Is Nunavut ready for Baffinland?

If you go by first impressions, arguably the sleekest and most formidable looking enterprise in Nunavut is a corporation that has yet to obtain approval even to operate in the territory. In the one-room Iqaluit airport, Baffinland has its own kiosk and gate, beside Nunavut’s two airlines, First Air and Canadian North. On weekdays, workers—mostly Qallunaat—crowd the waiting area to board planes leaving for the Baffinland’s preconstruction site in Mary River.

Between a few empty ad slots and an outdated poster marketing last September’s Nunavut Trade Show and Conference, Baffinland rents a small ad space that declares ostensibly nothing except its existence. In one photo, two transport trucks are frozen in drive-away positions on an ice road against a white tundra backdrop, while a plane behind them points in the opposite direction. Both vehicles are driver-less. We need you, it says, if you want to read into it. Get on the truck or fly back home, but remember, you are flying backwards, into the past when the mine that does not exist did not exist.

And for Nunavut, that progress sometimes seems as certain as it is rapid, and as exciting as it is daunting. On a chair in the waiting area, the week’s edition of News/North reads, “Nunavut leads the country in growth.” According to Statistics Canada, Nunavut reported a 7.7 percent increase in its gross domestic product in 2011. Most of that  came from Agnico-Eagle, whose Meadowbank gold mine, just north of Baker Lake, is the only presently operating mine in Nunavut. Another story from the same issue reports that Agnico-Eagle made its first royalty payment of over $2.2 million to Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. on May 1. It’s the first of what will be generations of payments of its kind, and Meadowbank is just the first mine to operate on Inuit-owned land. Along with the community-based features scattered throughout the newspaper, these are the good-news stories in Nunavut.

But the other stories in the paper that day build a snapshot of a territory attempting to vault into the future carrying all the burdens of its past. A comic depicts a Meadowbank wrangler corralling two Inuit workers onto the company plane. It refers to Agnico-Eagle’s recent decision to deploy workers specifically to round up miners and get them to the airport in time to catch the charter. Last year, an average of 22 people missed work daily at Meadowbank.There’s a story about a two-month spate of violent crime involving Inuit and RCMP officers; in the absence of consistent mental health programs, one writer urges Inuit to self-monitor each other’s mental health; columnist Darrell Greer delivers a rant on, among other things, the loss of last year’s highly touted Nutrition North program, and a 20% reduction in staff at the territory’s Aboriginal Affairs and Northern development office.

Greer ends by saying, “With household debt reaching record levels, interest rates staying staggeringly low and housing prices creating the world’s biggest bubble…our hopes for economic prosperity and vastly improved infrastructure rest in the hands of the mining companies.”

Nunavut has been waiting for Baffinland for at least 13 years. The question that will determine the outcome of the 21-year Mary River project, and which a responsible review process will answer is: Is Baffinland prepared for the massive economic and social responsibility it will inherit in Nunavut?

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