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Chinese ownership of Nunavut’s resources stokes unease

The Chinese stake in Nunavut’s minerals is about to grow, if approvals are granted, and that’s raising some eyebrows.

China’s government controls many Chinese mining companies, including Shandong Gold Mining, which is in line to buy Toronto-based TMAC Resources for $149 million (U.S.).

Shandong Gold Mining, which is owned by the Chinese government, is in position to purchase Toronto-based TMAC Resources, operators of the Doris North gold mine on the Kitikmeot’s Hope Bay property. “There’s a long-running sort of latent fear of selling strategic resources to an entity which is controlled entirely, or in part, by the government of a competitor,” says author and scholar Adam Lajeunesse.
photo courtesy of TMAC Resources

“There’s a long-running sort of latent fear of selling strategic resources to an entity which is controlled entirely, or in part, by the government of a competitor,” said Adam Lajeunesse, co-author of the 2017 book China’s Arctic Ambitions and What They Mean for Canada. “You are still working with a fairly totalitarian, communist dictatorship that does have legal rights and control over its companies… China’s made no secret of its intention to become a regional power and a global power, particularly under (Chinese leader) Xi Jinping.”

MMG Resources, also majority owned by the Chinese government, has been in possession of Nunavut’s Izok and High Lake zinc, lead and copper deposits for several years, but the costs remain too high to bring the metals to market.

Although, in 2019, Canada joined a U.S.-led international coalition aiming to reduce reliance on rare earth elements largely dominated by China, there’s reason to monitor Chinese gold consumption as well, according to Lajeunesse. The precious metal has long been a hedge when the global financial system is unstable and, like rare earths, gold is also used in some highly-sensitive manufacturing technologies.

“So there are voices out there speaking against this purchase on that basis alone,” he said, adding that he wouldn’t venture a guess as to whether the Canadian government might veto Shandong Gold’s bid to take over TMAC Resources and the Hope Bay property because there’s more to the equation.

“The government is facing significant pressures to bring investment into the Arctic,” said Lajeunesse. “The Arctic has a lot of really valuable natural resources but we are not able to bring the investment in to develop them. In part, that’s because Canada has an increasingly terrible reputation when it comes to being an investment destination for resource development, but also because the North has always been such an expensive place to develop anything.”

The proximity of Hope Bay to the Northwest Passage may be a factor in China coveting the gold mine for shipping purposes, but Lajeunesse, who’s also the Irving Shipbuilding Chair in Canadian Arctic Marine Security Policy, doesn’t think that’s a driving consideration.

“If Chinese companies wanted access to the Northwest Passage, at the moment all they need to do is ask,” he said. “Canada doesn’t deny access to the passage to foreign companies and ship owners who follow the rules and request permission.”

Betterment of Nunavummiut

Nunavut MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq said among her primary concerns is that any entity operating in Nunavut should work toward the betterment of Nunavummiut.

“Inuit and Nunavummiut need to be part of decisions that directly impact them and their communities,” Qaqqaq stated. “Nunavut has a large Inuit population of approximately 85 per cent. According to the Nunavut Agreement, article 23, employee positions at the federal, territorial government and municipality levels should reflect Inuit at a representative level. We should see Inuit in positions that reflect the amount of Inuit in the territory. I believe mining companies should be obligated to do the same as well.”

She also expressed a need for companies to protect wildlife and the environment, to make long-term investments and to support communities.

Nunavut Sen. Dennis Patterson said TMAC’s struggles to operate profitably were well known and it seems Canadian investors didn’t emerge. Shandong gold has made several key commitments, including

honouring the 20-year Inuit Impact and Benefits Agreement, which TMAC had signed with Kitikmeot Inuit Association (KIA), Patterson noted.

“Like many, I understand the reservations that come along with the acquisition of a resource by a Chinese entity, especially considering the current state of Sino-Canadian relations and other concerns about foreign investment in mining in Nunavut,” the senator stated. “However, it has been a pattern in mining in the North, which is a riskier and more costly place to invest due to its remoteness, high costs and lack of infrastructure, that foreign investment has proven to have been necessary to initiate many projects in the North: Rio Tinto and DeBeers in diamonds, ArcelorMittal in iron ore, and MMG in lead and zinc.

“If there are no concerns flagged by Canada’s and the KIA’s review processes, I would feel comfortable supporting this acquisition.”