Understanding the social and economic impacts of mining development in Inuit communities: experiences with past and present mines in Inuit Nunangat.

Author:Rodon, Thierry

Abstract: In this article, we examine whether the social and economic impacts of mines on Inuit communities have changed over time, based on Inuit experiences. After an overview of the past experiences of Inuit with the mining industry in Inuit Nunangat between 1957 and the early 2000s, we analyze the complex relation between Inuit communities in the vicinity of mines using recent fieldwork conducted in the Inuit communities located near two active mines in Inuit Nunangat: Salluit and Kangiqsujuaq (Nunavik) and the Raglan nickel mine and Qamani'tuaq (Baker Lake, Nunavut) and the Meadowbank gold mine. We argue that much work remains to be done to understand the economic and social impacts of mining development on Inuit communities.


Arctic Canada's mining potential has long been known. In the mid-twentieth century, mineral exploration was already underway throughout Inuit Nunangat (Inuit territory) (Boutet 2010; Keeling & Sandlos 2009; Sandlos & Keeling 2012; Rodon et al. 2013). At that time, the relationship between mining development and the Inuit was already very closely linked to policies introduced by the Liberal government of Louis St-Laurent (1948-1957) and the Progressive Conservative government of John Diefenbaker (1957-1963). Indeed, the first exploration and exploitation projects were being carried out while the federal government was imposing the welfare state across the whole Arctic and thus depriving Inuit of some control over their lives (Zaslow 1988). During this period, Ottawa's goal was to develop the North and "civilize" Inuit by giving them the same advantages and opportunities as their fellow citizens in the South (Lesage 1955; Robertson 1960). The opening of mines was seen as a great opportunity to do both and was therefore encouraged by the Canadian government.

For example, from 1957 to 1962, a mine extracted copper and nickel at Rankin Inlet (Cater & Keeling 2013). On northern Baffin Island, the Nanisivik mine operated from 1976 to 2002 (Lim 2013; Tester et. al 2013). Between 1982 and 2002, the Polaris mine operated on Little Cornwallis Island (Green 2013), near Resolute Bay. Nunavik, too, had a long experience with the mining industry that featured a period of intensive exploration from the 1950s onward, which left behind many scars on the territory (Duhaime et al. 2005). This exploration led to mining of an asbestos deposit at the Asbestos Hill mine between 1972 and 1980.

Since then, the juridical/legal and institutional contexts have greatly evolved. Unlike the days when resource development was planned as if the territory was "terra nullius," Nunavik (James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement) and Nunavut (Nunavut Land Claims Agreement) are now covered by land claims settlements that have led to specific environmental regimes which, above all, have put into place regional administrations and governments, thus increasing Inuit participation in decision making (Rodon 2010; White 2009). The mining industry is also subject to increasingly elaborate environmental assessment processes. To gain social licence to operate (Prno & Slocombe 2012), and to avoid lengthy litigation processes, mining companies have developed the practice of signing Impact and Benefit Agreements (IBA) with Aboriginal organizations that represent communities affected by development. These agreements offer financial compensation, profit sharing, training programs, scholarships, and so on (Knotsch et al. 2010).

Inuit communities from Nunavik and Nunavut thus now seem to be in a better position to get more benefits out of mining development than they were half a century ago. But are they? Two opposing arguments are invoked to answer this question.

For advocates of economic modernization, natural resource development helps improve the conditions of life in resource-rich regions. This narrative has dominated Canadian political discourse for more than half a century (Page 1986; Canadian Press 2011; Galloway 2011; Rea 1968). Both Quebec City and Ottawa have encouraged mining and other resource development projects in the Arctic under the assumption that these projects would participate in the economic and social development of the territory and benefit local Inuit populations. Whereas past mine developments were initiated and supported by governments financially and with built infrastructure, the strategy has shifted and they are now encouraged to secure private investment, albeit with tax incentives and infrastructure funding through initiatives like the Plan Nord and CanNor (Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency).

Others, however, have argued that, besides having economic effects that are hard to quantify (Haley et al. 2011), mine development has contributed little to improving the conditions of life of Arctic communities (Abele 2009). In fact, some have shown that regions that are rich in natural resources are often those that suffer from underdevelopment (Sachs & Warner 2001). Furthermore, Arctic communities cannot always make the most of the economic benefits (Duhaime et al. 2011), in large part because they are seldom consulted (Asselin 2011), while they have to bear the brunt of major social impacts with little capacity to mitigate these impacts (Keller 2012; Rodon et al. 2014). In addition, communities lose the mainstay of their economies when mines close (Lim 2013).

In this article, using the Inuit experience provided by research reports and interviews conducted in Inuit communities, we provide a portrait of the complex relation between mines and Inuit communities in order to highlight the Inuit perception of their social and economic impacts over time. To do so, we first review the available information on mining development between 1957 and the 1990s in Inuit Nunangat using academic literature, oral accounts, and the few available environmental and social follow-up studies that exist. Then, we compare two contemporary mining projects that have been in operation for several years--Raglan in Nunavik and Meadowbank in Nunavut--using findings from our own fieldwork, research reports, and academic publications. This will allow us to point to whether the Inuit perceptions of the socio-economic impacts of mines have changed over time, thus reflecting, or not, the increased power that Inuit have gained through land claims settlement, and the change in the regulatory framework of mining in the North.

History of Mining in the Canadian Arctic: 1957-1990s

The first modern mine to operate in Inuit Nunangat opened in 1957; the Rankin Inlet mine employed eighty Inuit full-time and around twenty others part-time in 1961 (McPherson 2003: 7-12). To recruit its employees, the mine had worked closely with the then Department of Indian Affairs, which covered the costs of transporting workers to the mine site (Williamson 1974: 111). Peter Ittinuar, whose father Ollie (1921-2013) was a miner at Rankin Inlet, reminisced about this experience in generally positive terms:

... my father, along with many families from Chesterfield Inlet, decided to move to Rankin Inlet because the money to be made in the mine was unheard of.... The mine had a very forward-looking manager; Andy Easton was his name. His name is still revered by people in Rankin Inlet. He hired any Inuk who would come in as often as he could, mostly for labour jobs, but also he hired them as carpenters, heavy equipment operators, elevator operators in the shaft, and as mucking machine operators. He hired them to work in the mill. There was a lot of employment for Inuit at the time. (Itinuar 2008: 33-34)

The mine caused many changes in the community. For example, the children who grew up there learned English even before they went to school (Ittinuar 2008:36-37). The mine also raised the incomes of many Inuit families who began to wear European clothing and acquire goods such as washing machines, boats, and several rifles (McPherson 2003). The mine planned social activities, dances, and also parties for adults. According to Ittinuar: "In those days there never seemed to be violence, just giggling people, but now it's different" (Ittinuar 2008: 37).

Community life was structured around three focal points: the ethnic groups, the mine, and the church (Ittinuar 2008:36). Rankin Inlet was a diverse community with outside workers and Inuit from other areas: according to the Department of Northern Affairs (DNA), 65% of Inuit employees came from Chesterfield Inlet, 25% from Arviat, and the others from Repulse Bay and Baker Lake (McPherson 2003: 8). Many Inuit families were also relocated to Rankin Inlet during the Keewatin Re-Establishment Project, DNA's response to the famine experienced by many interior Inuit in 1957-1958 (Tester and Kulchyski 1994: 274-305). Peter Ittinuar (2008: 38) says the diversity of Inuit in Rankin Inlet led to the development of their own dialect.

On the other hand, not everything was idyllic. Aside from the relations among the different Inuit groups, which were problematic (Ittinuar 2008: 47-48; Williamson 1974: 115-116), there were also the relations between Inuit and Qallunaat (European), which likewise could be difficult. Ittinuar mentions that the "relationship between the qallunaat and the Inuit was quite good in the beginning. It deteriorated in the sixties when work for the Inuit fell off. Then there was like a second-class type of hierarchy" (Ittinuar 2008: 40). Moreover, like everywhere else in the Canadian mining industry at the time, there were no accident compensation programs to help miners who had become injured or sick and thus unable to work. There were medical services, but employees needed to pay for them (MacPherson 2003:11). For example, after a hunting accident, Ollie Ittinuar could not work at the mine for-several months. This had dramatic consequences for his son, who had little to eat during that period (Ittinuar 2008: 51-53).

The mine closed in 1963, bringing hard times to the community and its residents....

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