ontroversy over a proposed open-pit uranium mine has prompted the Nunavut government to hold a series of forums in communities across the territory to get the public’s opinion on the mining and milling operation.
The Kiggavik Project, a massive $1.5 billion mine operated by a Canadian subsidiary of Areva—the French multinational and nuclear energy giant—is slated for the Kivalliq region of Nunavut, 80 kilometres west of Baker Lake.
Although the government refused to hold a public inquiry on the issue despite petitions tabled in the Nunavut legislature by several communities demanding one, Premier Eva Aariak has announced the public forums, to start later this year, as a way to tap into grassroots opinion.
“A public forum would have more people involved in voicing their opinion,” Ariak told the Globe and Mail. “An inquiry is more restrained in the process. It is more formal, would take longer and is much more rigid.”
The project is the first uranium mine to be proposed in the territory and one of at least a dozen more awaiting review.
If it goes ahead, Kiggavik is estimated to create at least 400 jobs, 85 percent of which will be held by citizens of Nunavut whose 2009 employment rate was at an abysmal 52.5 percent.
Early in 2009 a host of Nunavut groups, governmental bodies, and individuals submitted comments on the mine proposal to the Nunavut Impact Review Board, a regulatory body in charge of determining whether the project required a full-scale environmental assessment.
Comments revealed that many residents and organizations were strongly opposed to the mine. In addition, allegations were made that funding was insufficiently allocated to properly educate the public on the environmental impacts of the mine, leaving them vulnerable to persuasion.
Sandra Inutiq of the Iqaluit-based anti-uranium group Nunavummiut Makitagunarningit fears the decision has already been made to go ahead with the project and has said that the forums, to be held later this year, will simply serve to support an agenda-driven process.
Kiggavik will consist of five mines: one underground and four open-pit. Access roads and an airline strip would have to be built through the Thelon basin, an area crucial to the declining Beverly and Qaminirjuaq caribou herds—the foundation of the Caribou Inuit culture.
Threats to Inuit tradition, health, and the Arctic environment are top concerns among Nunavut residents and organizations, including the Baker Lake Concerned Residents Committee, which believes Kiggavik will open the door to other uranium mines.
“It’s not just (this) mine that we are concerned about,” Joan Scottie, founder of the Baker Lake Committee, told the Canadian Press earlier this year.
“There’s going to be so many projects and I don’t think many Inuit are aware of it. Once the mine goes in, that’s it. It will be politically impossible to stop other companies from opening uranium mines in the middle of our calving grounds, in the middle of our hunting grounds.”
Canada is currently the world’s largest producer of uranium, producing 9,000 tonnes in 2008. Rich deposits have been mined in northern Saskatchewan around the uranium-rich Athabasca Basin.
The market rise of uranium prices and recent revival in nuclear energy manufacturing have been attributed to the renewed interest in Nunavut’s rich ore deposits.
However, Nunavut has a history of opposition to the uranium industry. Two decades ago, a community plebiscite denied a proposed uranium mine in the same area of Baker Lake, followed shortly by an all-out ban on uranium mining by Nunavut Tungavik Inc., an administrative body overseeing Inuit land claim agreements, including the proper management of traditional land, water, and wildlife.
If approved, construction for Kiggavik could start as early as 2012 with production beginning in 2015.
Katherine Krampol is a writer and blogger living in Vancouver.