Despite the risk, western Nunavut communities want gold mine jobs
“I want our younger generation to have jobs”
CAMBRIDGE BAY — Jobs take precedence over the health of caribou herds, Kitikmeot community representatives said at the Nunavut Impact Review Board’s final hearing on Sabina Gold and Silver Corp.’s Back River gold project.
When representatives of communities in western Nunavut spoke April 30, after more than 20 hours of roundtable presentations and discussions in Cambridge Bay, it was clear that dreams for a better economic future won over the fear of environmental damage.
“I want our younger generation to have jobs,” said Barnabe Immingark of Kugaaruk, who reported on his community’s support for the mine.
“I heard a vision of the future. It made me think about the delicate balance of nature and that everyone can have an influence on the environment. I heard from Sabina they will be developing on pristine land. But the company will handle the challenges by mining in a proper way and that there will be employment.”
Marie Anguti, also of Kugaaruk, said youth in her community of about 1,000 are hungry and don’t have enough to eat. Maybe more jobs would help, she said.
Interest in potential mining jobs came from many youth sitting around the table: Jordan Takkiruq of Gjoa Haven was eager to receive more information about jobs and working conditions at the mine.
Gjoa Haven would, like the region’s other growing young communities, also support the mine when it came time for communities to voice their opinion on the project.
According to estimates from Sabina’s final environmental assessment, 65 people in the Kitikmeot region are expected to work at the mine during its four-year construction period and 194 from the region will work there during the mine’s 10-year operating life.
The roundtable wrapped up three days of more technical presentations from Sabina, followed by responses from the governments of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, the federal government, Inuit regional organizations and Dene groups from the NWT.
One of the biggest issues at the hearing, held April 25 to April 30, was the fate of the dwindling Beverly and Bathurst caribou herds, which can be found around the area where the mine project would be located.
Discussions largely focused on how to — or if it will even be possible — avoid further damage to the Beverly and Bathurst caribou herds.
The roundtable heard presentations on the numbers of caribou — especially in the Bathurst herd, whose numbers are down to 20,000 from a half-million 30 years ago.
Federal agencies also reported on the potential risks for other wildlife species including muskoxen, wolverines, bears, seals, birds and fish, and to the environment — within an uncertain future created by climate change and warming permafrost.
Community representatives questioned the mining company on its ability to deal with toxic mine tailings, dust emissions and traffic on the mine’s proposed 157-kilometre ice road.
Several others also asked detailed questions about shipping through Bathurst Inlet, fuel storage safety, and Sabina’s ability to cope with fuel spills and other unforeseen events that could contaminate the environment.
“You guys won’t be there to give me the food I eat,” said Rebecca Kayuqtuq of Taloyoak, who told Sabina that the company’s best plans wouldn’t stand up to Mother Earth over the long term.
Dene representatives recounted the promises that they said mining companies had broken and of the hardships their people face from the huge decline in the numbers of caribou due to mining in their area.
“This is something I want you Inuit people to be aware of,” said elder Alfred Crapeau-Baillargeon, 80, from the Yellowknives Dene Nation.
The Yellowknives Dene also talked about the unmet commitments for jobs from mining companies, such as De Beers Canada’s Snap Lake diamond mine.
That mine started operations in 2008 but was suddenly put into care and maintenance last December, leaving workers and Aboriginal contractors in the lurch.
The Dene speakers often referred to times in the past when caribou were plentiful and Inuit hunters would meet with Dene around Contwoyto Lake to hunt.
But Dene elder Michael Rabesca from Behchoko told the gathering he now fears eating country foods, due to mine-generated pollution.
“I don’t want these things to happen in this region,” he said.
But, in the end, the lure of jobs won the support of 30 Kitikmeot community representatives, despite the lack of precise information from Sabina on employment-related issues such as the kinds of jobs and education requirements that are needed.
Sabina did say it would “commit” to looking into all the questions raised at the roundtable, including the possible hiring of those who have a criminal record.
Sabina also promised to accommodate caribou by closing down outside operations, like blasting, in its “phased” adaptive-management approach, if caribou cows and calves approach the mine site.
But Sabina stopped short of commitments to halt traffic on the winter road or to forgo construction of the mine complex in July and August when Beverly caribou migrate through the area, as suggested by the GN at the hearing.
Sabina’s plans for Back River include a chain of open pit and underground mines at its Goose property, located 400 km south of Cambridge Bay and 520 km north of Yellowknife, which will operate for at least 10 years and involve filling, damming or draining lakes and streams and building a road from the mine to a seasonal port facility and tank farm in Bathurst Inlet.
The company didn’t rule out future expansion.
The current Back River project, called Hannigayok in Inuinnaqtun, still needs a positive recommendation from NIRB to move ahead.
The NIRB will deliver that report by June 14 — and, if positive, its recommendation will contain a number of terms and conditions for issues like wildlife monitoring and damage mitigation efforts and obligations for TMAC Resources Inc. on job training.
But these terms and conditions won’t likely be designed to make the Back River mine’s operation impossible, such as closing down the mill when caribou are present.
Those terms and conditions would later form the basis of a project certificate, an important regulatory document issued by the NIRB.
The NIRB report’s terms and conditions may remain light on specifics. That’s because during the hearing Sabina was often vague about its exact plans, and even its final EIS was much less detailed than that of Baffinland Iron Mines Corp. for its Mary River iron mine project.
A positive recommendation from the NIRB with a broad set of terms and conditions could allow Sabina to sell the property to a larger major gold-mining company with deeper pockets, suggested a representative of an intervenor at the hearing, who did not want to be identified.
That’s been done before. Agnico Eagle Mining Ltd. acquired the Meadowbank property from Cumberland Resources in 2007, and then went on to build Nunavut’s first gold mine near Baker Lake.
To advance in the regulatory process, Sabina still needs to negotiate an Inuit impact and benefits agreement, land tenure and royalty agreements and get a water licence from the Nunavut Water Board — and then raise enough money to pay for the $700-million mine’s infrastructure.
Even if Sabina hangs on to Back River, it may take several years before the four-year construction period gets underway.
The six-day NIRB hearing and roundtable, which cost $350,000, is the first final hearing on a Nunavut mining project that covers such a rich and sensitive area for wildlife.
Several times during the hearing, elders recalled their youth spent around Bathurst Inlet’s fish-rich lakes and caribou-covered lands, which in summer are covered by purple and yellow flowers and grasses.
The area has long been inhabited by Inuit — with unusual archeological sites, such as the round dwellings of Nadlok, 100 km south of Bathurst Inlet, fashioned from thousands of caribou antlers.
Nadlok was not mentioned during the hearing — and, although there was a lot of information handed out, it was often repetitive, with double sessions presented on various topics — and long days, running from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
But if the time and cost seem excessive, in the past mining companies would have just come into the area, and mined on their terms.
“Now we control it,” a Cambridge Bay man said.