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Inuit hunters blockade iron mine in freezing temperatures over expansion | Environment

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A group of Inuit hunters have braved nearly a week of freezing temperatures to blockade a remote iron mine in northern Canada, in protest over an expansion plan they say will harm local wildlife.

The blockade, which has prompted solidarity rallies in other Nunavut communities, has also exposed growing tensions between large Inuit organizations with the power to approve development permits – and residents of the small communities where the impact of such projects is felt.

Since 5 February, seven hunters have created a makeshift barrier of snowmobiles and sleds to block the airstrip and service road of the Mary River ore mine, halting operations. Temperatures in recent days have dipped to the low -30sC.

At issue are controversial plans drawn up by the mine’s operator Baffinland Iron Mines Corporation to double output. To bring 12m tonnes of iron ore to market, the mine has said it needs to build a railway to a port near the community of Pond Inlet.

But hunters have pushed back over fears that the expansion could threaten the populations of caribou and narwhal – two key sources of food – if approved.

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“Baffinland is making money and we are given very little money and we know that money will not bring back wildlife,” Tom Naqitarvik said in an Inuktitut language video posted to Facebook, reported CBC News.

As the standoff enters its fifth day, 700 workers are stranded at the Mary River site, and according to the company, the blockade on the airstrip means food supplies cannot be delivered.

“Baffinland personnel have had numerous meetings with organizers, both at the blockades and in Pond Inlet, imploring the protesters to relocate off the airstrip and allow runway maintenance to take place and flights to resume,” the company said in a statement. “So far, these discussions have not yielded any progress.”

Baffinland says that expansion of the mine is critical for its operations in the region to stay profitable. It has tried to ease concerns over the project, saying it is confident wildlife will not be affected by increased ore shipments The company has also touted more than C$2bn in royalties paid to Inuit over the mine’s 30-year lifespan.




Hunters pull up the carcass of a hunted narwhal a few miles from the hamlet of Clyde River. The small whale provides food for the community, which is heavily reliant on hunting as the main source of food.



Hunters pull up the carcass of a hunted narwhal a few miles from the hamlet of Clyde River. The small whale provides food for the community, which is heavily reliant on hunting as the main source of food. Photograph: Leyland Cecco

Under the landmark 1993 Nunavut Agreement, which established a number of key rights Inuit on their lands, Baffinland is required to negotiate a benefit agreement with the Inuit groups that represent residents of the territory.

But the protest has also drawn attention to long-simmering tensions between remote Inuit communities and those organizations, which some residents say have lost touch with the challenges of living in remote communities.

After years of feeling overlooked and ignored by decision-makers in the territorial capital of Iqaluit, northern communities are looking to form their own, legally recognized association, said Jerry Natanine, mayor of Clyde River. This new group would have the power to negotiate royalty payments and have greater say over projects that could affect their communities, he said.

“The decision comes from years of disappointment from Inuit organizations that don’t look out for our behalf,” he said. “We’ve been dreaming about the possibility of creating something that could help us benefit from the development that is happening and running our own government.”




Jerry Natanine, mayor of Clyde River.



Jerry Natanine, mayor of Clyde River. Photograph: Leyland Cecco

Many of the groups opposed to the project are not opposed to all mining in the region. “My brother and cousins work at the mine. I don’t want them to lose their jobs,” said Natanine. “But the mine doesn’t consider our ideas. We told them to change the railway location and we would accept it. We told them, ‘Take this route instead.’ But they just shoved us off.”

Despite demands from those at the blockade for a new royalty structure, Baffinland has said it has no legal authority to negotiate with community groups.

Residents of Clyde River plan to bring supplies to the Mary River protesters in the coming days, a journey that could take three days by snowmobile and requires travellers to brave mountain valleys and perilous sections of ice.

“At the end of the day, the expansion project was imposed on us. Even so, we’ve been clearly and repeatedly telling the mine that their plans were unacceptable. And they haven’t listened to any of our suggestions,” Natinine said. “So now we’re left fighting for our culture and way of life.”

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