Equipment at the Mary River mine. The Cosmonaut/Wikimedia
The federal government’s decision to reject a major expansion at a Nunavut mine came midway through an annual gathering of northern mining and exploration specialists.
Northern affairs minister Dan Vandal said on Wednesday his government would reject an application by Baffinland to expand its iron ore operation, which would have doubled annual shipping output from its Mary River mine.
The Nunavut Impact Review Board earlier found that Baffinland could not adequately mitigate the expansion’s potential environmental impact. Vandal, who as minister must make a final decision, said he accepted the board’s conclusion and the expansion “should not proceed at this time.”
Rarely do developers in the North of Baffinland’s size receive an outright “no” from a combination of regulatory and ministerial authorities.
At the Yellowknife Geoscience Forum, attended by a range of northern industry experts, a four-person panel examined the Baffinland decision during a live broadcast on Wednesday evening.
Darrell Beaulieu, president of Denendeh Investments;
Pamela Strand, deputy minister of the NWT’s Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment;
Lou Covello, geologist and mineral exploration advocate; and
Brett Wheler, senior policy advisor for sustainability and resource management at the Tłı̨chǫ Government.
Below, find a transcript of how the panellists reacted to the news that Baffinland’s expansion will not go ahead – and how they interpreted that decision in a broader northern context.
This panel discussion was first broadcast on Napeg’s Facebook page on November 16, 2022. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Pamela Strand: Northern regulatory systems are based on trying to mitigate and adaptive-manage any adverse effects that projects have. I don’t know the details, because it’s a complex project. But for the most part, I think, in the Northwest Territories, our projects have made it through those discussions and those collaborative processes. Obviously, this one hasn’t, for whatever reasons. They’re probably very complex. I trust, though, that probably conversations are continuing on. I do know, in the territory, a number of our exploration projects of the past have had those “nos.” I’ve had the “nos” myself as an explorer, but I was able to work together to find solutions. Not always are solutions going to be found that everyone can agree with. Unfortunately, I think that’s what we’re seeing in this situation here.
Lou Covello: I suppose it’s the will of the people and we’ll live with it. As far as the people of Baffin Island are concerned, I think they shot themselves in the foot for several reasons. Probably the most important is that it’s been well established that our claim to sovereignty over the Arctic in the past has, by and large, been through private investment that resulted in the development of mines like Nanisivik and Polaris, and a series of mines along the north coast as well. And I think that Indigenous people in the Northwest Territories have the most to lose, if we lose the Northwest Territories. Now that may sound fantastic to you. But I think, given the current geopolitical situation, everything’s on the table. And I would think we want to have as much development as possible in the Arctic, particularly the High Arctic. That way industry gets to pay for it and government benefits, and the people of Canada benefit. The other aspect of this is, what this decision essentially does is it takes a huge advantage that Baffinland has over every other iron mining venture on Earth right now, in that they have billions – not millions, but billions – of tonnes of direct shipping ore. That means they don’t have to beneficiate it. That was one of the prime reasons it was developed in the first place. Without that, and without the ability to expand production to achieve economies of scale, I think that at some point – not necessarily soon, but in the future – they’re going to have to walk for economic reasons. And I think that’ll be to the detriment of everyone in Canada, and everyone on Baffin Island.
Darrell Beaulieu: I look back at the evolution of development in the North and I remember the Dene Nation – George Eramus was the president of the Dene Nation back in the 1970s. I think I was a busboy at the Yellowknife Inn coffee shop at the time, and they used to have all their meetings in the Yellowknife Inn big meeting room that they had. And I do keep that quote at my office, saying that the Dene were not against development and that they wanted to participate right off the bat. That kind-of sits there in my mind all the time. But at the same time, that evolution – the development of the North, through the regulations, through legislation, through policies etc – I know it’s evolving. The land claims: there was a hard-won fight by the Indigenous people to participate on the land and regulatory boards, and I don’t think the intent was there to not move ahead with development. It was to participate in that.
What I’m seeing in the last decade or so is the multitude and the layers of government in decision-making, from the federal, territorial, Indigenous… then you’ve got the boards, you’ve got the communities. Everybody is in there. And the question is: who’s in charge? Who do I have to see to get a land use permit or a water permit? Recently, I think it was 40 days to get a permit in Newfoundland and 600 or 700 days in the Northwest Territories. That’s a bit of a stretch but, you know, that’s what I’m hearing in Toronto and Vancouver.
Brett Wheler: I hope it’s still 50 or 60 days to get a land use permit in the Mackenzie Valley. That’s what I remember, anyway. And it is interesting, the layers that you mentioned, Darrell. Working with the Tłı̨chǫ Government, the Tłı̨chǫ Government is also a proponent and also goes and gets land use permits. It’s a helpful perspective to go through the process, as well, and see it from all the angles.
In terms of people working in the North and staying in the North, moving around from different communities and Yellowknife, and working with industry and working with boards and working with public government and working with indigenous governments? That is such a strength that I think is starting to be built up in the North, to be able to see issues and challenges from multiple perspectives.
I don’t know the details, I know it was a proposed expansion. If I was still working at the review board here in the Mackenzie Valley, I probably would have followed it a lot more closely, being an environmental assessment decision. My assumption, and the principle I would operate on, is that the decision was the right one. That’s my assumption. And I’d say that because the decision was made by the co-management board, the structure that was set up in the modern treaty under the Nunavut land claim agreement. That’s the structure that the public government and the Inuit of Nunavut agreed to establish, to consider the impacts and benefits.
Most of the time, I think the developments are approved. But if the balance is not there then I think it has to be a real option. It has to be real decision-making power, not just advisory, because otherwise the whole agreement that was established is not followed through on. And then you lose the certainty as well, to Darrell’s point, if you don’t know at which level [a decision is being made]. And so I think even just on that basis – that the minister agreed with and didn’t start tinkering with the decision that came through the modern treaty process that was set up, for shared decision-making – that makes me assume at least, again without knowing all the details, that that’s the right decision.