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Pond Inlet, Nunavut, residents protest outside the hamlet's community hall on Feb. 5, 2021, as environmental hearings are held on the expansion of Baffinland's Mary River iron ore mine.

Shelly Funston Elverum/The Canadian Press

A week-long blockade by a small group of Inuit subsistence hunters at the Mary River iron ore mine in Nunavut has been lifted, after protestors received encouraging signs that their concerns about a planned expansion of the mine will be heard.

Baffinland Iron Mines Corp. has proposed doubling its production of iron ore at Mary River to 12 million tonnes a year. The privately held miner also wants to build a railroad that would transport ore from its complex in North Baffin to Milne Port, about 100 kilometres away.

On the evening of Feb. 4, a group of hunters set up blockades at an airstrip and supply road at the mine in Baffin Island. The hunters said they were concerned that a bigger operation at Mary River could decimate the marine mammal population, which they depend upon for food. They also alleged they had not received any royalties from the existing operation and demanded representation with the Qikiqtani Inuit Association (QIA), the regional Inuit group that distributes mining royalties.

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Late Wednesday, the protestors agreed to leave the site after representatives with Inuit organizations, including the QIA, reached out to ask for a face-to-face meeting.

While the hunters welcomed the opportunity to meet with the QIA, they made it clear that unless a satisfactory resolution is found, more flare-ups could occur.

“The Guardians are committed to continuing action on the land unless they can see progress in proposed meetings,” the protestors said in a release.

Oakville, Ont.-based Baffinland said the blockades had prevented hundreds of employees from leaving the Mary River mine, and stopped key supplies, such as food and medicine, from getting in.

On Wednesday, a Nunavut court ordered the protestors to temporarily leave both the airstrip and the supply road. The hunters were allowed to stay at the site pending a court hearing scheduled for Saturday, when Baffinland was scheduled to ask for an injunction to permanently remove the protestors. That injunction would now appear to be unnecessary.

“We welcome the move to a constructive dialogue and hope to work in collaboration with our community partners to find mutually agreeable solutions,” Brian Penney, chief executive officer of Baffinland, said in a news release on Thursday.

After the blockades began, Baffinland suspended almost all operations at the site. Production is now in the process of ramping up again.

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Almost all of Baffinland’s operations are situated on Inuit-owned lands that were negotiated as part of the historic lands settlement agreement with the federal government in 1993. On Baffin Island, royalties paid by miners are managed by the QIA, which is tasked with distributing funds to local communities, including hunters and trappers organizations.

A round of public hearings on the potential environmental impact of the expansion of Mary River was held last week in Nunavut and a final session is scheduled for next month.

Baffinland said that Inuit organizations are projected to receive $2-billion in benefits, including land lease payments and royalties, over the next 16 years. The projections are based on assumptions about the future price of iron ore and so could vary significantly.

A number of local hamlets, including Pond Inlet and Clyde River, are opposed to the expansion, saying the economic benefits aren’t worth the risk to the environment. The Mittimatalik Hunters and Trappers Organization (MHTO) also expressed concerns with the existing operation, which went into production in 2015. MHTO says iron ore dust from blasting at Mary River mine has polluted waters used by hunters. The hunting and trapping of caribou, seals and whales has been a way of life for Indigenous people in the territory for thousands of years, providing sustenance, food and clothing.

Later this year, the Nunavut Impact Review Board is expected to issue a recommendation to the federal Minister of Northern Affairs, Dan Vandal, on whether the expansion should go ahead. The minister will then have the final word on the expansion.


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