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Baffinland VP Udlu Hanson says she's here to benefit Inuit

Editor's note: The interview for this story took place prior to Baffinland's announcement that 586 contract employees were being laid off. Hanson was contacted again after that news came out but she deferred to another Baffinland executive for comment. 

Udlu Hanson has heard many people express surprise that she joined a mining company.

She'd spent many years defining and fighting for Inuit rights and benefits, including as a chief negotiator with land claims organization Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated (NTI). That's still part of what she does in her latest role, she says.

Udlu Hanson, Baffinland's vice-president of community and strategic development, stands with elder Qaapik Attagutsiak in Arctic Bay.
photo courtesy of Baffinland Iron Mines

Unless we have Inuit in every different sector promoting Inuit rights and benefits then it will be status quo. We'll continue have people from the south filling positions,” says Hanson, who accepted the role of Baffinland Iron Mines' vice-president of community and strategic development in June. “The decisions that my department makes, that I represent, will always be based on benefitting Inuit through employment, training, jobs and support to the communities.”

Another condition of her employment is that Oakville, Ont.-based Baffinland would increase its presence in Nunavut.

“Iqaluit is going to see a huge expansion of the office, especially if phase two (of the mine plan) is approved,” she said. “We're going to see a huge presence in Nunavut.”

Hanson grew up at ease with industry. Her father ran a construction and heavy equipment firm in Apex, outside Iqaluit. She started sweeping floors as an 11-year-old. Then she made regular trips to the post office and answered the office phones.

“Before I knew it, I was running the business as office manager,” she recalls. “It was a lot of work ethic that was instilled in me at a young age. I learned what it meant to put food on the table through hard work, dedication and a lot of passion.”

She fondly recalls going on weekly camping trips with her family as a girl and playing outside in Apex until her father's whistled caused her sisters to come running home at night.

“The simplest things brought the most pleasure and wonderful memories,” she says.

She earned a business administration degree from Okanagan College and a bachelor of education from Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont.

She spent time as an economic development officer with NTI and also served as deputy minister of Economic Development and Transportation with the Government of Nunavut.

Baffinland has spent much of the past couple of years trying to advance its stage two proposal.

It would entail an increase to 12-million tonnes of iron ore annually, up from the current six million tonnes, as well as the associated rise in shipping. There would also be a 110-km railway stretching from Mary River to Milne Inlet. The concept has created apprehension from some Qikiqtani residents regarding impacts on wildlife.

“Inuit employment is really important... that's obviously the quickest and easiest way to make a difference in somebody's home is to have them employed with your organization,” says Udlu Hanson.
photo courtesy of Udlu Hanson

“There are environmental concerns when you're involved in a mining operation, most definitely. We can't overlook them or pretend they don't exist. We can't also try to minimize people's concerns. If they have concerns we want to hear them,” says Hanson. “We should be held accountable, not just during the permitting process but on a daily basis... the only way I could be working for Baffinland is to believe that the company is trying to do the work that they do in an environmentally sustainable way.”

The time and resources devoted to this second phase of the mine has not allowed Hanson to devote more of her attention to advancing community initiatives.

It's been a little trying at times,” she said. “But we're doing well and managing and after this is completed we'll be able to focus 100 per cent of our time on (community development).”

In the coming months, with support from existing Baffinland community liaison officers in Pond Inlet, Arctic Bay, Clyde River, Iglulik and Hall Beach and a growing number of community resource coordinators, Hanson plans to reinforce the benefits that are available such as the wildlife compensation fund, harvesters enabling program, marine research equipment program, scholarships, school lunch program, summer camp and the community wellness program.

We (want to) have communities that are really thriving and taking full advantage of all the benefits that the company could be offering,” she says.

Hanson, whose office is in Iqaluit, says some of the common feedback she hears in the communities pertains to jobs and training, the contracting of Inuit firms and royalties.

Inuit employment is really important. If we could increase our employment to more representative levels (of Inuit) – I know every organization in Nunavut is trying to do the same,” she says. “That's obviously the quickest and easiest way to make a difference in somebody's home is to have them employed with your organization.”

She had the pleasure of being part of a Baffinland delegation that travelled to Arctic Bay in August and made a $50,000 donation toward the Arctic Bay reopening of the Tununirusiq Daycare, closed for several years.

Hanson says a community member approached the mining company's CEO and a poignant moment ensued.

“She extended her hand and said, I'm so happy that you guys came to our community and you're supporting us. She said, ‘I have a number of friends and family who work with Baffinland.’ As corny as it sounds it does put a lump in your throat. It was wonderful to hear,” says Hanson. “We know we're not perfect. We know we've got a long way to go.”