Nunavut’s top five news stories of 2019

The big events that shook the territory last year

As the year drew to a close, the future of Baffinland’s Mary River iron mine was shrouded in uncertainty, in what may the biggest test that Nunavut’s land claim based regulatory system has ever faced. (File photo)

By Jim Bell

The list that follows doesn’t necessarily represent our most popular or most-read news stories, though in some cases they do.

But in our estimation, they’re the stories that shook up the territory the most and, for better or worse, represent harbingers of long-term change in the years to come.

1. The Mary River mine’s uncertain future

When Baffinland Iron Mines Corp. announced the layoffs of 586 contract workers last November, more than 20,000 of you flocked to our website to read our story about it.

But that’s only one indication of this story’s continuing significance for Nunavut and for Canada.

The Nunavut Impact Review Board sits at the heart of the family of environmental co-management boards, called “institutions of public government,” that the Nunavut Agreement created in the early 1990s.

Through those institutions of public government, Inuit and government share the power to regulate all manner of projects in Nunavut, in the spirit of sustainable development.

And with Baffinland’s phase-two expansion project, which proposes a railway, 176 ship transits and increased ore production, the land-claim-based regulatory system faces its biggest test yet.

The company’s current proposal involves the start of a mining project that could produce jobs and business opportunities within the region at least until the end of this century, as well as many millions of dollars’ worth of royalty and commercial land-lease payments to Inuit organizations.

On the other hand, people from Pond Inlet and other affected communities fear the project will inflict damage to the environment that cannot be mitigated.

As the year drew to a close, we still didn’t know when the NIRB will resume its stalled assessment of the project, and we still don’t know how regulators will achieve the balance between environmental protection and economic development that is implied in the term “sustainable development.”

Until they get that figured out, the economic future of the entire territory remains uncertain.

2. Nunavut voters reject the Trudeau Liberals

The election of Mumilaaq Qaqqaq of the New Democratic Party to Nunavut’s seat in the House of Commons this past Oct. 25 was a stunning reversal for the Liberal Party of Canada.

Mumilaaq Qaqqaq’s victory for the New Democratic Party in the Oct. 21 federal election represented a stunning rejection of the Trudeau Liberals. (File photo)

At the same time, it was also a stunning reversal for Nunavut voters. Except for Conservative Leona Aglukkaq’s stint as MP between 2008 and 2015, the Liberals have been Nunavut’s default option.

Although they were stung by the political demise in 2016 of their disgraced former MP, Hunter Tootoo, the Liberal government easily worked around him. They courted Nunavut’s political leaders constantly, especially during the spring and summer months prior to the October 21 federal election campaign.

That included the creation of the huge Tallurutiup Imanga marine conservation area, money first announced in 2017 to construct roughly 80 to 90 social housing units per year, some municipal infrastructure money, the start of a campaign to eliminate tuberculosis, and the highly touted Inuit-Crown partnership committee, in which Inuit leaders sat down with federal cabinet ministers to talk about Arctic priorities.

But to no avail. The relationships they built with Inuit organizations did not translate into votes.

Instead, Nunavut voters opted for a political neophyte with much charisma and much promise, but little experience. It remains to be seen if a member of a political party that holds only 24 seats in the House of Commons will be able to deliver what Nunavut wants.

3. The Arctic airline merger

Although the Competition Bureau warned that merging First Air and Canadian Northern into a single airline business would likely lead to higher fares, higher freight rates and reduced service, the federal minister of Transport, Marc Garneau, ended up approving the long-anticipated deal this past June.

Derided by some with the label “Monopoly Air,” the merger of the Inuvialuit Development Corp.’s Canadian North and the Makivik Corp.’s First Air received federal government approval in 2019. (File photo)

Following years of on-and-off merger talks between the two businesses that started in 2012, northern governments, consumers and businesses are still nervous about the idea. One observer who wrote to Nunatsiaq News called the idea “disastrous.”

That’s to be expected. Although it’s redundant to say this, air transportation not only serves as northern Canada’s lifeline but is also a major force in the economy, sustaining multiple businesses and organizations.

But the two parent companies, Makivik Corp. and the Inuvialuit Development Corp., forged ahead with the merger, operating under a single brand name, Canadian North, and offering a common flight schedule. They’re now working with unions to harmonize their formerly separate work forces.

At year’s end, Canadian North announced new rock-bottom air fares that are sure to please consumers, offered as a condition of their recent duty and medical travel contract with the GN.

Despite all that, northern consumers and businesses still wait with nervous anticipation.

4. The Kivalliq region goes for gold

In contrast to the cloud of uncertainty that hovers over Baffinland’s Mary River project, Agnico Eagle’s two new gold projects have emerged from the regulatory process with a promise of a permanent change for the economy of the Kivalliq region.

Here’s an aerial view of Agnico Eagle’s Meliadine Mine near Rankin Inlet, one of two multi-generational gold projects that promises to transform the economy of the Kivalliq region. (File photo)

The long-awaited Meliadine mine near Rankin Inlet started commercial production in May of 2019, creating about 900 jobs, at least 350 of which will be filled by Inuit.

Later in the year, Agnico Eagle opened the Whale Tail open pit, part of the Amaruq satellite mining project.

Agnico Eagle expects the two projects, which represent an investment of about $1.6 billion, will generate $450 million in royalties and fees for the Kivalliq Inuit Association and Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. over the next 15 years.

5. A digital standstill at the GN

Without some kind of digital communications network, Nunavut’s decentralized government, spread out over two million square kilometres of land, could never have functioned.

But on Nov. 2, Nunavut residents learned how much their government now needs that network.

Here’s a storage area in Iqaluit where Government of Nunavut IT workers put many hundreds of computer workstations, all of which had to be reformatted in the wake of the devastating ransomware attack that hit the GN on the morning of Nov. 2. (File photo)

That’s when a dangerous piece of malware, distributed by criminals who attempted to demand a ransom payment, infected the GN’s computer network, causing most territorial employees to lose access to email, voice mail and their computer workstations.

At the same time, Nunavut residents lost the ability to communicate with government employees who deliver vital services like income assistance and health care.

Multiple small businesses, some fearing insolvency, stopped receiving payments.

Health care workers lost access to medical records that contain essential laboratory and medical imaging results required for diagnosis. Justice system workers lost access to court files.

If there’s a story that represents the extent to which the Government of Nunavut has become utterly dependent on digital communication networks, it’s the one about ransomware.

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