Caution or Indecision Regarding Nunavut’s “Untapped” Wealth?

Agnico Eagle is betting that the future of development in Canada’s least populated territory is bright. Last month it announced a US$1.2 billion investment to develop the recently-approved Amaruq and Meliadine projects in Nunavut. The Toronto-based miner is already a big player in the territory’s small economy, comprising some 20 per cent of its GDP and employing more than 400 Inuit.

Miners already operating in the territory, including Agnico Eagle and TMAC Resources Inc., believe they have found the increasingly rare combination of a region with extraordinary untapped mineral potential and a mining-friendly community.

Unlike many Canadian mining jurisdictions, land claims in Nunavut were settled when the territory was created in 1993. The agreement gave the Inuit land claim organization Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. title to 18 per cent of the land and they chose the areas with the most potential for development.

Now, 25 years later, resource development in Nunavut is at a crossroads. Exploration companies are growing increasingly interested in the area, but several key barriers continue to hamper an economic boom. Those challenges include a lack of infrastructure, a controversial and undecided land-use plan and a carbon tax in an area where both industry and communities are diesel-dependent.

The Inuit people prioritize economic self-sufficiency, and responsible resource development that has concrete benefits for local communities is a big part of that plan, said Aluki Kotierk, the president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.

“We have high rates of poverty, high rates of unemployment and so there’s lots of hope when there’s any economic development happening in our territory,” she said in a phone interview from Iqaluit.

Mining, seen as crucial to economic development, is a hot topic on the tundra, she said, and is often discussed in the context of striking balance between respecting the land and the wildlife and economic development that could empower the people.

The issue of how to strike that balance has been central in the politics of Nunavut since the territory’s birth, said Nunavut senator Dennis Patterson.

The Nunavut Planning Commission set out to create land-use plans by region, but changed course and decided to come up with a single plan for the whole territory, resulting in draft proposals in 2011 and 2014. After spending some $60 million, the final draft plan issued in June 2016 set aside more protected land than the previous two iterations, Patterson said.

“It has sent a negative signal to potential investors in Nunavut because some areas of very rich mineral potential have become protected areas,” he said.