mittimatalik Hunters and Trappers Organization.
The organization says it can’t support a proposed railway or increased shipping. It says Baffinland hasn’t considered how vulnerable narwhal are to climate change or how ship noise would mask communication between narwhal mothers and calves.
It also wants to know more about the amount of metal that could be introduced into the food chain through iron dust caused by mining operations.
He says there remains a disconnect between Inuit and Baffinland.
Baffinland has said shipping will be done in a way that narwhal can adapt to the number of ships and, because shipping will only be done at certain times of the year, seals will not be affected. The company says caribou will be able to cross the proposed railway.
The tension lies in whether there’s been enough research done to prove those statements. If the expansion goes ahead and the mine is wrong, Inuit in the surrounding communities fear losing the food sources they rely on.
“Baffinland acts as if it is owed the right to develop this mine and says that it will lose money and have to close the mine without an expansion,” Ootoovak said. “But they need to get permission to do this work.”
Communities feel the research they’ve received from the mine leaves many questions unanswered, while the mine says it needs the expansion to happen now to keep its operation profitable.
The mine’s current environmental monitoring program is half-staffed by Inuit. Baffinland has promised to create an Inuit-led monitoring program that would be ready by the time the expansion is constructed.
It has made several promises to the communities in an effort to get the expansion approved, including signing an agreement worth $1 billion over the life of the mine with the regional Inuit organization that represents the affected communities.
The agreement is another source of tension in the hearings because the hamlet councils and hunters groups in the communities felt their concerns were not being addressed in the agreement despite it being signed with the Inuit organization — the Qikiqtani Inuit Association — that was supposed to represent them.
The mine says it expects a total of $2.4 billion to be paid out as royalties to the regional and territorial Inuit organizations over the life of the mine.
Pond Inlet RCMP are monitoring the situation and told CBC it is a peaceful demonstration at this point with no immediate disruptions.