Mary River mine at a standstill as hunters’ blockades enter 5th day
Protesters across Nunavut join in solidarity, while 700 Baffinland employees affected by closure
A blockade of the Mary River iron mine entered its fifth day, as a group of hunters continued its protest of a proposed expansion of the mine. Baffinland Iron Mines Corp., the project’s owner, said the hunters demanded to be recognized as an Inuit association and be paid a portion of the royalties the mine generates.
Although Naymen Inuarak, one of the hunters at the mine site, didn’t use those words specifically, he did say the protest was about being heard and included.
“We would like to see actual negotiations with the most impacted communities and have us involved right away,” said Inuarak, in an interview via satellite phone.
“We’ve been ignored way too long.”
Late last Thursday, a group of seven hunters from Arctic Bay and Pond Inlet arrived at the mine site and shut down the airstrip and road that leads to Milne Inlet, in protest of the mine’s Phase 2 expansion.
There are more than 700 employees at the Mary River project who are affected by the blockades, according to a Baffinland news release issued Monday.
The closure of the airstrip means that all transfers of employees and contractors and all food and supply flights have been suspended.
For safety reasons, Baffinland says that the majority of its operations at the mine have been suspended.
The mining company also said that other north Baffin air traffic services provided by the Mary River airstrip, such as search and rescue, have been suspended.
Despite numerous meetings with organizers at the blockades and in Pond Inlet to relocate off the airstrip, Baffinland says the discussions have not progressed toward a resolution.
Inuarak says that the hunters’ group would like to continue negotiations but has still not heard back from Qikiqtani Inuit Association or Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.
He also says that there was an agreement between the hunters and Baffinland that was supposed to give the protesters access to their facilities and their internet but they’ve been cut off from those services.
“We wanted to ask some questions online and for them to answer,” said Inuarak.“Hopefully the negotiations go better.”
Inuarak also clarified that in the event of an emergency, such as a medevac, the group would temporarily vacate the airstrip.
The hunters blockaded the airstrip and mine last week to protest a proposed expansion of the mine, which was the subject of a Nunavut Impact Review Board hearing that began Jan. 25 and continued through Saturday before adjourning until March. Baffinland says it needs to expand the mine by building a 110-kilometre railroad to Milne Inlet in order to make it financially sustainable.
“Baffinland understands that requests have been made by the organizers to be recognized as a Designated Inuit Organization under the Nunavut Agreement and for a portion of the royalties payable by Baffinland under the Inuit Impact and Benefit Agreement to be paid directly to them,” said the release.
“Baffinland hears these requests, but has no right or ability to grant them,” the company said.
Inuarak said that Baffinland and the regional organizations should work directly with the most affected communities.
Meanwhile, protests in support of the hunters were held across the territory Monday afternoon.
What began as a protest in Naujaat in support of the hunters, organized by elder Donat Milortok, quickly expanded to Iqaluit, Igloolik and Taloyoak.
Milortok, a former president of Tunngavik Federation of Nunavut, the Inuit organization responsible for negotiating the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement in the 1980s and 1990s, called on Inuit everywhere to protest and call for fair hearings, letting the communities of Pond Inlet and Arctic Bay know that they aren’t alone.
“We have to support our fellow Inuit who are protesting at the Mary River mine while they are struggling to express serious concerns,” Milortok said in an emailed statement.
“Our concern is for the land and for future generations to enjoy the relationship we know with wildlife, animals and the oceans.”
In Iqaluit, roughly 30 residents met in front of the elders’ qammaq — a senior citizens community centre — in solidarity with the hunters. Among those in attendance were Paul Okalik, lead Arctic specialist with the World Wildlife Fund, Iqaluit Mayor Kenny Bell and city councillor Simon Nattaq.
“We all care about the well-being of our fellow Inuit regardless of where they live,” said Okalik. “I’m very proud of my fellow Inuit today.”
As the protests were unfolding across the territory, five more hunters were riding from Pond Inlet to the Baffinland mine site says Inuarak, which would increase the hunters’ group to 12
In addition to bringing supplies, the additional hunters will be joining the protest.
The Nunavut RCMP continues to monitor the situation, saying that the protesters are remaining peaceful.
Update: This story was updated on Feb. 9 to better reflect the objectives of the hunters group.