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'We're all aware of that potential risk,' Akeeagok says of economic challenges if Mary River Mine expansion stalls

Members of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association's board of directors decided they will not support Baffinland's existing proposal to double production at the Mary River iron mine, 160 south of Pond Inlet. From left, Tommy Akavak of Kimmirut, Abraham Qammaniq of Sanirajak, Mike Jaypoody of Clyde River, Steven Polee Lucassie of Iqaluit, Louis Tapardjuk of Iglulik, Moses Appaqaq of Sanikiluaq, President P.J.
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P.J. Akeeagok, president of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association with the QIA board of directors. From left, Tommy Akavak of Kimmirut, Abraham Qammaniq of Sanirajak, Mike Jaypoody of Clyde River, Steven Polee Lucassie of Iqaluit, Louis Tapardjuk of Iglulik, Moses Appaqaq of Sanikiluaq, President P.J. Akeeagok, Paul Amagoalik of Resolute Bay, Katherina Pudluk of Pond Inlet, Liza Ningiuk of Grise Fiord, Charlie Qumuatuq of Pangnirtung, secretary/treasurer Levi Barnabas, Jeremy Tunraluk of Arctic Bay, vice-president Olayuk Akesuk and Matthew S. Jaw of Kinngait. photo courtesy of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association.

Baffinland Iron Mine officials have warned that the economics of the Mary River Mine may not remain viable without expansion, which Qikiqtani Inuit Association (QIA) President Akeeagok acknowledged after the QIA announced on March 5 that it won't support the growth of the project as proposed.

“I think we're all aware of that potential risk. It's something I think we all take seriously,” he said. “We want to see Inuit trained. We want to see Inuit employed. But there's also a balance that we must take in terms of the potential impacts to the livelihoods of Inuit, whether it be to the wildlife or way of life, whether it be tied to the culture. We have to always look at these proposals from a holistic viewpoint.”

Akeeagok said that potential effects on caribou, narwhal, seal and fish from increased shipping and dust and the low rate of Inuit employment at the mine site are factors too serious to overlook.

“The fundamental questions that are still there, a lot of them weren't being answered right at the impact review board ... there's already existing impacts that I think were being disputed at the hearings in terms of the baseline data and the ... incorporation of Inuit qaujimajatuqangit (traditional knowledge),” Akeeagok said, adding that the proposal to double production to 12 million tonnes per year from six million tonnes at the mine exacerbated matters because the pace is too great.

The Hamlet of Pond Inlet has proposed that the expansion, if approved, be limited to an annual increase of 1.5 million tonnes of iron ore over four years.

During the last round of regulatory public hearings in Pond Inlet in late January, Baffinland's Megan Lord-Hoyle, vice-president of sustainable development, said the use of trucks to transport iron ore substantially raises the cost of operations. A proposed 110-kilometre railway to the port at Milne Inlet is expected to lower Baffinland's expenses over the years ahead.

“The company has already operated through a number of fluctuations (in iron ore prices), and, ultimately, we need to reduce the cost per tonne and we need to attract investment. Therefore, the current operation as is is not a viable one for the long-term,” Lord Hoyle said.

Iron ore prices ranged from $40 to $180 per tonne between 2008 and 2020. Udlu Hanson, vice-president of community and strategic development for Baffinland, cited an analyst's report stating that the Mary River mine “experienced considerable losses” between 2016 and 2019. She also referred to the report's finding that the phase two expansion would make the project more financially stable and robust during periods when iron ore prices are low.

Baffinland wouldn't answer questions from Nunavut News following the QIA's March 5 announcement, but the company issued a news release on March 6 noting that the QIA is still open to receiving Baffinland's proposals to address concerns.

“We will continue our community outreach and seek to meet the QIA and others as soon as practicable to discuss their concerns in order to find a mutually agreeable way forward,” said Brian Penney, CEO of Baffinland.

Regulatory uncertainty

Akeeagok declined to speculate on whether the Nunavut Impact Review Board (NIRB) and the federal government would endorse Baffinland's expansion proposal without a green light from the QIA.

“I can't speak for whether it will be approved or not. We're going to continue to work hard to put the evidence before NIRB and we'll work extremely hard to ensure that Inuit voices are respected all the way through,” he said.

However, the QIA's influence was seemingly demonstrated in October 2018 when the federal government authorized a temporary increase in Baffinland's production to six million tonnes per year from 4.2 million tonnes. NIRB had advised the federal Department of Northern Affairs against the higher limit due to potential impacts on marine life and increased dust.

The QIA, having just renegotiated its Inuit Impact and Benefit Agreement with Baffinland at the time, wrote to the Northern Affairs minister and, with added support from the Hamlet of Pond Inlet and the Mittimatalik Hunter and Trappers Organization, the federal government overruled NIRB's recommendation.

Last June, the QIA signed another major deal with Baffinland known as the Inuit Certainty Agreement. It would provide numerous upfront benefits as well as milestone payments to the QIA as the mine expanded. Akeeagok said he has no regrets about negotiating that arrangement.

“As a DIO (designated Inuit organization) it's our duty and our job to ensure Inuit have the best available information to make an informed decision ... I think we all heard loud and clearly that's there's no consensus (from the affected communities),” he said, adding that he listened to some strong comments from individuals of various generations while visiting Pond Inlet recently.

“There's very powerful statements that were said and those are what we've got to keep ourselves grounded in and to continue to keep doing better. That's something that we really want to continue to push is to ensure that the Inuit voice, the Inuit experience and the Inuit vision is right there in the beginning of anything that we work on.”

Baffinland's regulatory public hearing extension is scheduled to resume in Iqaluit from April 12 to 21.

Other political figures weigh in

David Qamaniq, Tununiq MLA: “The phase two proposal is extremely complex. As of today, there are almost 2,000 individual documents currently available on the Nunavut Impact Review Board's public registry concerning the phase two proposal. I doubt that there is anyone alive who has actually read every single one of them ... perhaps it is time to push the reset button.”

David Akeeagok, Nunavut's minister of mines and economic development: “At this point, we haven't fully assessed what the Qikiqtani Inuit Association's board has passed, but we have seen their media release, and will continue to work to try and find ways of getting information on this. Currently, from the government's perspective, this is still under environmental assessment ... As stated in their media release, Baffinland does need to come back and see how they are going to respond because that phase two is their proposal, and if it's not supported by the land owner at its forum, then the onus is on them ... We have 10,000 young people that are or will be coming into the workforce. How are they going to work? Our government only has 5,000 jobs.”

Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, Nunavut's member of Parliament: “The lack of ability for necessary parties (mostly Inuit) to afford transparency from Baffinland through NIRB on the current and future intentions of phase 2 has proven more than problematic. It is for that reason that I, as a member of Parliament, oppose the rapid expansion of phase two, as it is currently presented.”