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The Mary River mine sits about 150 kilometres south of Pond Inlet, Nunavut, as shown in this undated handout image.

HO/The Canadian Press

The regional Inuit organization that represents the Inuit on Baffin Island is signalling it will likely oppose the proposed expansion of the Mary River iron ore mine because of the damage it believes would be wreaked on the environment and on the livelihoods of the Indigenous population.

Privately held Baffinland Iron Mines Corp. has proposed doubling its production at Mary River to 12 million tonnes a year. The Oakville, Ont.-based miner also wants to build a railroad that would transport ore from its complex in North Baffin to Milne Port, about 100 kilometres away. Baffinland says the expansion is crucial to turn a marginal operation into a profit-making one.

But the proposed expansion has enraged many local stakeholders, including a group of Inuit hunters who recently staged a blockade at the mine site.

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Almost all of Baffinland’s operations are on Inuit-owned lands that were negotiated as part of a landmark settlement agreement with the federal government in 1993. Royalties and land lease fees paid by miners are managed by the regional Inuit organization, called the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, or QIA. It is tasked with distributing tens of millions of dollars to the Inuit.

While the hamlets of Pond Inlet and Clyde River, as well as one influential hunter and trapper organization, had already come out in opposition to the expansion of Mary River, the QIA hadn’t made its position clear.

Stephen Williamson Bathory, a special adviser with QIA, said in an interview that the organization has held off in making a decision because it wanted to hear from the full range of Inuit voices. Now, after listening to stakeholders, most of whom are opposed to the expansion, he indicated the QIA, too, will be against it.

“Our board took a very clear position that it was always going to prioritize the environmental and social impact of the mine over anything else,” Mr. Williamson Bathory said.

“Clearly there are camps that are forming for and against. And the against camps seem to have the majority.”

In Nunavut, the hunting and trapping of wildlife and marine mammals, including caribou, seals and whales, have been a way of life for thousands of years, providing sustenance, food and clothing for the Inuit. The Mittimatalik Hunters and Trappers Organization, or MHTO, is worried about the potentially damaging effect increased shipping of ore from Mary River through waterways will have on narwhal. They’re also concerned about the railway wrecking permafrost seal hunting grounds.

While a rejection of the mine expansion by QIA would be a powerful statement, the organization does not have veto power over the expansion. Later this year, the regulatory body, the Nunavut Impact Review Board, or NIRB, will issue a recommendation on the proposal to the federal Minister of Northern Affairs Dan Vandal. The minister then has the final say on whether it goes ahead.

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Mr. Vandal turned down The Globe and Mail’s request for an interview, but when asked what his decision is likely to be, press secretary Antoine Tremblay wrote in an e-mail: “The NIRB process was established with Inuit and territory partners to ensure the interests of Nunavummiut are protected. We are confident all parties will continue dialogue through the NIRB process and will be heard. As the process is ongoing it would be inappropriate to prejudge the outcome.”

A rejection of the Baffinland project by the QIA would be the first time it goes against the company’s development plans. On three prior occasions, QIA gave the company its blessing, most recently in 2018 when Baffinland applied to increase yearly production at Mary River to six million tonnes from 4.2 million tonnes.

In that instance, the NIRB was opposed to the increase, but the minister ruled in favour, partly because of lobbying pressure from the QIA.

While many Inuit stakeholders voiced their concerns at a recent round of public hearings in Nunavut about the expansion, not all felt they had a voice. A small group of hunters felt that the QIA was not listening to its concerns, and so they took matters into their own hands.

Earlier this month, in the dead of winter, they spent two days travelling on their snowmobiles to the Mary River mine site to make their voices heard. They blocked the mine’s supply road and its airstrip for almost a week, speaking out not only against the environmental destruction they believe the expansion will cause but also against the QIA, claiming the association hadn’t distributed any royalties to them. Baffinland eventually obtained a temporary court ruling that forced the protesters to halt their blockade. They left the site after the QIA agreed to meet with them to hear their concerns.

Mr. Williamson Bathory admitted the QIA was blindsided by the protest and only found out about it on Facebook. He said the QIA is open to engaging with individual hunters and had previously met with Namen Inuarak, one of the on-site protesters to discuss his concerns.

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QIA doesn’t distribute funds it collects from the miners directly to individual hunters. Instead it distributes funds indirectly through hunter and trappers organizations such as the MHTO, a wildlife compensation fund, a business capacity fund and a community wellness fund.

QIA acknowledges it has work to do to improve the process, to ensure more money goes directly to communities and that funds that are supposed to end up in the hands of individual hunters actually end up there.

“There is a commitment from our organization to deliver a portion of the royalties directly to communities,” Mr. Williamson Bathory said.

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