Inuit face bigger impacts if Mary River Iron Mine doubles ore production

I was born and raised in Pangnirtung, Nunavut, just down the coast from Pond Inlet, the small community that has been facing the biggest impacts from Baffinland’s open-pit Mary River Iron Mine.

WWF-Canada's lead Arctic specialist Paul Okalik
WWF-Canada’s lead Arctic specialist Paul Okalik (© Brandon Laforest)

But those current impacts could become much worse if the proposal to double ore production to 12 million metric tonnes is accepted by the federal government against the will of community members — Inuit with constitutional treaty rights to harvest marine mammals — and Nunavut’s environmental assessment agency.

Residents of Pond Inlet have noted that the narwhals they harvest for food and for income that used to spend their summers in the area have been pushed out by the increased shipping activity in those waters.

Even in my home community, which is 870 km away from Pond Inlet and not in proximity to the mine, we have still felt its overarching effects as our early spring harvest has become unpredictable because the narwhals are suffering.

There have been many attempts to discount our Inuit experience in the effort to push through this massive “phase two” expansion.

That includes the distorted story presented by a dismissive The Globe and Mail op-ed by a Calgary-based writer that called interventions by NGOs like World Wildlife Fund “not necessarily welcome.”

In my work as our organization’s lead Arctic specialist, I have been attending all the hearings held by the Nunavut Impact Review Board (NIRB) since November 2018, as an official intervenor and all the work that we have been involved with has been to support my fellow Inuit in the most impacted community.

As I explained during the hearings, local Inuit are noticing that narwhals and Arctic char have been affected—fewer fish are being caught in the vicinity of the port—and seals have also been displaced from where they would normally have their pups in the early spring.

Inuit have a real concern about shipping activity because it’s already constant with 198 vessel transits a season, and Baffinland has asked to increase transits to 384 under its phase two proposal. Instead of trying to increase production, let’s find ways to reduce current impacts on wildlife and the communities that depend on them.

Baffinland initially entered Pond Inlet with the promise of jobs and riches, explaining they would build a railway onto the other side of the island to avoid shipping activity in the once-bountiful waters around Pond Inlet. And these promises of employment always discount the fact that these mining activities are depriving families of food. That somehow never enters the equation. The people of Pond Inlet depend on these species that are being chased away—and hunting is also a job.

Narwhal crossing tusks above water surface. Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada
Narwhal crossing tusks above water surface. Baffin Island, Nunavut © / Eric Baccega / WWF

Baffinland started this project in 2015 and by 2018 were already seeking a production increase from four million metric tonnes to six million metric tonnes. The Nunavut Impact Review Board recommended against this increase as the science and impacts on the sensitive environment were unknown. But the federal minister of the day overrode the recommendation and approved it anyway.

Ever since this occurred, members of the community have been struggling to catch their annual harvests of the nutritious narwhals from their waters in the summer months due to the increased shipping activity associated with the boosted tonnage.

Any harvest associated with such a nice, healthy animal is treasured in our culture with sharing and feasting with our extended families. The shipping impacts have pushed these celebrations aside. All this is happening now at six million metric tonnes, and Baffinland wants to double that.

In filing her 441-page report, NIRB chairperson Marjorie Kaviq Kaluraq warned that the proposed expansion risked “significant adverse ecosystemic effects on marine mammals and fish, caribou, and other terrestrial wildlife [and] significant adverse effects on Inuit harvesting, culture, land use and food security in Nunavut.”

Inuktitut and English stop sign in Pond Inlet, Nunavut
Stop sign in Pond Inlet, Nunavut © Joshua Ostroff

And Kaluraq recommended the federal government reject Baffinland’s request because these negative impacts cannot be “adequately prevented, mitigated, or adaptively managed.”

Now the decision lies in the hands of Minister of Northern Affairs Dan Vandal, who recently (and rightly) pointed out in a National Post op-ed that any increases in production are “subject to a necessary review with Inuit rights holders.”

He was referencing the recent decision allowing Baffinland to continue producing six million tonnes this year, but his statement holds just as true for phase two’s 12-million-tonne proposal. And that necessary review by NIRB produced a clear and unequivocal “No.”

At the August NIRB community round table, a very wise Elder, Katsak, said of Baffinland’s latest request: “We live in Pond Inlet, as we have done for a very long time. The jobs the mining company promises will disappear when they have mined the ore out. However, we will still be here when the company has come and gone. I do not know what we will be able to eat at that time.”

Thus, it is easy to critique the process from afar without any consequences other than a few dollars in one’s bank account for the time being. But the same old story of a company exploiting their way into riches at the expense of the Indigenous citizens has got to change.

Originally published in The Hill Times on Nov. 3, 2022