Hundreds of Mary River Mine employees were unable to return home as Inuit hunters fought for wildlife protection
The proposed expansion of the Mary River Mine in Nunavut was interrupted by a week-long Inuit protest earlier this month. A group of seven hunters barricaded its main road and airstrip, which left 700 mine employees stranded at the facility.
Inuit land defenders were outraged by the planned construction of a 110-kilometre railway, which would connect Mary River Mine to the nearest port in Milne Inlet. While the expansion allows the mine to double its output and ship 12 million tonnes of iron ore annually, it also raises serious environmental concerns.
The Inuit hunters, also known as the Nuluujaat Land Guardians, believe this expansion will disrupt the local caribou and narwhal habitats. To this day, these animals play a significant role in Inuit life, as hunting is a necessity rather than a hobby in the isolated communities of the north.
Mary River Mine is located almost 1,000 kilometres away from Iqaluit, the only town with a population of over 5,000 in the territory. As the hunters saw a potential threat to the traditional way of Inuit life, they physically blocked the mine’s operations for an entire week, until Feb. 11.
Donat Milortuk, an Inuit activist from the town of Naujaat, organized a local protest in his community in support of the hunters’ actions.
“We are thinking about our younger generations. We want a clean environment and healthy food. This is everyone’s responsibility,” he said in an interview with the CBC. “We don’t want our wildlife and land contaminated.”
However, as a result of the barricade, the mine workers had no access to fresh food and supplies while being trapped in the facility. The land defenders refused to free the airstrip that would allow the employees to return home, only making an exception for one bus carrying medical equipment.
“It’s unfortunate that they felt they had to go to those extremes to be heard,” said Udloriak Hanson in an interview with CBC, the vice-president of community and strategic development at Baffinland Iron Mines Corporation.
Mary River Mine lost an estimated $14 million due to the week-long blockade. As the business was at a standstill during the protests, the Inuit resistance ended up costing the company over $2 million per day.
When the mine corporation’s lawyers took this matter to court, Justice Susan Cooper issued an order to the Inuit hunters on Feb. 10, requiring them to free the airstrip and to allow the workers to come back home. The land defenders peacefully agreed to end the blockade, following the order from Nunavut’s Court of Justice.
In return, Baffinland Iron Mines Corporation announced that the company is open to adjusting the mine’s expansion plan, which includes scaling back its planned increases in shipping. The potential expansion will also undergo an environmental and socio-economic review in Iqaluit, during a series of public hearings set to begin on April 12.
After the hearings, the Nunavut Impact Review Board will advise the territorial government whether this controversial project should become a reality on the land of Inuit people.
Graphic by Lily Cowper