A lawyer for protesters who blockaded Baffinland Iron Mines’ Mary River mine for a week says the company’s call for a court injunction is “hasty and premature,” when more negotiations could be done instead.
Those protesters ended their blockade of the mine’s airstrip and trucking road on Thursday after a court order demanded they allow flights to resume so some of the more than 700 workers stranded at the mine could return home.
This immediate action shows the group are “law abiding,” their lawyer, Lori Idlout, said Saturday, during an injunction hearing at the Nunavut Court of Justice.
The protesters, who call themselves the Nuluujaat Land Guardians, are back in their home communities today.
The group, composed of residents from Pond Inlet and Arctic Bay, travelled over 200 kilometres to get back to their home communities. The distance they travelled to get there is an example of their commitment to leave the blockade, she said.
“They are few in number and their resources are focused currently on meeting with Inuit leaders in advancing their environmental goals and advancing Inuit rights,” Idlout told the court.
Inuit leadership who negotiate benefits with the mine — Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated and the Qikiqtani Inuit Association — have promised to meet with protesters face to face. There is no set date for those meetings.
Their protest is over a mine expansion that would see Baffinland double its output of iron ore to 12 million tonnes each year. It’s also planning to build a railway from the mine deposit to its port at Milne Inlet. The port is built at the entrance to a primary habitat for narwhal in the Canadian Arctic.
At stake, they say, are their land and harvesting rights. The guardians also want direct financial benefits from mining for their communities. It’s Nunavut’s Inuit organizations that are responsible for doling out mining benefits to communities.
During recent meetings for an ongoing review for the project by the Nunavut Impact Review Board, community representatives from municipalities and hunters groups said, they aren’t seeing those benefits at a community level.
Baffinland pushes injunction to prevent future protests
Operations have resumed at Mary River.
In court, Nunavut Justice Susan Cooper extended the interim order for protesters to move and allow flights to resume.
The hearing is adjourned for now, while Cooper reviews new documents. No court date is set for when the injunction will next be heard.
If granted, an injunction would legally prevent the protesters from any further blockade.
Because the mining company holds a lease with the Qikiqtani Inuit Organization for the work it is doing on Inuit-Owned Lands, its lawyer Brad Armstrong said the blockade held up land use that is approved through the Nunavut Agreement.
“It is important for [the injunction] to be extended to ensure these blockades do not occur again,” Armstrong said in court.
The mine has reason to believe that further protests are a possibility, he said, based on a news release sent Wednesday, where the guardians said they were “committed to continuing action on the land unless they can see progress in proposed meetings.”
Idlout says their message shouldn’t be interpreted that way. The defence maintains that no legal restrictions were ever necessary.
And, when the interests of private corporations are weighed in court against Indigenous rights, serious weight should be given to the Indigenous party, Idlout told CBC News.
While the protesters said from the start they would allow employee and medical flights through, the mine said it couldn’t operate safely while there were snowmobiles and tents on the airstrip and road.
Idlout is asking Nunavut residents not to post photos of the protesters while they are going through court, as some remain anonymous.
The protesters say they do not represent any one political organization and are not being funded for their actions.
“They remain committed personally to responsible land use and Inuit rights,” a spokesperson for the protesters said in a Thursday evening release.
The protest has attracted the support of some mine workers. In an open letter obtained by CBC, an anonymous group of mine staff say missing their flight home is “a small thing compared to the hundreds of years of colonization and cultural erasure” Inuit have experienced on their lands.
The Mary River expansion has been under environmental review since 2014 — a final hearing for that expansion continues to see delays. The protest happened just as a two-week environmental hearing ended. A final set of those meetings is supposed to go ahead in Iqaluit in March.