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Nunavut is still a colony

We should act in solidarity to end its deprivation

Indigenous Politics

In January 2014, The Globe and Mail published an op-ed by James Bell, editor of Nunatsiaq News and winner of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for his journalistic contribution to Northern politics. The piece was entitled “Nunavut is no longer Canada’s_colony. It needs to end its own deprivation.” In the article Mr. Bell argues, “though its traumatic legacy persists within the hearts of northern people, the colonial period is all but over.” This view seems to have become common within Northern politics. It is increasingly rare to hear politicians in Nunavut use the term “colonialism” to describe the territory’s present predicament.

An examination of contemporary struggles over mineral extraction, however, suggests that Nunavut is still being governed as a resource colony. Proposals for resource exploration and extraction are being approved despite widespread opposition from communities and local institutions. Key concerns from communities and local institutions are being ignored in decision making processes. What is more, the extractive colonial economy initiated by commercial whalers and entrenched through the fur trade, persists to the degree that many plans for the “development” of Nunavut’s resources point towards long-term underdevelopment.

Mineral extraction, especially on the scale encouraged by the Canadian state, poses serious risks to the Inuit hunting economy. Extraction is being encouraged at a pace far beyond what Inuit require for employment purposes, and will serve to deplete Nunavut’s mineral resources for the benefit of multinational capital. These projects render Inuit vulnerable to a future where the wildlife resources they depend upon have been destroyed, their physical health has been compromised, and they are left with few mineral resources to maintain an industrial labour force over the long term. The net result would be the enrichment of multinational capital at the expense of the wealth and well-being of the majority of the people of Nunavut.

Seismic surveys in Baffin Bay and Davis Strait

In 2011, a consortium of three geophysical companies submitted a proposal to the National Energy Board (NEB) to conduct seismic surveys in Baffin Bay and Davis Strait. The surveys would use airguns to blast loud bursts of sound into the ocean, and recording the sounds which reflect off of the ocean floor. The resulting information would be used to identify potential oil or gas deposits in order to help industry plan offshore exploratory drilling. Marine mammals which use the proposed survey for habitat are hunted by several communities including Arctic Bay, Pond Inlet, Clyde River, Qikiqtarjuaq, and Pangnirtung.

Since the proposal first surfaced, community opposition has been both strong and obvious. Petitions opposing the proposal were sent to the NEB by residents of Clyde River and Pond Inlet in 2011 and 2013, respectively. Residents of Pond Inlet, Clyde River, Qikiqtarjuaq, and Iqaluit repeatedly voiced opposition to the proposal at public NEB hearings in the spring of 2013. The Hamlet of Clyde River and the Clyde River Hunters and Trappers Organization passed two joint motions opposing the proposed surveys, in 2013 and 2014. At the 2014 Baffin Mayors’ Forum — a meeting of all mayors of Baffin Island — all 13 mayors unanimously passed a motion opposing seismic surveys.

This opposition is rooted in concerns with the potential impact of seismic surveys on marine mammals as well as concerns with future oil and gas development in the area. Further, many feel seismic surveys are unnecessary at the present time. The Mary River iron mine located near Pond Inlet began production in 2014 and will likely provide sufficient industrial labour opportunities for the region into the foreseeable future.

Baffin Island’s representative Inuit organization, the Qikiqtani Inuit Association (QIA), and the territory- wide representative Inuit organization, Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated (NTI), both urged the federal government not to approve the proposed surveys. In March of 2014, a joint letter from the QIA and NTI requested that seismic surveys not be approved until a broader strategic environmental assessment is carried out in the region. The Inuit organizations wanted further baseline information collected about wildlife in the region to help design appropriate mitigation measures and restrictions on areas of sensitive habitat. The same plea was made by the Nunavut Marine Council — an advisory board made up of the chairs of Nunavut’s four major landclaim regulatory boards.

Despite obvious and strong opposition, the NEB approved the proposed surveys in June 2014. A protest was held in Clyde River on July 23 in response. Protesters expressed outrage with the proposed survey and frustration with Leona Aglukkaq, Member of Parliament for Nunavut and Minister of the Environment. Chants at the rally included, “Leona, where are you?”

In the lead up to the protests, Niore Iqalukjuak, Clyde River resident and former Mayor of Arctic Bay, wrote an open letter to Leona Aglukkaq. Iqalukjuak urged Aglukkaq to attend the community protests and “either stand with us on our fight to stop seismic testing or … explain to the people and the media as to why you are certain that there will be no harmful affects to our wildlife.”

In his letter, Iqalukjuak quoted a statement made in 1976 by James Arvaluk, then president of the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada (ITC):

We are seldom consulted before decisions are made which affect our future. More often, we are informed after the fact. Seismic exploration, pipeline surveys, prospectors flying around in helicopters are already disturbing the traditional migratory patterns on the land and in the sea. We complain, we beg to be consulted. Sometimes lip service is paid to consultation, but the work goes on anyway, and in effect our pleas are ignored.

Iqalukjuak concluded, “Thirty-eight years have passed since this letter was written to the prime minister and his cabinet, but the battle Inuit face is still the same. You are our elected voice, you are supposed to represent our beliefs and values.” On July 28, the Hamlet of Clyde River, the Clyde River Hunters and Trappers Organization and Mayor Jerry Natanine filed an application with the Federal Court for a judicial review of the NEB’s decision. The application argues that Inuit in Clyde River were not meaningfully consulted prior to the approval of the surveys and seeks to overturn the NEB’s approval. Neither the QIA nor NTI have publicly supported Clyde River’s court challenge. However, on November 12, the Nunavut Association of Municipalities, a meeting of all mayors from Nunavut, unanimously passed a resolution supporting Clyde River’s legal battle.

The applicants filed arguments in late November and anticipate that the case will be heard in court in early 2015.

The Kiggavik Uranium mine

In 2009, Areva Resources Canada submitted a proposal for the Kiggavik uranium mine to Nunavut’s regulators. If approved, the mine will be located 80 kilometers west of the Inuit community of Baker Lake. The proposal calls for four open-pit mines, an underground mine, and a milling operation. It is currently being reviewed by the Nunavut Impact Review Board (NIRB).

Areva’s proposal is basically an expanded version of what Urangesellschaft submitted in the late 1980s, to resounding Inuit opposition. In a 1990 municipal plebiscite in Baker Lake, 90% of voters said no to the Kiggavik uranium mine. All relevant Inuit organizations publicly opposed it. The proposal was eventually shelved by the proponent in face of massive Inuit opposition and low uranium prices.

The Inuit leadership’s opposition to the Kiggavik proposal in the late 1980s built on a decade of antinuclear activism by Inuit politicians. In the late 1970s, ITC-supported Baker Lake residents unsuccessfully attempted to use the court system to halt exploration for uranium near their community. In 1981, ITC called for a moratorium on uranium mining in areas of Inuit land use and occupancy. In 1984, the Inuit Circumpolar Conference called for the Arctic to be declared a “nuclear-free zone”, citing concerns with uranium mining, nuclear waste storage, nuclear weapons testing, and nuclear weapons deployment in the Arctic.

Nunavut’s leaders have since changed their stance on uranium mining. In 2007, NTI changed its longstanding policy opposed to uranium mining and adopted a policy in support of uranium extraction. In 2010, without community consultation, NTI gained shares in Kivalliq Energy, a uranium exploration firm which now owns rights to uranium ore bodies in Nunavut’s caribou calving grounds. Some residents of Baker Lake have likewise shifted their position and are more open to the idea of uranium mining near their community than they once were. However, there are many who continue to be highly concerned with the prospect of storing radioactive tailings in their hunting grounds and worry that Kiggavik may contaminate wildlife, water, and the people of Baker Lake. When the NI RB first solicited public comment on Areva’s proposal in 2009, a majority of respondents from Baker Lake indicated that they did not support Kiggavik.

A central concern for many is the basin-opening potential of the Kiggavik mine. Baker Lake is surrounded by uranium mineralization. If Areva builds a road and milling infrastructure, capital costs will be sharply reduced for other companies opening mines in the area. Such induced development could lead to increased exploration and possibly mining in sensitive caribou habitat and important cultural areas.

For these reasons, the Baker Lake Hunters and Trappers Organization (HTO) has called for mining and exploration to be banned in caribou calving and post-calving grounds, as well as areas of high cultural value, before the Kiggavik uranium mine is approved. The HTO attempted to have these areas protected under a new territorial land use plan. However, as the case below indicates, this has not been successful. The review of Areva’s Kiggavik proposal is moving forward despite the HTO’s outstanding concerns. Final hearings are scheduled to take place in Baker Lake in March 2015.

Caribou calving grounds and land use planning

The Nunavut Planning Commission (NPC) is developing a territory-wide land use plan. In 2012, the NPC began holding consultation meetings in Nunavut’s communities. Numerous groups have called for the land use plan to ban mining in caribou calving grounds. These include the Government of Nunavut, The Nunavut Wildlife Management Board, all three of Nunavut’s regional wildlife boards, HTOs from Baker Lake, Arviat, Chesterfield Inlet and Repulse Bay, and the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq Caribou Management Board.

Numerous indigenous communities in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and the Northwest Territories hunt caribou herds that calve in Nunavut. Many of these communities have also called for a ban on mining in Nunavut’s caribou calving grounds: the Sayisi Dene First Nation, Northlands First Nation, the Athabasca Denesuline Negotiating Team, the Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation, the Northwest Territories Metis Nation, and the Fort Smith Metis Council.

However, this position is not shared by the federal government or Nunavut’s Inuit organizations. The federal government, NTI, and the regional Inuit associations submitted comments that discouraged the creation of new conservation areas under a land use plan. NTI and the Kitikmeot Inuit Association indicated that no restrictions should be placed on lands to which Inuit own title under the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement. As major caribou calving grounds contain Inuit owned lands, this position is in direct contradiction to the movement to have mining banned in caribou calving grounds.

The NPC released a draft land use plan in May 2014 which included partial protection for calving grounds. Areas within calving grounds already identified as having high mineral potential would be left open for exploitation. While this offers some habitat protection for caribou herds, it is a far cry from a full ban on mining in calving grounds.

A final hearing for the land use plan was scheduled for November 2014. However, the Federal Government refused to provide funding for a final hearing, stalling the planning process. In response, the NPC launched litigation in August 2014 in the Federal Court. The NPC alleges that the federal government’s manipulation of funding was political interference with the planning process. As a result, calving grounds currently remain open for exploration and mining as the land use plan is tied up in court proceedings.

The colonial present

Struggles over offshore seismic surveys, uranium mining, and mining in caribou calving grounds make clear that extraction proposals are moving forward despite cases of clear community opposition and that key community concerns are being ignored in decision-making processes.

In the cases of uranium mining and mining in caribou calving grounds, there is an appearance that the struggles over extraction and underdevelopment are internal to Nunavut. In so far as these projects are being pushed onto Nunavut society, the territory’s Inuit organizations are doing much of the pushing. With the exception of cutting funding to the land use planning process, the Canadian state has managed to take a hands-off approach to ensuring extractive colonialism continues in these situations. But this does not make these developments any less colonial. Colonial rulers often rely on the cooperation of indigenous ruling groups to impose their imperialist agendas. The princely states under the British Raj are perhaps the most obvious examples.

Further, the struggle against seismic surveys demonstrates that when Inuit organizations break rank with the federal government line, they can expect little accommodation for their demands. Behind any action Inuit leaders take lurks the Canadian state’s ultimate authority over the most land use decisions in Nunavut. This state power is currently wielded by a political party with an agenda to extract resources as rapidly as possible, regardless of indigenous peoples’ concerns.

An Inuk may serve as a cabinet minister for this party, but that does nothing to change the obviously colonial agenda at the heart of the Conservative Party of Canada’s vision for the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island. Seismic surveys in Nunavut, the Northern Gateway pipeline in British Columbia, and the omnibus legislation that sparked the Idle No More movement make this agenda clear. Indigenous peoples are to accommodate themselves to the needs of extractive capital, regardless of the environmental and human costs future generations will have to bear.

Warren Bernauer is a doctoral candidate at York University. His dissertation research deals with the politics of mineral extraction in Nunavut. As a part of his research, Warren has worked closely with the Baker Lake Hunters and Trappers Organization in its opposition to mining in caribou calving grounds and its concern with proposed uranium mining.

This article appeared in the January/February 2015 issue of Canadian Dimension (The Energy Issue).


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