Nuluujaat Land Guardians — Newsmaker of 2021
Small group of protesters made big waves when they blockaded Mary River mine in February
They fueled up their snowmobiles and rode for hours across a frigid north Baffin Island landscape to a remote tote road and airstrip.
There, they set up tents under a dark February sky, lit bonfires and waited.
Then word got out. The group, who call themselves the Nuluujaat Land Guardians, were blockading access to the Mary River iron mine.
They oppose a proposed expansion of the mine, owned by Baffinland Iron Mines Corp. If it goes through, Mary River would double its output to 12 million tonnes of iron ore per year, which would increase shipping and come with the construction of an Arctic railway.
All of this extra activity would have a substantial environmental impact, argue people who live in surrounding communities like Pond Inlet, Igloolik and Arctic Bay.
If the expansion is approved, they believe the influx of boats, trucks and trains will scare away the caribou and narwhal that Inuit in the area depend on for sustenance.
The proposed expansion has been making its way through a Nunavut Impact Review Board public hearing for the past two years, a process that has come with its fair share of controversy. Community opposition and the COVID-19 pandemic have hampered proceedings, which has continued in fits and starts since late 2019.
Throughout the hearing, people from surrounding north Baffin communities have complained that representatives from Baffinland are not listening to their concerns.
That’s why the land guardians, named in court documents as Namen Inuavak, Tom Naqitarvik, Jonathan Pitula, Christopher Akeeagok, Andy Kalluk, John Doe and Jane Doe, decided to force Baffinland’s ear by blocking access to the mine.
The move had a stark effect on operations at the Mary River mine, which is nestled in the centre of a mountainous, frozen and remote north Baffin Island and hundreds of kilometres removed from the nearest community. The hundreds of people working at the Mary River mine at any given time depend on the airstrip for food, medical supplies and transportation.
The blockade stopped all activity at the airstrip. Nobody was allowed to come or go from the mine. The only exception, said the protesters at the time, was medical emergencies.
Operations ground to a standstill while the approximately 700 mine employees waited for a resolution.
The Nuluujaat Land Guardians thrust the proposed expansion into the international spotlight, inspiring Greenpeace to protest in Luxembourg.
In June, Nunavut’s then-MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq pressured Northern Affairs Minister Daniel Vandal to meet with the guardians, an invitation that was accepted.
The blockade also earned the protesters a court injunction, barring them from returning to the mine to obstruct operations there.
The question of whether Mary River mine should expand is a divisive one, as is the question of whether or not blockades — especially the sort that trap hundreds of people at a remote mine site for days — are an ethical form of protest.
But there is no debate that whatever call is made regarding the expansion will have economic, social and environmental impacts on Baffin Island and the rest of Nunavut. If approved, more money, more people and more ships will flow to the area, bringing a plethora of good and bad consequences. If denied, Baffinland has said Mary River mine could be mothballed.
The Nunavut Impact Review Board public hearing wrapped up Nov. 6 and from there, the board will make a recommendation to Northern Affairs Minister Daniel Vandal. There is no official timeline for when that recommendation could come.
But eventually, Vandal will uncap his pen from behind a desk in Ottawa, thousands of kilometres removed from the mine, its hundreds of employees, the nearby communities, the narwhal, the caribou and the hunters who rely on wildlife to feed their families.
The Nuluujaat Land Guardians held their blockade because they wanted the world to know they didn’t feel heard, and their efforts earned them an audience with the man who gets final say.
They added their voices to the debate over the future of Mary River mine, and the outcome of that debate will no doubt affect the future of Nunavut itself.
For that, the Nuluujaat Land Guardians earned the title of Nunatsiaq News’s Newsmaker of 2021.