Braving temperatures as low as -36 C, a group of Inuit hunters spent a full week blockading an iron ore mine in Nunavut in northern Canada, in an attempt to protect animals from further harm.
Baffinland Iron Mines has proposed an expansion to its Mary River open pit project in the Qikiqtani region, or Baffin Island, that will allow the site to produce 12 million tonnes of ore per year—double its current capacity. The expansion, currently under review, will include a new railway for transporting ore to its shipping port.
The hunters say increased production and traffic will further drive away already scarce wildlife, including caribou and narwhal, that people depend on for food.
The situation has also further convinced Qikiqtani Inuit communities to form their own independent governing body after those representing them failed, said Jerry Natanine, the mayor of Clyde River, a Baffin Island hamlet.
“We would like to see actual negotiations with the most impacted communities and have us involved right away,” Naymen Inuarak, one of the hunters, told Nunatsiaq News. Nearby communities have “been ignored way too long,” he said.
Late last Thursday, after travelling on snowmobiles for two days, seven hunters from Arctic Bay, Igloolik, and Pond Inlet arrived at the mine and set up blockades using their vehicles and sleds. More hunters joined in the following days, with 12 occupying the sites in total.
On Thursday afternoon, Baffinland Iron Mines said the blockades were removed. “We welcome the move to a constructive dialogue and hope to work in collaboration with our community partners to find mutually agreeable solutions to the issues that have been raised,” Baffinland CEO Brian Penney said in a statement.
A spokesperson for the hunters, Marie Naqitarvik, confirmed the disbanding with Nunatsiaq News, saying they’re now gearing up to engage in face-to-face conversations with Inuit groups and community leaders.
The fly-in site’s tote road and air strip were still blocked today, and more than 700 workers were stuck at the mine, according to a Baffinland statement. “Many of the people working at Mary River have been on site for 21 days now and they are not being allowed to leave, nor are food and supply flights being allowed to land,” Tuesday’s statement says.
Nunavut MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq has been in talks with land defenders, Baffinland, and the Minister of Northern Affairs to find a sustainable solution that works for everyone.
“Land guardians are willing to allow planes to land for medical evacuations, and to let employees go home after their shifts are done.” she added.
The mining company has repeatedly said it respects the right to peaceful protest, but on Wednesday, it requested a court injunction from the Nunavut Court of Justice in Iqaluit to force the hunters off the site. A hearing will be held on Saturday, according to the Globe and Mail. Pond Inlet Mayor Joshua Arreak sent a letter on Wednesday asking representatives to meet as soon as possible, so that the hunters' concerns can be heard.
“There is urgency in dealing with this,” the letter says. “Once an injunction is granted, the RCMP are likely to move quickly to end the blockade.” (Indigenous land defenders across the country have repeatedly experienced violence at the hands of the RCMP.)
The hunters, having garnered support from residents across Nunavut, say they won’t leave until their demands are heard.
“I don't think this is extreme, this is our land—our home—being destroyed and we have to think about our future—our children. It is for them," Inuarak told CBC News in Inuktitut.
Throughout hearings for the expansion, locals repeatedly offered solutions to make the mine expansion safer for wildlife, but they were “completely ignored,” Natanine said.
One concern is that the new railway will disrupt a route used by caribou and will sit too close to waterways that house Arctic char, Natanine said. Residents have suggested alternate paths for the railway, to no avail, he said.
Baffinland did not respond to VICE World News requests for comment, but has previously said it promised to protect animals.
Ever since the blockades forced the mine halt operations, Natanine said hunters and their supporters have noticed more ptarmigans than usual over the past week. Ptarmigans are basically an Arctic “chicken,” Natanine said.
When the animals disappear, so does Inuit identity and culture, Natanine said.
“We hunt them all, and we are who we are because of them, we are the way we are because of them,” he said. “Colonialism really wants to further destroy us.”
These aren’t new problems either. He said the mine has caused problems since it first opened in 2014. “It’s unbelievable how much animal catches have come down these last few years,” Natanine said.
Nunavut’s founding legislation requires companies to enter impact benefit agreements with surrounding Inuit communities when proposing projects. But Natanine said the organization representing the affected communities—Qikiqtani Inuit Association (QIA)—is disconnected from the people it’s meant to serve.
QIA declined VICE World News’ request for comment, but will be releasing a public statement soon, said spokesperson Will Hopkins.
Communities in Baffin Island are now hoping to form a new, independent representative association to cover northern Baffin Inuit communities in Nunavut—one that will work with Baffinland directly, Natanine said. North Baffin Association, which represents Grise Fiord, Resolute Bay, Arctic Bay, Pond Inlet, Clyde River, Igloolik, and Sanirajak, was established in January, according to the CBC.
Baffinland has said it doesn’t have the authority to treat the organization like it would the QIA.
“For a long time now we’ve been wanting to start our own Inuit association, so that we can control our own affairs and run our own government and do things the way we want to do them,” Natanine said.
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This story has been updated with statements from Baffinland and hunters announcing the end of the blockades.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said the mine could produce 12 tonnes of ore per year. In fact, it’s 12 million tonnes.