Mary River mine blockade highlights Nunavut Agreement’s fatal flaw

The land claim agreement empowers Inuit organizations — and disempowers Inuit communities

Protesters block the Mary River tote road with a tent and kamotiks on Feb. 5. (Nunavut Court of Justice photo)

By Jim Bell

All of us who care about Nunavut will be relieved that the protesters who occupied the Mary River mine’s airstrip and tote road for most of this past week have decided to end their blockade.

Because in doing so, they’ve avoided a potentially ugly confrontation.

The protesters, who call themselves the Nuluujaat Land Guardians, blockaded Baffinland Iron Mines Corp.’s mine on north Baffin over this past week to oppose its proposed expansion, and to protest the Qikiqtani Inuit Association’s role in the process.

The expansion, which is still before a public hearing, would double the mine’s output and see a 110-kilometre railway combined with up to 176 ship-transits through the environmentally sensitive waters of Eclipse Sound.

Late Feb. 11, Justice Susan Charlesworth signed an interim injunction in the Nunavut Court of Justice that authorized the RCMP — if necessary — to remove and detain anyone who continues to obstruct access to the Mary River mine.

So we owe a debt of gratitude to Pond Inlet Mayor Joshua Arreak, who proposed a face-saving option that lets the protesters abandon their blockade without having to admit defeat: a future meeting with officials from QIA and Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.

The Nuluujaat Guardians said yes to that offer and are now making plans to head home.

But what led to all this?

The answer likely lies within the Nunavut land claims agreement, which NTI now prefers to call the “Nunavut Agreement.”

That’s because the Nunavut Agreement contains next to nothing for Inuit communities. Instead, it’s a land management system that empowers Inuit organizations.

It does this through “designated Inuit organizations.” That’s legal jargon for any organization that NTI’s board authorizes to act on its behalf.

Through this system, the Qikiqtani Inuit Association became the manager of the region’s Inuit-owned lands and ended up as Baffinland Iron Mines Corp.’s only Inuit landlord.

Because of the cash that Baffinland is now shovelling into QIA’s coffers — commercial lease payments, royalties, and fees — QIA became a rich, powerful landlord.

For example, in 2018, Baffinland poured $33.4 million into QIA. In 2019, $11.2 million. By the end of the 2019-20 fiscal year, the market value of QIA’s legacy fund, which holds and invests these moneys, stood at $61.7 million.

And what does Pond Inlet and the other affected communities get? Not much — essentially, they get whatever benefits QIA decides to throw at them. That includes some benefits contained in the Inuit Certainty Agreement, which QIA struck with Baffinland during negotiations over the proposed mine expansion.

That’s because, except for municipal lands held by the hamlet government, Pond Inlet owns nothing. And because Pond Inlet owns nothing, the community possesses little bargaining power.

At the same time, many Inuit in Pond Inlet still believe they’re the rightful owners of the Nuluujaat lands, and should therefore receive royalty payments from Mary River mine. But legally, they’re not entitled to anything.

That fatal flaw in the land claims agreement has been on full display for years, ever since Baffinland Iron Mines Corp.’s expansion proposal landed within Nunavut’s regulatory system in 2014.

To participate in that regulatory process, the QIA enjoys nearly unlimited resources.

Communities, on the other hand, must make do with whatever intervenor funds they can scrape together from the federal government. It’s with these limited resources that they’ve been questioning Baffinland about the expansion project’s mostly unknown potential impacts on marine mammals and caribou.

And before we go any further, it’s worth reminding readers that this regulatory system is not a colonial imposition. It’s a creature of the Nunavut Agreement, developed by Inuit negotiators, embraced by Inuit voters in 1992 and for 27 years celebrated by Inuit beneficiaries across the territory every July 9.

The Nunavut Impact Review Board, which has yet to complete its assessment of the Mary River expansion, sits at the centre of that Inuit-designed system.

And yet the Nuluujaat protesters weren’t even willing to wait for the review board to finish its work before driving their snowmobiles all the way to Mary River during the coldest month of the year to set up blockades.

Their actions may have been foolish and dangerous. But the frustration they expressed is genuine and well-founded.

So when NTI and QIA sit down to meet with them, and with other representatives from Pond Inlet and the other affected communities, these two powerful Inuit organizations had better be willing to be flexible.

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(40) Comments:

  1. Posted by doe on

    QIA members should start using
    the BAFFINLAND sponsor logo

  2. Posted by Northern Inuit on

    well said. it’s a flaw that has been highlighted and put in the spotlight since these ‘land guardians’ (insert major eyeroll here) set foot on the Mine.

    historically the Mines have been very opening and assisted in Search and Rescue, donations to Communities and had a Rappaport with our People. not only in Baffin Region but others as well. how will this affect in the future, will they be so welcoming should a Hunter in the future request help or will they look in suspicion?

    I find it very troubling this newly formed “Designated Inuit Organization” basically held up operations for a week, limiting critical medical and food supplies and preventing Workers for going in and out of the mine, how were their pay affected? as you know, you don’t play, you don’t pay.

    over Royalties. because they can spew all the amount of rhetoric of ‘Guardians of the Galaxy……erm Land” all they want. but at the end of the day, it all comes down to money and damn knows I don’t have enough.

  3. Posted by Planner 1 on

    You forgot the Land Use Plan. Oh yes, we still don’t have one and I can’t see us getting one until all the land is gone.

  4. Posted by Unwittingly on

    Very nice summary. Would love to see it translated and handed out in all of the affected communities so that residents actually understand the agreement and the rules that they agreed to be bound by when they voted for the NLCA. Could we get it read over the radio before bingo too?

    This is an inter-Inuit issue between the RIOs and hamlets, but Baffinland has been drawn into it quite unwittingly.

  5. Posted by Grateful on

    Thank you Jim Bell for such a well balanced article. A pleasure to read your work.

  6. Posted by Observer on

    You’ve overlooked one rather glaring issue that many of the people protesting or pontificating about this have ignored.
    Hamlets are not Inuit organizations.
    This editorial, like so many of the things people have been saying ignores the rather important distinction between the Inuit organizations which are party to the agreement, which includes the HTOs, and the hamlets which are not. The hamlet, even if everyone on council is Inuit, DO NOT REPRESENT INUIT. They represent the people who live in their hamlet; *all* the people who live in their hamlet. Even if the population is 95% Inuit, the hamlet is not a First Nations reservation, it is a community run by a public government, with services provided to all members of the community.
    If ownership of Inuit Owned Land parcels were given to the communities, it would mean Inuit would be giving up sole ownership and would, in effect, be giving it to the territorial government, which is the ultimate authority over the hamlets. You’d get control over land controlled by those Iqaluit-based QIA people and…giving control to Iqaluit based GN people, many non-Inuit.

    • Posted by No Such Thing on

      I have long hated the phrase “Inuit-hamlet” as there is no such thing.

      There is a reason that the press no longer say “Muslim country” but instead say “Muslim-majority country”. The same approach should be taken to hamlets as they don’t have an ethnicity and are becoming more diverse.

    • Posted by Horatio Hornblower on

      I’m not sure how is this really a relevant point to the article?

      • Posted by Relevant on

        The writer’s point is clear and relevant to me. The article and comments made it clear that hamlets are not “Inuit organizations”, and that the hamlets don’t represent Inuit, but rather represent their residents. This is an offshoot of that point. Not the main point, but relevant.

    • Posted by Missing the Point on

      Observer You are correct Hamlets represent everyone not just Inuit. Jim is pointing out that compared to other mines in Canada the nearby community is often the benefactor of support for social and economic opportunities. Because QIA and NTI have no mandate to take care of communities. The Nunavut Agreement created organization that can gain all the wealth from resource extraction yet has not mandate or legal obligation to address housing, health, recreation, water treatment, or community infrastructure. Hamlets and the GN are left begging the Federal Government for more funds while NTI and the RIAs sit on billions of dollars. The NTI trust alone was near $2 billion. Yet we still have overcrowding, gravel airstrips no support for recreation or youth programing. If communities do not see improvements to quality of life they will not support mining. This is what is happening now!

      • Posted by Shadow Government or Investment Trust on

        I think you’ve put your finger on it here – and this was the frustrating shortfall of Jim’s analysis. We’re all dancing around the question of whether the benefits of resource development have created NTI and QIA as a shadow government beholden to their constituents for immediate disbursement of these funds, or wether they are essentially vehicles, like sovereign wealth funds, designed to hold benefits in trust for the future.

        The truth is that no one (except Arcelor) is making enough money. QIA should be getting more royalties, and perhaps some of those should flow to the most impacted communities, but the GN should also be receiving a more significant tax revenue from the project – which they should be spending in communities. This project is massive, with a 99 year projected lifespan. It is also perhaps (aside from oil and gas under Baffin Bay – but we won’t get into that) the most significant asset that the Qikiqtaaluk has – as such these revenues are the ceiling (all other projects – whether that’s the DeBeers project they bought from Peregrine or anything else – will be smaller with smaller potential royalties etc.). That ceiling is too low.

        I worry that a lot of these discussions point out the figures held by these various bodies as somehow representative of huge and transformative wealth. That’s only accurate in the short term if you ignore the long term.

      • Posted by Missing the bigger picture on

        Funny you mention NTI trust of nearly 2 billion, what does the GN get annually from Ottawa? Nearly 2 billion annually, yes annually, what does the GN do with all that money annually? For 40,000 people, with your thinking maybe it’s better just to split the nearly 2 billion the GN gets and just give it to the people. The NTI trust is a one time payment unlike the annual transfer of nearly 2 billion the GN receives.
        Talk about missing the point

        • Posted by You missed the bigger picture on

          Yes the GN gets almost $2 billion annually from the feds. And what do they have to do with that 2 billion each year:
          Provide health care to everyone
          Fund QEC, All schools, social assistance, public housing, airports, fuel delivery, fund hamlets for operations, justice department, run the jail, mental health, medical travel, do i need to continue? They take on everything. What does NTI and RIAs get federal and royalty funds to operate and monitor agreements. During covid they did not even use there own revenues or money to assist Inuit they used the Federal pass thrus! NTI and the RIAs as the only public organization in the territory that have own source revenues. The GN small revenues do not even come close to cover all its costs. NTI needs to leverage their funds with private and public to improve quality of life for Inuit. Not just fill up the bank account.

          • Posted by Missing the bigger picture on

            Nearly 2 billion annually for 40,000 people, huge amount of money the GN receives and the level of service we receive don’t match up.
            The Bigger picture here is why the GN can not provide the level of service that is needed wth nearly 2 billion annually.
            Again nearly 2 billion annually and you are crying about a one time payment for the same amount.

    • Posted by JCR on

      Under the land claims, all Nunavut communities are recognized as Inuit communities.

      • Posted by Really? on

        It doesn’t say that. At all. It makes it quite clear the municipal governments (the “municipal corporations”) have that status through the Government of Nunavut and are not Inuit entities.

    • Posted by Runaround on

      Surely you mean the non-Inuit QIA as well? Look at their Director level positions… what’s the % of Inuit? They get around it with Assistant Directors etc.

    • Posted by Northern Guy on

      You are flouting the same nonsensical logic that has hamstrung Inuit organizations and the Government of Nunavut since division. Your narrow legalistic interpretation is counter productive. Officials who are elected by a majority Inuit population and serve a majority Inuit population represent the interests of that population whether at the Territorial or community level. The fact that you prefer not to acknowledge this has no bearing on reality.

      • Posted by You are partially correct on

        They do, but not merely that population.

  7. Posted by Benefisherie 9321 on

    13000.00 people of baffin island should be all accountable for any royalties there for we are ALL effected by all means. 13000 people times 60.7 mill why not invest 150 mill n close yhe mine for 10 years bamm we get 20k plus roaylties

    • Posted by Northern Inuit on

      By your reasoning all of Nunavut Inuit should share in the royalties. Hell divvy it up to all regions.

      Oh yeah, Baffin is the centre of Nunavut and let the other regions figure their own problems out.

  8. Posted by Frank Tester on

    The article ‘hits the nail on the head’.

    There is nothing to stop QIA from sharing its resources with the Hamlet in a meaningful and significant way. There is a clause in the Inuit Certainty Agreement for the Mary River Project that allows them to sell, or transfer royalties to the Hamlet. There is nothing to stop QIA from supporting badly needed social and economic development in Pond Inlet.

    Section 25 of the Nunavut Agreement set up much of the problem. It created organizations with a responsibility for protecting Inuit rights, language, and culture. The right to hunt and to relate to land and animals in a way that reflects the teachings of IQ is part of that responsibility.

    But section 25 also sets up NTI and QIA to be beneficiaries of any resource development on Inuit lands. Reconciling the protection of rights with the money from resource development was guaranteed to create the tangled mess we have in front of us. No surprise. Protecting the $ coming from resource development seems to have trumped other responsibilities.

    The Inuit Certainty Agreement and the plans for Adaptive Management are attempts to manage this conflict; a case of trying to ‘have one’s cake, and eat it to’. I give QIA credit for trying, but its a road filled with some pretty big and unavoidable potholes. I personally have doubts that it will work in dealing with competing interests and concerns. The result could be an environmental disaster with respect to the fate of a protected marine environment and narwhal population parallel to what happened to the Newfoudland cod fishery.

    Pond Inlet could be one of the most remarkable tourist destinatons on the planet. It just needs the resources and commitment to doing something that would create meaningful jobs at home, and respect and show the world a remarkable culture, way of life and ‘ways of making sense’ from which my culture has much to learn. But not with a string of ore carriers cruising through the view all season long.

    Frank Tester is Technical Advisor to the Hamlet of Pond Inlet with regard to the Mary River Project.

    • Posted by Ian on

      Frank Tester, you talk about pond inlet as one of the best tourist destinations on the planet, oh wow beautiful place and it is , but if you lived on this planet, and had to buy your own plane ticket , back and forth you would realize how much it cost , and would never visit Pond inlet , unless somebody else bought your ticket , and paid your hotel bill and meals , come back to planet earth frank

  9. Posted by Voice of the unheard on

    As usual Jim has given us a very good Editorial and also well researched! I’m embarrassed with our Inuit leadership for not keeping the public informed. Look at the Millions given to QIA while Inuit lack housing , food , Basic needs! I am SHOCKED!! QIA you got millions and so that must be with KIA! You cannot say we can’t help INUIT! You are loaded with enough money to build all the houses for Nunavut Beneficiaries and build ELDER CARE HOMES and MORE! NTI also have too much money they don’t know what to do with- IGNORANT People! NTI and QIA should not be commanded to meet face to face with the Communities, it’s their crazy jobs!
    Frank must have written this from the Hamlet of Pond Inlet as one of the conditions to stop the blockade – Having the QIA and NTI acknowledge this concerns and confirm that ” they understood and appreciated” Who are we ? Little children?

  10. Posted by Umingmak on

    The majority of people support the mine. It’s just a few fringe extremists pulling these stunts.

  11. Posted by pissed off on

    Well said again Jim.

    The problems with this situation are many.
    We heard all week that “ this is Inuit land“ “ this is Pond Inlet land “ “this is my land“ Etc..

    This is one major problem that the land stewardship and management is not well understood and accepted by a great deal of the Inuit of Nunavut.

    The other issue is who speaks for who ??
    When you elect a group of people they become the leading group within their specific jurisdiction. That`s is not well understood and accepted either.

    The other problem is the rule of law.
    That`s not well understood and accepted either.

    Should I say anything about the level of competence and understanding of those elected or picked for these committees about the job at hand and the scope of their assignments.
    How about the responsabilities and duty to those who elected you of doing a proper job ?
    Should I continue ???????

    The present situation is extremely flawed at all levels of civil society in Nunavut.

    It will take a long time to sort it out I am afraid.


  12. Posted by solidarity forever on

    It’s unfortunate that the Baffinland workers who wrote an open letter to the protesters didn’t cc Nunatsiaq News on it, as Nunatsiaq News is Nunavut’s paper of record. The letter can be read at “We recognize the Inuit as the rightful custodians of this land … You’ve said that it is not the workers you are upset with, but the Baffinland executives, and we would like to say that our support is also not with our superiors in the company, but with you.” The letter is a powerful statement of solidarity, and shows that anti-colonial solidarity is possible among workers in extractive industries.

  13. Posted by Truestory on

    The affected communities should get together and start an organization instead of relying on Q.I.A.. I think it would be more beneficial for the affected communities. Q.I.A. has their own money making business ventures.

  14. Posted by Jen on

    Comments written by southerners that dont have a clue clutter these misinformed, adjendaed, and bias articles. I’m glad all the real, true press on this is not in english!

    • Posted by Poli-Pie on

      This is an interesting observation.

      Similarly, I don’t know which is worse, southerners who fawn over an imagined, archetypal Inuk (who, coincidentally, is a vision of opposites, representing all they hate about themselves), or the ones who speak right over Inuit and pay little regard to their thoughts and concerns, imagining them in a kind of unidimensional, stereotyped monochrome…

      Come to think of it, those two are exactly the same.

      I’m really curious what language the ‘true press’ on this issue is, and where I can find it? Hint?

  15. Posted by Steve on

    I’ve never agreed with Jim much with his one sided stories over the years and again for the most part disagree with his limited view and story telling on this complex issue.
    Jim does not include the thousands of hours of community meetings that went into this and decisions coming together with community consultations. Much more has gone on to make it where it is today and that is missing here.
    I just don’t agree with Jim’s simplistic view of this when it is much more dynamic and much more involved.
    In fact I am a little bit surprised by Jim’s simplicity in this article and helping to create divisions with just a narrow point of view on this issue, it really does not cover the whole picture. Just what Jim sees or doesn’t see or want you to know.
    Again I don’t take much out of Jim’s opinions especially towards Inuit. I am hoping more will come out and we can see more of the picture and better understand this issue.

  16. Posted by Camper on

    If Jim really looked into this further he would see that it’s a certain family that is trying to block this second phase and trying to set up a organization for their benefit, the ones camping at the airstrip and that family are looking at dollar signs more then the environment and using the environment to try and get their way.
    It’s been going on for some time now. This will come out more and more. It comes down to putting money into their pockets and leaving nothing for the future generations.

  17. Posted by The Fatal Flaw is….. on

    Small inuit community that doesn’t vote in board members to QIA? Expect to get very little.
    Then again, why should one Inuit community benefit from a mine more than others?

  18. Posted by Snapshot on

    At least we know one thing, QIA and NTI have never done enough to INUIT they represent.

    I read a revised 2016 ‘QIA’s Code of Conduct Policy’ today and what baffled me the most was there are so many statements after statements about following ‘Executive Committee.’ If you get out of line then that is considered “a breach of duty.” Punishable of discharged from being a Director.
    So if you don’t do what President, VP, and Secretary Treasurer says then your fired.

    I thought this only happens in Dictatorship countries. Nope, turns out QIA has secretly been doing that since they revised it in 2016.

    Ladies and gentleman, our Inuit Organization has made QIA a Dictatorship company.


    • Posted by Snapshot on

      *… our Inuit Organization has become a QIA Dictatorship organisation.

    • Posted by Piitaqanngi on

      Is the supposed Inuit Organization even Inuit? It is run by non-Inuit and their policies and procedures were developed by non-Inuit. The Code of Conduct was probably the same. The only Inuit in that organization are the elected officials and low level employees run by non-Inuit.

    • Posted by Another Fatal Flaw on

      Is that these orgs were originally conceived of as companies and are run as such. Companies have different expectations than social development organizations.

  19. Posted by Northern Guy on

    Well said! This twisted and deliberately misapplied “land claim” logic is the number one reason why Inuit Organizations to sit on millions if not hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue while their constituents languish in substandard housing and poverty. If NTI and thr RIAs were half as interested in supporting the well being of Inuit as they are in empire building and calling out the failings of government, Nunavut would be well on its way to permanently resolving these kinds of issues.

    • Posted by From the north on

      I think you need to learn why these funds are being invested and why it’s not spent right away. Why it’s going into programs.
      Can you also focus on the GN and ask them about housing and so on? After all they are responsible for most of what is needed with their huge budget.

  20. Posted by Volunteer on

    Can this be translated so it can be printed and pass around to elders?

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