The future of Baffinland's Mary River mine in Nunavut could be determined on Friday, as the territory's assessment board is expected to issue a long-awaited recommendation on a proposal to expand the iron mine and double its production.
It marks the end of a prolonged four-year process by the Nunavut Impact Review Board (NIRB) to gather information and opinions about the proposal, hold consultations in several affected communities, and make a recommendation for Dan Vandal, the minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs, who will have the final say on whether it can go ahead.
The company has suggested that if its phase two proposal does not get the green light, the future of the existing mine operations may be in jeopardy. It says that would put many jobs for local Inuit at risk.
The mine has been operating on north Baffin Island since 2015 and is currently allowed to extract and ship up to six million tonnes of ore per year. The expansion proposal seeks to double that number, to 12 million tonnes per year.
The expansion would also see a 110-kilometre railway built from the mine site to the company's port at Milne Inlet, from where the iron-ore is shipped out of Nunavut in up to 168 huge iron-ore carriers a year.
Baffinland has said the phase two expansion would be a stepping-stone to eventually ramp up production even further, to 30 million tonnes a year.
For the proposed expansion, shareholders would be asked to invest between $1.2 billion and $1.3 billion, according to a credit report on Baffinland, prepared by Moody's Investors Service.
Deep concerns for some Inuit
Public hearings and community roundtables over the last couple of years — frequently disrupted or delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic and public health restrictions — revealed deep concerns among many local Inuit about the impacts of the existing mine and what the expansion might mean.
Some argued that the Mary River mine has already harmed local caribou and narwhal populations, and therefore also the local communities and traditional culture.
In Pond Inlet, Nunavut, the community nearest to the mine site, Baffinland was accused by one local hunter of "trying to buy us," with repeated statements about jobs and money, and threats about putting the mine into care and maintenance if the expansion didn't proceed.
Last year, opposition in Pond Inlet blew up with a blockade at the mine site's airport.
Baffinland spoke often throughout the assessment process about various agreements, commitments and committees, which, in phase two, would guarantee Inuit a much larger voice in operations.
"The Mary River Project has the long term ability to change Nunavut lives for the better. We believe there is overwhelming evidence before the NIRB that phase two will create economic prosperity while protecting the environment and building stronger communities," reads the company's final written submission to the board.
The NIRB's public hearings wrapped up in January, and the board then requested a 60-day extension to the normal 45-day timeline for issuing its recommendation citing "exceptionally challenging circumstances" associated with pandemic-related delays. The new deadline is Friday.
It's been "the most extensive and protracted assessment ever undertaken by the Board," according to the NIRB's letter to Minister Dan Vandal in February.
The NIRB's recommendation may or may not be accepted by the minister.
In June 2016, the NIRB recommended that Ottawa reject Sabina Gold and Silver Corp.'s Back River gold mine proposal, citing environmental and social impacts. The minister sent the proposal back to the NIRB in 2017, giving the mine another chance.