The Cold Rush for Nunavut’s Mineral Wealth

Photo Courtesy of US Department of State/Wikipedia

Photo Courtesy of US Department of State/Wikipedia

Climate change is providing unprecedented access to an abundance of minerals buried under Nunavut’s Arctic ice causing a new cold rush for the province’s mineral wealth.

By Kait Bolongaro

As environmental warming melts long frozen ice in Nunavut, the front line of climate change is facing a new “cold” rush, a dash for the North’s untapped mineral resources. Nunavut is at the heart of this tug-of-war between economic development and environmental devastation. The Inuit, the people who call the Arctic home, are in the cross hairs of this battle and ostensibly have the power to determine how this drama over resource extraction will play out in an era when their traditional way of life is under unprecedented stress.

Facing the consequences of climate change

“As is well documented, temperature changes in the Arctic overall are among the largest observed anywhere in the world,” says Danny Harvey, professor of Geography at the University of Toronto. “Temperature changes in [northern] Canada are the largest in North America, especially in winter.”

Temperatures in the high north have been oscillating in extremes for the past several years with overall warmer winters and less ice. In 2012, the National Snow and Ice Data Centre registered that Arctic sea ice fell below 4 million square kilometres. This is the lowest level ever recorded and 50 per cent less area than when data collection began in 1979.

Deteriorating ice conditions can be lethal to Inuit hunters. One wrong step and a hunter can fall through thinning ice that would hold his weight in normal conditions. Advocacy groups as Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada are concerned about the implications that melting ice has for traditional ways of life. For Elana Nightingale, Acting Manager of Socio-Economic Development of Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada, thinning ice is worrisome. “With rising temperatures, ice is often not thick enough for hunters to safely cross in order to reach traditional hunting grounds,” says Nightingale. “As well, the effects of climate change on weather patterns means that traditional knowledge around reading weather can no longer be relied upon.”

Environmental divergence isn’t only affecting Nunavut’s frozen landscape; it is also threatening animals and their habitat. The most worrisome case is the caribou. Millions of these large herbivores once roamed the Arctic. Now, several caribou herds are in major decline causing alarm among Inuit, scientists, and conservationists. In 2013, Nunavut’s Environment Ministry released a comprehensive count of the South Baffin Island Caribou herd. The results are startling: caribou numbers have dropped by 95 per cent. The report cites climate change, disease and land use as possible threats. There have also been major losses to the Beverly and Ahiak populations totaling more than 50 per cent drop between 1994 and 2011.

Studies such as these confirm what Inuit elders and hunters already know. For the last few years, Inuit have voiced concerns of declining caribou numbers in traditional herding areas. Joan Scotti, environmental activist from Baker Lake, echoed these concerns to Pauktuutit. “We know exactly when all those thousands of caribou are going to show up in July,” says Scotti. “So we go to our traditional hunting areas to wait for them. Sometimes, they don’t show up. We don’t know if it’s the cumulative effects [as] we have so many mining industries happening in our areas but it’s also affecting their migration patterns. “

A lack of access to traditional hunting grounds coupled with declining caribou populations is devastating for Inuit communities. These consequences of climate change pose a threat to Inuit food security as the growing season is relatively short and Inuit rely heavily on game to supplement their diets.

“With limited hunting, Inuit communities have had to rely increasingly upon expensive, store-bought food from the south [of Canada],” says Nightingale. “The results have been increased hunger and negative health impacts. For example, community studies have shown Inuit women skip or cut down on the size of meals in order to feed their children.”

An opportunity for economic development

Another study conducted by the Natural Environmental Research Council in the UK found that at least 70% of melting Arctic sea ice is caused by human-induced climate change and not naturally occurring warmer temperatures as suggested by critics.

Receding ice fields bring opportunity for economic development in Nunavut. According to Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.’s Inuit Owned Lands Information System (IOLIS), Nunavut’s land mass contains vast amounts of gold, diamonds, uranium, base metals and many other minerals difficult to find elsewhere in such abundance. Companies are deploying exploration mission to discover more deposits.

Currently, the Meadowbank gold mine is the only extraction project in Nunavut. The site is operated by Agnico Eagle and is situated 70 kilometres north of Baker Lake. It has bolstered Nunavut’s growth rate to increase by 7.7% in 2011 making the territory Canada’s fastest growing economy.

There are several other proposals in the consultation phase, including the Kiggavik uranium project. The site would include three open-pit mines, a processing mill and accommodation for employees. According to AREVA, the French multinational corporation forwarding the proposal, Kiggavik would create 2650 jobs in the surrounding area during the lifetime of the project and add more than $1 billion CAD to Nunavut and Canada’s economies through taxes and royalty fees.

Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. represents Inuit interests in negotiations with mining corporations. The entity was created to implement the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement and administer land titles for Inuit in the territory. It is responsible for the Nunavut Impact Review Board- the regulatory body that reviews mining project proposals and determines which ventures are approved.

“The Inuit organizations are organized as land [and] money holding corporations, which gives them an objective interest in profit. They seem very intent on pushing for mineral extraction,” says Ms. Smith*, a specialist in the political dynamics of resource development in Nunavut.

“This isn’t, in and of itself, a bad thing,” says the source via email correspondence. “The [Nunavut Lands Claim Agreement] was designed to facilitate mining. The Inuit negotiators saw the land claim as a way to ensure that mining was done responsibly, that Inuit benefit from mining, and that Inuit could control the pace, scale and type of development on their land.”

Weighing the socioeconomic factors

This double-edged sword of environmental stress and the possibility of exponential riches has created tension as Inuit struggle to maintain their traditional way of life while attempting to improve socio-economic conditions. Despite its skyrocketing GDP and natural resource reserves, life for many in Nunavut is more difficult than in other parts of Canada.

One of Nunavut’s biggest social issues is a high suicide rate. While suicide exists in all societies for a plethora of reasons, suicide rates among Inuit in Nunavut are stunning. According to Statistics Canada, young Inuit men are forty times more likely than white Canadian males to commit suicide. Overall, Inuit are ten times as likely to commit suicide as other Canadians and this number hasn’t budged in forty years.

Jack Hicks, a doctoral candidate focusing on suicide prevention in Nunavut at the University of Greenland, is alarmed by these statistics. His research links this high suicide rate with childhood sexual and physical abuse. He is disappointed with the lack of implementation of overall health services in Nunavut and failure to implement the proposed provincial suicide prevention strategy.

“That’s what so interesting about the Nunavut Suicide Prevention Strategy and the action plan that accompanies it,” says Mr. Hicks in a telephone interview. “We got the [Nunavut] government to commit [and] everybody seemed to think that the strategy made sense. I’ve heard no serious criticisms of the strategy and the government departments worked out the details of what they were going to do. But it’s not happening. It’s tragic.”

Last week, McGill University researchers released a psychological-autopsy study to pinpoint the causes of Inuit’s elevated suicide rates. Their findings indicate that high rates of childhood sexual and physical abuse as well as substance abuse among causes. An earlier study conducted of 1710 Inuit in 2008 found that 41% suffered severe sexual abuse and 31% were victims of severe physical abuse in childhood.

Unemployment is another challenge. According to Statistics Canada, Nunavut has Canada’s highest unemployment rate of 13.5 percent compared with a national average of 7.1 per cent (May 2013). Many struggle to find gainful employment with most jobs available in administration, service and mining sectors. This problem is only going to become more acute in the future, as Nunavut is home to both Canada’s youngest and fastest growing population.

Resource cure or curse?

Mining companies are peddling extraction proposals to Inuit organizations and communities as solutions to Nunavut’s socioeconomic difficulties. New projects promise job and business opportunities, economic growth, education and practical employment training and contributions to community life through donations while respecting the environment and employing Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (IQ), Inuktitut for Inuit traditional knowledge.

“There’s no doubt that Inuit communities want the employment opportunities that these extractive projects bring,” says Smith. “There’s also no doubt that, despite the problems that these projects bring, these employment opportunities are a good thing for the North. Inuit communities are suffering from the fallout of intrusive state colonialism, poverty and food security are real and important issues. People, especially the younger generation, want jobs.”

“Extraction projects do bring many positive opportunities to communities, the most obvious being stable employment and income,” says Elana Nightingale. “Working in the industry is an opportunity for women to achieve economic independence, support their families and access training and skills development they would not otherwise be able to.”

Despite its potential benefits, there remain clear challenges to extraction project employment opportunities in Nunavut. Often Inuit get stuck in manual labour or low-level administrative jobs while high-level positions are given to non-residents. Mining remains a male-dominated industry with women representing a fraction of the workforce. Moreover, most women fill unskilled positions with lower wages such as dishwashers or cleaning staff in camp dormitories due to the rotational nature of mining. There are also issues of gender discrimination and sexual harassment that dissuade women from working on extraction projects.

“The cost of development projects will be borne by the local people disproportionately, almost entirely,” Dr. Frances Abele, a political scientist at the School of Public Policy at Carleton University in Ottawa, told Al-Jazeera. “The benefits will accrue outside the territory. That’s always the case with mines.”

Pauktuutit is currently researching the socioeconomic impacts of mining in Baker Lake, Nunavut, the current location of Meadowbank gold mine and the proposed site for the Kiggavik uranium mine. Preliminary results, provided by the organization, indicate that resource extraction can cause higher rates of crime, substance abuse, domestic violence, relationship stress and divorce, riskier sexual behaviour including increased prostitution among Inuit women as well as a loss of time devoted to traditional activities and even lower school attendance among children of miners. Evidently, employment in the extraction industry is not the magic potion to solve Nunavut’s socioeconomic issues.

Including community voices

As the rush to harness Nunavut’s natural resources galvanizes, there is a growing tension between Inuit organizations and the communities they are supposed to represent. Inuit hold substantial power in the approval and regulation of mining projects on their territory because they own the mineral rights to most of Nunavut’s land. In theory, if a community opposed the development of a mine, it could be stopped. In reality, it has become clear that Inuit organizations are pursuing a development at all costs agenda despite community opposition in order to exploit the high revenue that mineral exploration brings.

The Kiggavik uranium mine proposal in Baker Lake exemplifies this dictatorial approach. Although public consultations have been held, there had been no voting on the proposal and the process is plagued by bias. The consultants present at these community meetings, hired by Inuit organizations, were the exact same consultants contracted by AREVA to write the Kiggavik proposal’s Environmental Impact Statement.

“The heart of the problem, as I see it, is that no one is giving Inuit in Baker Lake the opportunity to vote on the issue of uranium development,” says Smith. “It is a controversial issue, the community is clearly divided, and the Inuit organizations are moving forward supporting uranium mining without giving the community a chance to decide for itself. Just this past week, the Mayor of Baker Lake and the Baker Lake Hunters and Trappers Organization raised this issue at community hearings for AREVA’s proposed uranium mine. Both the Mayor and the HTO said they weren’t sure if the community supported the proposal, and said there should be a vote. The Inuit Organizations just dodged the question, and said there was nothing legally requiring them to hold a vote.”

The lack of transparent democratic mechanisms to ensure community concerns are taken into consideration is disheartening. The opinions of people most impacted by the consequences of extraction development in Nunavut are effectively silenced, held hostage by the institutions intended to protect their interests.

*Name has been changed by request.

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