'We have a convoluted and complex regulatory system'
No fix in sight for Nunavut's red-tape jungle
If there's one clear message that mining bosses wanted to deliver at last week's Nunavut Mining Symposium in Iqaluit, it's this: Nunavut's red-tape jungle, centred on the Nunavut land claims agreement, threatens to strangle their industry.
But the response they heard from those who run that system – except for Nunavut government officials who have little power to change anything – suggests there's no quick fix in sight.
Mining companies have muttered under their breath for years about Nunavut's complex environmental regulatory system, quietly complaining that it takes too much time to get the permits and licences they need to start their job-creating exploration and mine projects.
But at a public forum moderated by Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson this past April 18 at Iqaluit's Inuksuk High School, those complaints got louder.
Mike Vaydik, general manager of the Northwest Territories-Nunavut Chamber of Mines, said the mining industry believes Nunavut's regulatory bureaucracy is one of the worst in the world to deal with.
And he said most bureaucrats don't appreciate that this threatens to scare off the investors whose money pays for mineral exploration and development in the territory.
"We're trying to make them understand how big a detriment this is to mining investment," Vaydik said.
GN wants streamlined system
Organizers structured the entire symposium to make that point. On the opening day, Nunavut Premier Paul Okalik started it all off by telling miners he stands with them in their desire to streamline Nunavut's regulatory regime and that if Nunavut were in charge of its natural resources, he would clear the red tape jungle.
"For too long, you have told me that Nunavut is a difficult place to do business," Okalik said.
And at the symposium's closing banquet April 20, the guest speaker was Fred McMahon of the Fraser Institute, a Vancouver-based think-tank that favours free markets and smaller government. The Fraser Institute's annual opinion surveys reveal that Nunavut's regulatory system has a bad reputation with the mining industry.
Even Government of Nunavut civil servants now feel free to publicly criticize Nunavut's land-claims-based environmental protection system.
"We have a convoluted and complex regulatory system… In making this structure there were too many lawyers and not enough engineers and geologists," Gordon Mackay, the Nunavut government's director of mining, told miners at a session last Friday.
The GN's finance and economic development minister, David Simailak, also agrees. He told the town hall gathering that the territorial government is committed to removing barriers to business, and cited a review of those barriers that his officials started some time ago.
System entrenched within NLCA
But for miners and those who support them, there may be no easy way of draining Nunavut's bureaucratic swamp – because much of it is entrenched within the Nunavut land claims agreement.
Nunavut's environmental protection system centres on the web of co-management boards set up in 1992 and 1993 under the land claims deal: the Nunavut Impact Review Board, the Nunavut Water Board, and the Nunavut Planning Commission.
On top of that, there's another web of federal and territorial bureaucracies whose functionaries feed on that system. This includes the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Environment Canada, Health Canada and territorial government agencies such as the Department of the Environment.
And on top of those layers, there's yet another web made up of Inuit bodies such as Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., the regional Inuit associations, the regional birthright corporations, and local and regional hunters and trappers organizations.
"There are 20 to 25 groups you have to deal with. It's very hard to please everybody all the time," Greg Missal, the Tahera Corp.'s vice-president of regulatory affairs, told the public forum.
It took more than two years for Tahera's Jericho Mine, the first to steer its way through Nunavut's regulatory system, to receive all the permits, licences and leases needed to operate a mine.
"It's a gruelling process," Missal said.
But Ed Picco, Nunavut's minister of education, reminded participants at the town hall forum that past developments, such as the DEW line, have scarred the land and created a huge environmental liability that is still being cleaned up.
"We have to protect our constituents. You have to protect your shareholders and we have to protect our constituents," Picco said.
And Paul Kaludjak, the president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., said Inuit did not negotiate the land claims agreement to stop mining.
For those who complain about Nunavut's regulatory system, Exhibit One is the Miramar Mining Corp.'s Doris North gold mine proposal, which has languished inside Nunavut's regulatory system since 2002.
After staff at the Nunavut Water Board asked Miramar, in a 43-page letter last December, to re-submit their water licence application, Miramar's backers in the Kitikmeot blew a fuse.
Facing enormous pressure from an enraged Kitikmeot Inuit Association, the water board solved the problem by firing their executive director, Phillipe di Pizzo, a move that provoked the resignations of four other key staff members.
But past efforts to reform the system in a gentler manner have failed, especially attempts to created a so-called "one-window" service for mining companies.
Stephanie Briscoe, the executive director of the impact review board, said the planning commission tried to create an internet-based scheme called "PLANNER," which won numerous public service awards several years ago.
Under it, the commission created a simple web-site where all developers and bureaucrats could deposit, or download, documents related to permit and licence applications.
But the "PLANNER" plan fizzled, Briscoe said, because nobody bought into it.
Briscoe told the public forum that her small agency has performed more than 1,000 screenings, despite being underfunded to the tune of about a million dollars a year.
To lighten the impact review board's workload, she said they're now seeking an exemption that would excuse them from having to do time-consuming screenings of wildlife research projects and small quarries.
"I think it needs to be recognized that Nunavut is difficult for everybody. I do agree that there is room for improvement," Briscoe said.
An audio transcript of the town hall forum is available on the internet at: www.nunavutminingsymposium.ca.