Montreal Canada – As the mayor of Clyde River, a small Inuit hamlet in the Nunavut area of ​​northern Canada, Jerry Natanine had seen local opposition to a building on the iron ore project for years.

When a group of Inuit hunters set up a protest blockade at the Mary River mine on Baffin Island in the Arctic Archipelago earlier this month, he was not surprised. “They are not here to listen to us at all,” said Natanine Al Jazeera in a telephone interview, referring to Baffinland Iron Mines Corporation, which operates the website.

Seven hunters from small Inuit communities in the region blocked a runway and a transport road on which the iron ore is transported to a shipping port about 100 km away.

The hunters said Baffinland’s plan to expand the Mary River property, which has been in operation since 2015, could threaten the animals they rely on to survive and which are closely linked to their cultural practices.

The company wants to double the production of the mine in the so-called second development phase from six to 12 million tons per year. There are also plans to build a 110 km railway line that will connect the site to a port on Milne Inlet, as well as a second port dock from which the material, which is mainly exported to Europe, will be transported.

The expansion is still ahead of the Nunavut Impact Review Board (NIRB), which held environmental review hearings in January and February. After further scheduled meetings in April, the Canadian federal government will issue a recommendation for approval.

Meanwhile, members of the Inuit community say their concerns have not been adequately addressed throughout the process – and that their demands to hear their voices are getting louder and louder. “We have a very strong unit right now,” said Natanine. “If you [the hunters] want to keep fighting, they have support. “

Residents of Inuit communities in the Nunavut area fear the expansion of the Mary River mine will affect their hunting and harvesting practices [Al Jazeera/Mapbox]

Blockade lifted

Marie Naqitarvik, a resident of the small Inuit community in Arctic Bay, is one such supporter. “The ice itself is red from iron ore,” she told Al Jazeera of the mine’s impact. Many Inuit have been frustrated with the board hearings and feel that their concerns are still being ignored, she said.

“Our ancestors survived here so that we could be alive. They starved to death. They had to travel with dogs. The only way to survive was to feed them, the animal. That’s why we’re here, ”said Naqitarvik. “The only food we have [is] in the country. “

The hunters, who called themselves Nuluujat Land Guardians, agreed to end their blockade at the Mary River site on February 10, after promising a meeting with Inuit authorities to discuss the project.

They are expected to meet with the Qikiqtani Inuit Association (QIA), mandated under the Nunavut Agreement to protect the rights and interests of the Inuit on Baffin Island, and Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated, which ensures that the im Commitments made under the Nunavut Agreement are respected. It is unclear when this meeting will take place.

Inuit hunt narwhal, a whale sometimes referred to as the “unicorn of the sea” because of its long tusk in open water in summer [Courtesy Build Films/Oceans North]As part of the Mary River Project, QIA is managing an Inuit Impact and Benefit Agreement that was renegotiated with Baffinland in 2018.

“At the moment we as an organization have no position as to whether we support or [do] Do not support phase two, “QIA President PJ Akeeagok said in a telephone interview to Al Jazeera, saying the organization listened to Inuit communities before its board of directors would vote on a position.

“It was very important that we hear primarily from the Inuit, from the affected communities. So far we have unanimously heard no support from the Impact Review Board … but as an organization we have [not] still decided whether we will support [phase two] or not.”

Brian Penney, CEO of Baffinland, welcomed “the move to constructive dialogue” in a statement on February 11, while Canada’s Northern Minister Dan Vandal said he was “encouraged” by the news that discussions were continuing.

Today’s news encourages me to continue the dialogue on the process and future of resource development in North Baffin.

– Dan Vandal (@stbstvdan) February 11, 2021

However, critics want the environmental review process to slow down so the company can reassess the impact on Inuit hunting and harvesting, as well as the benefits to communities. Natanine said people are not against the mining itself, which creates jobs, but they want to make sure their rights are protected.

“Inuit are asked to take so much risk with very little benefit or benefit in the form of money that our culture, wildlife, or harvesting practices cannot replace,” said Eric Ootoovak, chairman of Mittimatalik Hunters and Trappers Organization (MHTO) in Pond Inlet, another Inuit hamlet on Baffin Island.

Ootoovak emailed Al Jazeera that members of the community are particularly concerned as the mine’s shipping route passes through the habitats of narwhals, fish and ringed seals. “Inuit here have used this area for harvesting for generations, and we need these animals as a reliable source of healthy traditional food and even income,” he said.

Company defends plan

Baffinland is jointly owned by The Energy and Minerals Group, a US-based company, and ArcelorMittal, one of the largest steel producers in the world.

In an email to Al Jazeera, based on its proposed mitigation and impact monitoring plans, Baffinland said that “the expansion of the mine can coexist with healthy wildlife populations and the continued Inuit harvest.”

In a three-page background report, also emailed, the company said the mine offers Inuit much-needed economic benefits and jobs. “Overall, Baffinland’s operations have contributed directly and indirectly over $ 1.68 billion [$1.32bn] for Inuit companies and communities, ”it said.

So far, we have unanimously heard no support from the Impact Review Board … but as an organization we have not (yet) decided whether we will support phase two or not

PJ Akeeagok, Qikiqtani Inuit Association

Baffinland also pointed to an agreement it reached with the QIA last year that introduces an Inuit-led surveillance program for the second phase expansion and economic benefits for five affected Inuit hamlets.

But Akeeagok said the recent NIRB hearings – a process he believes will allow “Inuit voices to really be at the forefront” – made it clear that Inuit still have many concerns. “We heard the pace of production increase very loudly,” he said.

Stephen Williamson Bathory, a special adviser to the QIA, said Inuit “are frustrated with the second phase proposal itself”.

“We still have an open door to the proponent [Baffinland] and Inuit to work on answering these questions. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen the proponent reconcile the open questions, ”he told Al Jazeera.

As part of the second phase, Baffinland is planning to build a 110 km long railway line connecting the Mary River Mine with a port on Milne Inlet [Al Jazeera/Mapbox]

Growing frustrations

Chris Debicki, vice president of policy development and advisory for Oceans North, an environmental nonprofit based in Nunavut, also questioned the full scope of the company’s plans for the Mary River Mine.

While Baffinland is currently applying for approval for the second phase of development, a June 2020 report received from Al Jazeera from Moody’s Investors shows that Baffinland plans to increase production from the mine to 18 million tons per year in phase three. The report does not give a timeframe for the next phase.

When asked about its plan for the third phase, Baffinland Al Jazeera said its proposal “would limit ship movements from the port in Milne Inlet to no more than 176 per year” and “had no intention of asking permission for the supplies through Milne Inlet. ” Level”.

The review panel is currently only evaluating the second phase.

“It is a fundamental question of transparency and it is also a fundamental question of whether or not we are examining the correct scope of this project – and we say we are not,” Debicki told Al Jazeera.

“We are talking about development and development decisions that will shape the course of development for generations, probably hundreds of years. That is why it is so important to get this right.”

Inuit knowledge

Meanwhile, Inuit communities say their territories are already changing.

Inuit hunt narwhal – a whale sometimes referred to as the “unicorn of the sea” because of its long tusk – in open water in summer. But they’re harder to catch and thinner, and there are fewer of them, said Ootoovak. He also fears that the Baffin Island caribou herd, which has been declining “due to natural cyclical rhythms,” will be hit by the railroad that connects the Mary River with the port of Milne Inlet.

Losing the animals would also mean losing the Inuit heritage and culture. “We will not be able to teach our next generations the things we know about the places and animals we have relied on for generations. This will be lost, ”said Ootoovak.

He told Al Jazeera he didn’t think the company included what is known as Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, or traditional Inuit knowledge, in its plans. “This is real, living knowledge, but despite the concerns we have raised, the mining company continues to predict that there will be no ‘significant’ impact on wildlife or the Inuit crop,” he said.

Natanine also said the consultation process made no sense, while Ootoovak said the Mary River expansion did not receive the “free, prior and informed consent” of Inuit communities – a concept set out in the United Nations Declaration on Rights of indigenous peoples. which Canada plans to include in the law.

ArcelorMittal, one of the co-owners of Baffinland, is also a member of the “ResponsibleSteel” initiative, where “Sites must apply the concept of free, prior and informed consent when operating near indigenous peoples”.

When asked if it is fulfilling its ResponsibleSteel commitment, Baffinland said the NIRB governs the permitting process for current and planned operations under the Nunavut Agreement.

“There’s an obvious split,” said Ootoovak. “People in the Pond Inlet community and many other communities have serious concerns about a project that could run here for over 100 years and a mining company that is unwilling to consider our problems and work with us.”

Baffin Island in the Arctic Archipelago is the largest island in Canada and the fifth largest island in the world [Al Jazeera/Mapbox]

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