Mining is no quick fix
Those who still believe that mining and oil gas development represent a quick-fix solution to Nunavut’s financial and economic problems should think again.
The Cameco Corporation’s suspension of exploration activities in Nunavut this summer demonstrates that mining still gives rise to complicated environmental, political and economic issues that take years to resolve.
Yes, the Nunavut land claim agreement may have created “certainty” as to who has legal title to land in the Arctic, and it may have created a new bureaucratic system for ensuring shared management of what happens on the land. But it cannot erase deeply-rooted political and economic realities, especially those that surround controversial activities such as uranium mining.
It would be easy to blame Nunavut Tunngavik officials for dragging their feet on the issue of uranium mining on land in which Inuit beneficiaries own the subsurface. But it would be unfair to do so. It’s not NTI’s job to make life easy for mining companies. It’s NTI’s job to protect the interests of beneficiaries.
NTI, as many beneficiaries already know, is responsible for directly managing all parcels of land in which Inuit own the subsurface. They have decided that, for now, there will be no exploration for uranium on land where Inuit own the subsurface.The Saskatchewan-based Cameco Corporation wants access to this Inuit-owned-subsurface land, and they are not happy that NTI has yet to give it to them.
So Cameco is now exerting what looks like a form of economic blackmail in an attempt to persuade NTI officials to change their minds.
“Apart from the resource industry, I’m not quite sure where Nunavut is going to get any taxes from, other than federal government handouts,” a Cameco official told Nunatsiaq News last week. “So in order to get their house in order, all I’m saying is, the sooner that you guys can make up your minds on the uranium issue, the quicker we can get on with business.”
However, if NTI officials are going to change the organization’s policy on uranium mining, they should do so on their own terms, and not those set by the mining industry.
Uranium mining is a special case, raising environmental and moral issues not associated with other forms of mining. Uranium is a radioactive substance that must be handled with extreme caution. In the Kivalliq region, known deposits of uranium intersect with known caribou calving areas. Not so long ago, in the late 1980s, the people of Baker Lake voted overwhelmingly against a uranium mining proposal put forward by a German multinational corporation called Urangesellschaft.
For NTI officials, the question of allowing uranium mining is a sensitive political issue that they must approach cautiously. They must obtain the support of the affected communities after first providing them with adequate information about the issue.
It may be true that the Cameco Corporation has a good record of working with the Dene people of northern Saskatchewan, where Cameco operates two profitable uranium mines. It may be true that Cameco operates those mines in an environmentally safe manner.
But that is no reason for rushing to a careless decision on uranium mining. Nunavut residents don’t need to be reminded that mining jobs are badly needed in the new territory, and that new sources of revenue are badly needed by the new government.
It is a decision that will take time, like many other proposals for new mines that will surely follow. That means that mining, for all of its promise is an industry that will likely grow slowly, over decades, and even generations. Mining will surely play role in Nunavut’s future. But it is no quick or easy solution to Nunavut’s economic problems. JB