IQALUIT, Nunavut — Flights have been grounded and most operations suspended at an open-pit iron ore mine on Nunavut's Baffin Island as protesters upset about its expansion plan continue to block the site's road and air strip.
Hunters from Arctic Bay and Pond Inlet set up the blockade last Thursday, after travelling two days by snowmobile to get to Baffinland's Mary River mine.
The mine, which is about 150 kilometres south of Pond Inlet, works on a rotating schedule, with employees flying in and out every few weeks. The company said there are 700 workers currently at the site.
"Food and supply flights have been suspended, as well as employee and contractor transfers, search and rescue flights, and other North Baffin air traffic support services provided by the Mary River airstrip," Baffinland said in a statement Monday.
The company said it has had numerous meetings with organizers at the blockade and in Pond Inlet. It also said it has asked the hunters to "relocate off the airstrip and allow runway maintenance to take place and flights to resume.
"So far these discussions have not yielded any progress," Baffinland said.
The hunters said they set up the blockade because their voices aren't being heard at environmental hearings on the mine's proposed expansion.
The expansion, if approved, would double its iron ore output to 12 million tonnes and build a 110-kilometre railway from the mine to the ocean to transport it. The railway would be the first in Nunavut and the most northern one in Canada.
Some hunters and community members in the North Baffin region have also said they worry the mining company is moving too fast and not properly considering the effects an expansion would have on wildlife, including narwhal and caribou.
The protest group stationed at the air strip and mining road has grown to include 15 hunters. Rallies in support of the hunters also took place across Nunavut on Monday.
In Iqaluit, where the temperature hovered around an unusually warm 3 C, a group of about a dozen people gathered outside the elders' centre.
Abraham Kublu, who grew up in Pond Inlet and sat on its hamlet council for 17 hears, held a sign in Inuktitut that said Baffinland is rushing its expansion.
"We should be respecting our land. For so many years, the community of Pond Inlet has been raising a lot of concerns," Kublu said.
Kublu said he believes Baffinland doesn't have enough information about how the mine's expansion would affect wildlife on the north side of Baffin Island.
In Taloyoak, in western Nunavut, protesters gathered carrying cardoard signs, with some reading, "We support Pond Inlet and Arctic Bay" and "No to Baffinland."
In Pond Inlet on Friday and Saturday, when the temperature was about -38 C, protesters gathered outside the community hall while hearings on the mine's proposed expansion took place.
Among the concerns are that caribou will not be able to cross the proposed railway and increased ship traffic will drive away marine mammals.
The mine’s shipping port in Milne Inlet opens onto narwhal habitat and lies within Tallurutiup Imanga, a national marine conservation area. The proposed expansion would see 176 ships travel in and out of Milne Inlet each year.
“If they start doing 12 million tonnes a year, our marine mammals will be completely extinguished in our area," Inuarak said.
Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, Nunavut's member of Parliament, said in a statement her office has reached out to federal Minister of Natural Resources Seamus O'Regan "to attempt to mediate the situation at Mary River."
"The ongoing protests are about encouraging continued consultations and dialogue. I look forward to Baffinland, the minister and community members being able to sit back at the table and discuss how to move forward in everyone's best interests," Qaqqaq said.
Baffinland has said its expansion plans will include mitigation measures to protect wildlife, such as caribou crossings on the railway and reduced ship speeds to minimize disturbances to marine life.
The company has also signed a benefit agreement worth $1 billion over the life of the mine with the Qikitani Inuit Association, the regional Inuit organization that represents the affected communities. The agreement will only take effect if the expansion is approved.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 8, 2021.
Emma Tranter, The Canadian Press