Future uncertain for employees after Baffinland rejection: union leader

Worry set in for Mike Gallagher, the leader of the union that represents some of Baffinland’s employees, when he read that the company’s Mary River mine expansion had been rejected.

Federal Northern Affairs Minister Daniel Vandal released his long-awaited decision on Wednesday evening.

Gallagher, business manager for the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 793, is concerned about the future of the mine and its 2,600 employees, with the price of iron ore decreasing and a looming recession.

“We’re disappointed that Minister Vandal did not choose to try to use his position to find a compromise,” he said.

Baffinland applied in 2018 to expand operations at its Mary River iron mine, a project it calls its Phase 2 Development Proposal.

It would have included a 110-kilometre railroad between the mine and Milne Inlet, doubling its shipping output of iron ore to 12 million tonnes per year from six million, and construction of an additional dock at the Milne Inlet port.

The Nunavut Impact Review Board spent approximately four years assessing the proposal, with several in-person hearings held in Iqaluit and Pond Inlet. The board concluded in May that if Phase 2 were to go forward, the negative impacts on wildlife and fish habitats could not be “adequately prevented, mitigated, or adaptively managed.”

In an interview with Nunatsiaq News Wednesday evening, Vandal said he chose to follow the review board’s recommendation to reject the proposal because Qikiqtani Inuit Association, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. and hunters’ organizations all agree the potential damage to the environment could be immense, and there is no clear way for that risk to be lessened.

Gallagher said he respects and supports the opinions of the hunters and Inuit organizations and their goal of protecting the environment.

He also believes not enough emphasis has been put on how difficult the review process has been on mine employees, and what their needs are.

“We’re asking, to the point of saying, ‘Please, minister, support Phase 2,’ and we’re very, very genuine about that,” Gallagher said. “And it feels very much that their voices have not been listened to at all.”

The union wants to see all parties come together to try to salvage Phase 2 and save the jobs of the mine’s approximately 2,600 workers, more than 200 of which are held by Inuit.

“We always look for hope. And if there is any hope, I think it probably exists in a compromise,” Gallagher said.

Baffinland spokesperson Peter Akman told Nunatsiaq News in an email Wednesday evening the company would provide a statement Thursday, but as of mid-afternoon no such statement has been released.

Levi Barnabas, acting president for QIA, said the association agrees with Vandal’s decision but is still willing to work with Baffinland if the company chooses to continue pursuing Phase 2.

He said the association wants the project to align with the local Inuit vision for the future, and for the company to be more clear on the totality of its plans for the Mary River mine.

“Inuit need more certainty about the future of the project,” Barnabas said in an interview.

“Inuit have participated in seven reviews in 10 years for changes for the Mary River project, but Inuit still don’t know what Baffinland’s long-term intentions for the project are.”

Nunavut MP Lori Idlout spent Wednesday anticipating Vandal’s decision, which she said turned out to be a positive step toward reconciliation and an indication the Liberal government is listening to Inuit.

“I think this is something that many Inuit can be proud of — that when they stood together to actively ask for the protection of the environment, of the wildlife, the right to harvesting, they were heard,” Idlout said in an interview.

The mine has brought benefits to local communities, including jobs, funding for different community programs and the construction of a training centre in Pond Inlet.

For example, Arctic Bay residents were paid approximately $13.3 million in wages from Baffinland between 2015 and 2020, according to company documents.

Many Inuit wanted the expansion to go ahead in order to continue reaping those benefits, but Idlout said “it’s unfortunate that they were drawn to this kind of conclusion.”

“A lot of the ways that Inuit could contribute to the economy, to our local societies, are not being recognized at the moment,” she said.

“And because of that, Inuit are drawn to what is available, and unfortunately the only thing that probably feels available in Pond Inlet, is the mine.”

She said hunting and sewing should be viable career options for Inuit.

Baffinland has said throughout the review for Phase 2 that if it’s not approved, the company may have to temporarily close the mine.

Idlout expressed doubt that that would happen, saying the company is profiting and should be able to maintain its operations as the current permit allows.

Premier P.J. Akeeagok declined an interview on the matter, deferring to Economic Development Minister David Akeeagok to comment.

David Akeeagok said he is concerned about the impact the decision might have on Nunavut’s economy, as Baffinland made up 23 per cent of the territory’s gross domestic product in 2019 and is its largest private-sector employer. Ultimately, he said, the review board and Vandal made their decision.

“It’s up to Baffinland to determine whether to go back and seek another proposal,” the minister said, adding the Government of Nunavut will be prepared to participate in the review.

In an interview Wednesday, Vandal said he too believes Baffinland should put more proposals forward.

“I think it’s important that we continue, partners continue to speak and look at what’s possible,” he said. “I encourage Baffinland to [work] with partners to establish a positive path forward.”

David Venn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Nunatsiaq News