Critical minerals hailed by GN could be locked away by land-use plan
3 ongoing exploration projects in territory stand to be hemmed in by limited-use areas
As the federal government gears up to spend billions in an effort to become a world leader in mining critical minerals, some say the latest draft of Nunavut’s land-use plan could effectively lock up the territory’s supply for good.
“You’ve got tremendous geology all around Nunavut that can hold some of these minerals,” said Tom Hoefer, executive director of Nunavut’s chamber of mines. “So it’s a good opportunity for future growth.”
As the world’s economies shift toward low-carbon energy, China controls much of the critical mineral supply chain needed to power that shift.
In December 2022, Canada’s federal government announced it will put $3.8 billion toward cracking open its own reserves.
The government maintains an interactive critical minerals map that lists more than 175 exploration sites across the country, as well as 56 mines.
Of those, three exploration projects are located in Nunavut: MMG Ltd.’s Izok Lake and High Lake sites, located in the Kitikmeot region, hold zinc, copper, silver, lead and gold; and Canadian North Resources Inc.’s Ferguson Lake, in the Kivalliq region, carries potential for nickel, copper, palladium, platinum and cobalt.
Meanwhile, a long-sought land-use plan for Nunavut is sitting with its signatories — the Canadian government, Nunavut government and Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. — for consideration.
Plan could ‘strand’ projects: senator
A land-use plan for Nunavut is mandated under the Nunavut Agreement. It’s meant to balance economic development with environmental protection. But four drafts and 16 years later, the parties have yet to come to an agreement on what that balance should look like.
Ferguson Lake lies in an area that would be designated as limited use under the latest draft of the plan, while MMG’s High Lake and Izok Lake are surrounded by limited-use land.
Neither MMG nor Canadian North Resources responded to requests for comment for this story.
New exploration and mining projects stand to be banned in limited-use areas because of environmental concerns. Even though existing exploration projects and mines will see their development approvals grandfathered in, they will be limited to their existing footprint.
On top of that, much of the land proposed to be locked away in the land-use plan has never been explored for critical minerals, according to Hoefer.
“If we have deposits that are now constrained by limited use areas, it will make investors shy away from investing in Nunavut,” he said.
Nunavut Senator Dennis Patterson shares Hoefer’s concern.
“The draft Nunavut land-use plan, without revision, in my opinion, strands known or existing projects with potential to become mines,” Patterson said.
Critical minerals seen as Nunavut’s ‘future’
Yet, with this draft in hand, all signs point to the GN being keen on opening up Nunavut’s critical minerals.
“Diversifying our mining sector into critical minerals is where the future is [and that is] where I see the future for Nunavut,” said Paul Budkewitsch, manager of mineral resources with the Department of Economic Development.
He’s quick to note the plan is only a draft, but acknowledges it creates “a lot of uncertainty.”
The GN’s current mineral exploration and mining strategy dates back to 2009 and does not include critical minerals, but the department is planning to update it by the end of 2024.
For David Akeeagok, minister of economic development and minister responsible for mines, the end goal for Nunavut is to be economically self-sufficient — and to do that, Nunavut must dig.
“One of my key messages to [the federal government is], ‘We need to untap the resources here,’” he said.
What about Gray’s Bay road?
But with no roads to Nunavut, it’s very expensive for mining companies to export their ore from the territory.
One dream to eliminate that barrier is the $554-million Gray’s Bay Road and Port project, which would serve a particularly mineral-rich area of Nunavut called the Slave Geological province.
The all-weather road would link this region to supply chains in the south via a winter road that leads to Yellowknife and Gray’s Bay port to the north. It’s been touted as a nation-building project.
Senator Patterson said that Inuit groups, the GN and private interests are all “keenly” aware of the road and port’s potential to make a significant amount of possible mineral deposits more accessible.
“Once the regulatory process begins, it’ll be natural to seek federal infrastructure funds from the critical minerals strategy to help build it,” he said.
But it’s unclear if anyone in Nunavut is pushing the project forward, after the Kitikmeot Inuit Association backed out of the role late last year.
The KIA had taken the lead on the project after the GN pulled out in 2018.
Nunatsiaq News has reached out to the GN to ask if the territorial government has taken on Gray’s Bay once again, but has not received a reply.
Talking to Nunavummiut
As for Nunavut MP Lori Idlout, she said she is less concerned about the potential of critical minerals than she is about the federal government’s strategy to get at them.
She admits she hasn’t closely read the strategy but points out it includes goals to speed up the regulation and consultation process.
Idlout, a lawyer, has a background of advocating for Inuit who oppose development on their land when it harms wildlife they depend on for subsistence.
Most recently, she represented a group of hunters from Pond Inlet who blockaded the air strip and tote road to the Mary River iron mine in protest of a proposed expansion of the mine. That expansion was eventually rejected.
“I’m leaning towards becoming anti-mining, but I know how important critical minerals are for the functioning of our societies,” Idlout said.