Arctic Interruptions

‘They should acknowledge the gap’: Exploring contemporary mining encounters in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut

The following is the final piece in the second set of our ongoing Arctic Interruptions series. Edited by Sara Komarnisky and Lindsay Bell, this series challenges our expectations about the North and opens new windows on its life and history. The series will appear in Volume 4, Issue 1 of Northern Public Affairs.

In April 2013 Nunatsiaq News, Nunavut’s territorial newspaper, published an article titled “Mining companies need to understand Inuit: Nunavut consultant.” The article drew on a presentation made by former Rankin Inlet mayor and now mining consultant, Pujjuut Kusugak, at the Nunavut Mining Symposium. In the presentation, Kusugak asserted that people who come to Nunavut from southern regions of Canada (defined as south of the 60th parallel) to work in the mining industry need to have a better understanding of Inuit and the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement (NLCA). Further, Kusugak went on to state, “Inuit will not just agree to have land ‘exploited’ or ‘used’ for development…Inuit aren’t going to just give you that land” (Dawson 2013, 1).

This article ruptured ideas held in southern imaginaries of Nunavut as mining’s last frontier (Klein 2012), or as a former minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development[1] called it, “our frozen treasure chest” (Saunders 2014, 1). Instead, Kusugak’s words served as a firm reminder that Nunavut is the homeland of Inuit whose claims to territory have shaped the social and geographical landscapes. He cautioned that mining executives and workers need to learn “what it’s like to work in the North…People need to understand what they’re getting into” (Dawson 2013, 1).

I would argue this article also served another purpose: By drawing attention to the complex grounded encounters occurring between mining companies and Northern communities, it interrupted what many people expect of Northern peoples, places, and processes. Mining projects in the Canadian North are often conceptualized in theoretical and practical scholarship as impacting vulnerable Northern populations and challenging traditional ways of life (Hall 2013). This approach fails to understand that Inuit are not merely victims in the face of ‘modern’ development projects (cf. Horowitz 2002), but actors in processes of environmental and social change, albeit in highly asymmetrical relations of power (Blaser et al. 2004). Further, less attention is given to the movement of people, capital, and goods in and out of the region (Cameron 2012).

In this paper, I draw on interview vignettes to argue that contemporary encounters with mining economies in Rankin Inlet both interrupt and are interrupted by local and trans-local ways of living. Interviews were conducted as part of my Master’s research project (2011-3), which explored the social and environmental legacies of historic mining in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, and the community’s relationship with current and projected mineral developments in the region. Working closely with a community research assistant in Rankin Inlet in the summer of 2012, I used participant observation, semi-structured interviews, and landscape analysis to engage with government officials, community members, and past and present miners on questions about historical and contemporary mining in the region. Qualitative data used in this article consists of 21 research interviews, as well as field notes and observations. Seven interviewees were government officials (both Inuit and Qallunaat[2]) working for the Kivalliq Inuit Association (KIA), Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (NTI), the Government of Nunavut (GN), and the Hamlet of Rankin Inlet, most of them long-term community residents. Twelve were community members: five Qallunaat and seven Inuit. Two were former NRNM miners, both interviews being simultaneously translated into Inuktitut. One interviewee was a present-day miner. All of the miners interviewed were Inuit.

A mine in the backyard

Industrial mining has become the greatest economic driver in Nunavut (Klein 2012). Contemporary mining projects in Nunavut are considered ‘mega-projects’—complex social and political networks that stimulate a range of relationships between government bodies, local communities, and private investors (Priemus et al. 2008). Mining mega-projects must overcome great geographical, financial, and logistical challenges to operate in the Canadian North, and have been described as “projects of technological complexity that are innovative and often experimental” (Browne et al. 2009, 4).

The expansion of mineral development presents opportunities and challenges for the region’s Inuit population. While historically, Inuit participated as employees in mining operations, such as the North Rankin Nickel Mine near Rankin Inlet (Cater and Keeling 2014; Williamson 1974) and the Nanisivik mine located near Arctic Bay, Nunavut (Lim, 2013; Midgley, 2012), Inuit were predominantly on the outside of land-use agreements, and were often reactive in managing the social and economic risks associated with mining.

In 1993, the signing of the NLCA gave Inuit title to 356,000 square kilometres of land, ensuring that claim beneficiaries benefit from mining projects on Inuit Owned Lands and that they are compensated financially through Inuit Impact and Benefit Agreements (IIBAs) for the negative impacts mines have on their communities, land, and ways of life (Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. 2001). As minerals are extracted from the ground in Northern spaces and exploited in global markets, local communities have become a site of negotiation and contestation around mining projects. Mining projects are both core business investments and strategic development investments for communities affected by their operations. In addition to securing regulatory approvals, mining projects seek their ‘social license to operate,’ or community acceptance of the project, by addressing regional and community development concerns (Kemp 2010).

Mineral development has a strong history and ongoing presence in the Kivalliq region. Hardly a new phenomenon, the creation of Rankin Inlet—the community where I have been conducting graduate research since 2012—was directly tied to the development of the North Rankin Nickel Mine (NRNM) in the 1950s (Cater 2013). While most of the other communities in what is presently Nunavut were built around cultural or historic attachment to the area, Rankin Inlet was brought into being by mineral development, bringing Inuit families from other settlements or areas around Nunavut, to work on the mine site (Eber 1989).

The NRNM contained one of the richest nickel deposits in Canada, and was the first mining town to be established in the Canadian Arctic (Boulter 2011). Inuit families migrated to Rankin Inlet, moving from a semi-nomadic subsistence way of life to an industry-based settlement lifestyle, and entering into the wage-based economy (Damas 2002). From 1957-1962, 70 per cent of the NRNM’s workforce was composed of Inuit working in both above and below ground industrial positions. After the mine’s closure in 1962, most Inuit people stayed, while most Qallunaat left, and this short encounter with mining holds an ongoing presence within the community (Cater and Keeling 2014).

Today, Rankin Inlet is set to become a centre of mining activity again, as Toronto-based company Agnico-Eagle Mines Ltd. develops the Meliadine gold project, located 27 kilometres outside of the community (Klein 2012). The project will use both open pit and underground extraction methods, operating on land mostly covered by glacial overburden and surrounded by deep-seated permafrost. This large-scale industrial mining development is currently in the exploration and feasibility phases, and is expected to start full operation in 2017, corresponding with the closure of Agnico-Eagle’s Meadowbank mine near Baker Lake (Figure 1). The Meliadine project is expected to operate for approximately 10 to 13 years, with three million ounces of proven gold reserves. The project will draw on existing infrastructure found in the Rankin Inlet community, such as using the sealift by barge via Hudson’s Bay, and transporting fly-in/fly-out workers from southern regions of Canada and other communities within the Kivalliq region through the Rankin Inlet airport. The Meliadine project will be linked to Rankin Inlet via a newly constructed all-weather road.


Figure 1. Map locating Rankin Inlet (Meliadine Project) and Baker Lake (Meadowbank mine) and associated mine sites. Map courtesy of Quinn Dekking, Memorial University.

Figure 1. Map locating Rankin Inlet (Meliadine Project) and Baker Lake (Meadowbank mine) and associated mine sites. Map courtesy of Quinn Dekking, Memorial University.

Acknowledging the gap

The title of this paper was taken from an interview I conducted in the summer of 2012 with a long-term Inuk resident of Rankin Inlet who worked at the airport. I had asked her about Agnico-Eagle’s presence within the community and the development of the Meliadine gold project. She mused, “[I]n my life and in my path that I make in this town, I hardly even see them [southern mine workers], and I work at the airport, and they come by, and I don’t talk to them very often…Mostly they act like tourists.” I questioned her further by asking, “So would you like them to come in [to Rankin Inlet] less as southern workers as tourists, but provide more information about what they plan on doing [at the mine site] as well?” She said, “They should acknowledge the gap.”

Mary Louise Pratt defines a contact zone as “the space of colonial encounters, the space in which peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations, usually involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality, and intractable conflict” (1992, 6). These encounters are assembled through “copresence, interaction, interlocking understandings and practices, often within asymmetrical relations of power” (Ibid). It is through these interactions that people who are geographically and historically separated come together and attempt to grapple with their differences. My research informant was expressing dissatisfaction with the ways southern mine workers were moving through the community and representing their presence. To her, acting like a tourist—which is often defined as travelling to a place for pleasure, and not engaging with local peoples and places—shut down opportunities for cross-cultural dialogue and sidetracked the need for accountability from southern workers in representing their company and its actions within the community. She argued, “They are tourists for sure. But when I went to Baker [Lake], I was a tourist, and yet I represented myself as [an employee of] Nunavut tourism [the company I work for]. That’s the difference.”

This notion of acknowledging the gap between southern mine workers and Rankin Inlet residents around the development of the Meliadine gold project was also raised in an interview I conducted with a territorial government official and long-term Qallunaat resident of Rankin Inlet. He told me that there has been tension between community organizations and Agnico-Eagle due to concerns over disruptions to wildlife and a failure to follow protocols outlined in the NLCA. Caribou migrations occur seasonally with thousands of caribou travelling through Iqalugaarjuup Territorial Park near the Meliadine exploration site and Rankin Inlet (Figure 2). Caribou continue to be an important part of Inuit culture, providing food, materials for clothing, and other tools. In calving and post-calving feeding grounds, a total halt to mining operations is required within the NLCA and other IIBAs and protocols for mining companies. In areas through which other caribou are migrating, the pace of development must slow to reduce impact. This includes not using low flying helicopters that may impact the caribou migration.

Figure 2: Seasonal caribou migration through Iqalugaarjuup Territorial Park, 2012. Photo credit: Tara Cater.

Figure 2: Seasonal caribou migration through Iqalugaarjuup Territorial Park, 2012. Photo credit: Tara Cater.

Speaking to me about an incident where Agnico-Eagle used low-flying helicopters during the caribou migration, the territorial government official sighed, “And it shouldn’t be a surprise. If the caribou are migrating through, the standard response is to slow down or stop operations that would potentially have an impact on those migrating animals…so to have the opposite happen…you sort of think, so what’s going on, when it shouldn’t be a surprise.”

He went on to argue, “There is going to be a lot of pressure to keep production levels going, because [Agnico-Eagle’s] whole business model is based on providing the product on a continual supply.” He paused. “There seems to be no…receptiveness to ‘Oh, we need to slow down when the caribou comes through.’ So that idea that all of a sudden we [Agnico-Eagle] take a few days off…when your production or your labour force is costing you hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars a day…[but] they have no choice, they can’t keep going [due to processes outlined in the NCLA and IIBAs]…and I can see the company’s perspective too.”

He concluded the interview, “Is this [Agnico-Eagle’s] home, or just a mine camp?…If the migration changes and [caribou] are no longer coming to the same area and food security is a big topic as well…just lifestyle, if you have to change then you [can’t] find where your roots are…Those are the impacts.”


Many long-term residents in Rankin Inlet that I spoke to expressed a lack of trust in the abilities or motivations of southern mine workers to monitor the daily and long-term impacts of the Meliadine project. I asked a long-term Inuk resident, “Do you feel this mine is being put in place…by people who…won’t feel the impacts?” She responded, “I think they’ll [Agnico-Eagle] get hurt if they lose money, but that’s their only impact.” She paused. “All land is everyone’s land, and that’s how land should be treated. But that’s not how I feel they [southern mine workers] think about it. They think, ‘This is not my land, this is the Inuit land’, and that’s fine because that’s the major thing, you know, Inuit land beneficiaries and Inuit land claims agreements, and the identity of this land is very much, Inuit land.” She went on, “But that’s not how they feel that…that maybe it’s not their responsibility, though it is law that they should respect the land. I think that’s the only reason they would do that [follow rules outlined in the NLCA]. Because they have to.”

Within this interview, she attempted to destabilize the simultaneous universality and invisibility of Western industrial notions of development, management and progress, arguing that there are other ways of being in place, understanding land, and being responsible as an environmental steward.

Returning back to the Nunatsiaq News article, Kusugak asserts, “If you’re coming from a place like Toronto, do you have the same understanding of your backyard [as people in the Arctic]?” (Dawson 2013, 1). With the coming Meliadine project, residents are concerned about the impacts of having mining activity so near the community, and its impacts on land, wildlife, and socio-economic factors. Agnico-Eagle has worked to establish its social license to mine through sponsoring events such as a family day in Rankin Inlet that included games, food, music, and dancing, as well as building recreational facilities, such as the local baseball field. Yet, the grounded encounters between southern mine workers and residents in Rankin Inlet weave a complicated story of grappling with difference within a contact zone, which is rarely visible in academic, corporate, and policy research on mining. Glen Banks argues, “contested identities, altered identities, fractured identities: all these processes are happening…as a result of mining developments. They impact communities, resource developers, and the governments. They also spark conflict at mining sites and within [regions]. And they account better for these conflicts than explanations that reduce them to simple economics” (2004, 8).

Mining processes affect populations located nearest to the project, or ‘fence-line communities’ (Calvano 2008), who experience a disproportionate amount of the environmental and social costs of the project, yet only gain a portion of the short-term benefits. The development of the Meliadine gold project, located just 27 kilometres from the community of Rankin Inlet, interrupts local and trans-local ways of life. In particular, residents spoke about potential impacts to caribou migrations, contaminants in lakes, and the destruction of land and wildlife. Beyond environmental impacts, residents expressed worries over the influx of southern fly-in/fly-out workers in the community, strains on already stressed infrastructure and community organizations, and the need for Inuit participation at all stages of development and closure.

Local residents in Rankin Inlet also interrupt the business-as-usual model of multinational mining corporations operating on Inuit Owned Lands. Howitt and Suchet-Pearson argue that “the persistence of Indigenous epistemologies rooted in systems that predate the creation of colonial property rights and assertions of frontier conquest and dispossession, unsettles the dominant idea in…development discourses that… industrialization [is an] unproblematic [goal] for communities and nations” (2006, 323). Residents in Rankin Inlet continually monitor Agnico-Eagle’s activities and ensure that the processes within the NLCA and IIBAs are attended to. Further, residents defend their deep attachment to the land for hunting and other activities, challenging ontologies (ways of knowing) of land as (solely) a commodity to be exploited for resources. The presence of residents engaging daily with southern mine workers interrupts myths of Nunavut as mining’s last frontier. Instead, residents are engaged in a contact zone with southern workers, navigating complex conversations around difference, development, and colonial encounters. As Kusugak argues, “[Inuit history and colonialism], those are still real issues right now…When you appreciate a culture, it’s a sign of respect” (Dawson 2013, 1).◉


[1]  On May 18, 2011 the Federal department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development was changed to Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC). That title has since been changed to Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC).

[2]  In Inuktitut, Qallunaaq (plural, Qallunaat) is the word used for white people or Europeans.


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