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The demonstrators who blockaded the Mary River mine in February are not demanding the operation shut down entirely

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The Nunavut Land Claims Agreement was supposed to be a game changer for the Inuit, but a controversial expansion proposal for a mine on Baffin Island exposes the vulnerabilities of the historic pact.

Oakville, Ont.-based Baffinland Iron Mines Corp. plans to double its iron ore production at its Mary River mine, which went into production in 2014. The company also wants to build a railway that would transport ore from North Baffin to Milne Port, 110 kilometres away. Baffinland says the expansion is crucial to ensuring the mine is profitable over the long run.

But many Inuit stakeholders are opposed to the project. They worry it will inflict further damage on the environment and destroy the livelihoods of subsistence hunters and trappers. Of particular concern is a thick layer of iron ore dust that has blanketed the landscape for hundreds of kilometres around the mine, which hunters say is caused by blasting at the site.

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James Eetoolook, the vice-president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (NTI), the Inuit organization charged with protecting the land rights of the Inuit, said the damage from the mine is clear: rabbits dyed pink from the iron ore dust, ice on seal hunting grounds that is contaminated two metres down and plummeting numbers of Arctic char. “It’s a disaster,” he said. “I’ve seen mines in the past. This is one of the worst.”

The Qikiqtani Inuit Association (QIA), the other main Inuit organization on Baffin Island, is against the expansion, as are the hamlets of Pond Inlet and Clyde River and the Mittimatalik Hunters and Trappers Organization (MHTO). Last month, a group of hunters travelled by snowmobile for two days in the dead of winter to stage a blockade at Mary River.

Yet even with so much opposition from the local Inuit, who comprise 84 per cent of the population of the territory, the mine expansion may still see the light of day. “Most of the power, the real jurisdiction, is still in the hands of the federal government on almost all major resource developments,” said Warren Bernauer, a postdoctoral fellow with the department of environment and geography at the University of Manitoba and the author of several academic papers about Inuit rights and resource development.

Despite securing ownership of about 18 per cent of the land of the territory in 1993 through the Nunavut Agreement, including most of the area the Mary River mine is on, no Inuit organization has veto power over development.

A final round of public hearings on the mine expansion is scheduled for next month. After that, the Nunavut Impact Review Board will issue a recommendation to federal Minister of Northern Affairs Dan Vandal, who will have the final say.

So far, all indications are that both levels of government are in favour of the project, dubbed the Phase 2 proposal. “The federal and territorial governments appear to have very few outstanding issues,” Levi Barnabas, the secretary treasurer and Mary River portfolio lead with the QIA, wrote in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail. “This gives Inuit the impression that the federal and territorial government are prepared to support the Phase 2 proposal.”

Mr. Vandal declined an interview request. In an e-mail to The Globe, his press secretary, Antoine Tremblay, said it would be inappropriate to make any assumptions about the federal government’s stand on the expansion.

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The Nunavut government’s position is much clearer. In October, Premier Joe Savikataaq wrote to Baffinland’s chief executive officer, Brian Penney, and told him that all the government’s technical concerns about the expansion had been addressed. And in an interview last week, Mr. Savikataaq said that all misgivings, including fears the railway would affect the caribou migration, have been cleared up.

“All of the issues that we did have,” he said, “have either been resolved or mitigated to our satisfaction.”

Baffinland’s importance to the territory’s economy is undeniable. It accounts for about 23 per cent of GDP. It’s the biggest private-sector employer. Since 2015, the company and its contractors have paid $76-million in salaries to Inuit workers. And the QIA has received $62-million in royalties and land lease payments.

But Mr. Bernauer says the economic benefits aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Royalties are often dangled in front of the Inuit in order to get buy-in. For instance, Baffinland has said that, if the expansion goes ahead, Inuit organizations could receive $2-billion in benefits over the next 16 years. But in the same breath, the company has admitted there is no guarantee that will happen, especially if iron ore prices fall significantly. Mr. Bernauer also said that accounting adjustments, such as writing off capital expenditures, can quickly turn a profitable operation into a losing one, wiping out the need to pay royalties.

In fact, much of the wealth from mineral extraction in Nunavut flows out of the territory. Unlike other mining-heavy jurisdictions in Canada, such as British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec, Nunavut has no major mining head offices and almost no associated spinoff jobs in finance and investor relations.

“Although the 1993 Nunavut Agreement has allowed Inuit to increase their share of extraction-based wealth, most wealth still accrues to other jurisdictions,” Mr. Bernauer wrote in his 2019 paper The limits to extraction: mining and colonialism in Nunavut.

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“The extractive economy therefore remains a colonial economy, because it continues to benefit external interests disproportionately.”

Counterintuitively, Inuit employment at mining companies in Nunavut has actually declined since the Nunavut Agreement. At its peak, the work force of the North Rankin nickel mine, which operated from the late 1950s to the early 60s, was 70 per cent Inuit. The Nanisivik zinc mine, which operated for almost 30 years, until early 2002, had a 28-per-cent-Inuit work force. Agnico Eagle Mines Ltd., which has been in Nunavut since 2010, has a 23.6-per-cent-Inuit staffing level. Meanwhile, at Baffinland, the Inuit comprise just 15.6 per cent of employees. Compounding the problem, Mr. Bernauer said, the mining work force in Nunavut tends to be “ethnically stratified,” with most technical and management positions filled by non-Inuit and the majority of Inuit working unskilled and entry-level positions.

Baffinland declined to answer questions about Inuit representation, but in an e-mail to The Globe, spokesperson Heather Smiles said the company has invested millions in training Inuit workers since 2018 and has committed to spending $1.5-million a year in order to boost Inuit numbers.

Elder Donat Milortok was part of the Inuit team that spent decades negotiating the land claims agreement with the federal government. Speaking in Inuktitut with the aid of a translator, he said Baffinland needs to be more honest in its dealings with the Inuit. Instead of raising doubts about accounts of environmental damage, he said, the company should listen to Inuit who have experienced it firsthand.

“We are the people, we are the hunters, we are the inhabitants of the land. We observe, we listen, we live with the animals,” he said. “We have very big concerns about the narwhal population. We already know in our area they have decreased over the years since the mine started. We are very worried about our seals and the fish. It’s very disturbing for us that we may be eating meat [contaminated by the dust].

“The mine [owners have] not monitored themselves very well. Why would they? They have not lived among us. This is not their land. This is our land.”

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One of the biggest misconceptions about resource development in Nunavut is that the Inuit are 100-per-cent anti-development. They have said no to uranium development in the territory but they have approved many projects, including Baffinland’s original mine plan and two production increases. Even the demonstrators who blockaded the Mary River mine in February are not demanding the operation shut down entirely. The Inuit will welcome development if it’s done responsibly.

“It’s common for representatives of the mining industry to frame these conflicts over whether or not Nunavut should have developments or whether or not there should be any resource extraction,” Mr. Bernauer said. “They do that because it makes it very easy to dismiss their opponents. If you can paint them as these romanticists that don’t want any development, it’s easy to make that seem unreasonable and seem like an irrational position to take. Whereas if they’re actually going to engage in a real, meaningful discussion over how development should take place, on whose terms and under what conditions, that’s a much more difficult conversation for them to have.”

While many hamlets on Baffin Island are opposed to the mine expansion, Arctic Bay is all for it, primarily because of the economic benefits. One in eight of the hamlet’s working residents – 55 people – work for Baffinland. Arctic Bay was also a big benefactor of the Nanisivik zinc mine. “There’s far more experience here of what a mine is, what they require, and people understand that there will be environmental impacts,” said Frank May, a former mayor and now a councillor. “Everything we do, whether it’s you or me or the Pope has an environmental impact. … Don’t tell us you won’t have any impact, tell us what you will do about it.”

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