Nuluujaat Land Guardians — Newsmaker of 2021

Small group of protesters made big waves when they blockaded Mary River mine in February

The Nuluujaat Land Guardians, a group of protesters opposed to the proposed expansion of the Mary River mine, set up a blockade in February 2021 focusing international attention on their fight with Baffinland Iron Mines Corp. over a proposal they said would disrupt caribou and narwhal habitat, threatening Inuit traditional way of life. (Photo from Nunavut Court of Justice)

By Randi Beers

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.

In the end, the blockade lasted a week, and cost the company approximately $14 million.

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.

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(8) Comments:

  1. Posted by Imitation of Irony on

    “But eventually, a Nunatsiaq News reporter l will uncap their pen from behind a desk in who knows where, 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.”

    • Posted by Media Studies 101 on

      Nice work.. note that nothing is mentioned about the mine also being a relied on as a source of subsistence for many families in the region.

      Why the imbalance?

      • Posted by Aura of Importance on

        As I saw someone sagely note a while back, hunters have become fetishized in Nunavut, the same way “family farmers” are in many places down south. The fact the vast majority of the people are, at best, only part time hunters or may never hunt at all, isn’t important. The fact that the Inuit population of Nunavut, unless they have a massive population drop, cannot ever rely on hunting again for the majority of their food, isn’t important. All that matters is that hunters are the only people who matter, apparently.

  2. Posted by Skills to pay the bills on

    Nothing about a couple of prominent families trying to shake down the mine for a bigger taste of the article 24 grease.
    Nor about one member of those families quietly getting tossed off the QIA board and replaced because …?
    Spare us the simple indigenous vs industry tropes.
    So many facets of this story are missing.
    We really could use a Jim Bell lately. They don’t make them like they used to.

  3. Posted by Injunction on

    A colossal delay by Nunavut Court of Justice for what was a grade 1 legal decision on an injunction.
    This was borderline domestic terrorism.

  4. Posted by Truestory on

    When these protesters ran out of food, fuel, the mine actually provided these supplements. Bunch of hypocrites.

    • Posted by John A O’BRIEN on

      It seems like someone’s looking for some extra “TeaMoney”!( It’s the way it is, some are just more entitled than others ! The unwritten law of “Entitlement “!
      As for all these “Alleged” so-called hunters living off the land ? Times are a changing so get used to it , adjust !

  5. Posted by Roland Chénier on

    We had a similar problem about the survival of whales end the traffick on the Saguenay… and we believe that our environment is important. Sox we voted against the possible invasion of boat traffick on the Saguenay.

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