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Stalled Kitikmeot gold mine hearings resume

Gjoa Haven residents attend a community meeting held by Matthew Pickard of Sabina Gold and Silver, on the Back River gold mine project. - photo courtesy of Jason Prno

The next step for the Back River gold mine project starts in Cambridge Bay at the end of the month.

The Nunavut Impact Review Board is to hold public hearings for the second time on development of the Sabina Gold and Silver Kitikmeot mine project May 31 to June 3.

In June of last year, the board recommended to Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) that the project not proceed, citing adverse effects on wildlife (primarily caribou), marine habitats and related socioeconomic concerns for communities as reason for rejecting the file.

Then in January, INAC Minister Carolyn Bennett called the rejection premature and requested the review board re-examine the file for the proposed mine site located 400 kilometres southwest of Cambridge Bay.

Hence a second public hearing.

"This is not a new hearing or a redo, it's a continuation of the issue because of the minister's direction that since our last board decision there have been updates to the context of some of those issues that our board had indicated were reasons to not say yes," said Tara Arko, director or technical services for the Nunavut Impact Review Board (NIRB).

"The transcript from the hearing will be the key evidence that the board will make its decision on," she said.

Following the hearings, the board has 45 days to issue a decision.

At the hearings, federal and territorial agencies will present, and a community roundtable discussion will be held with community members from Kitikmeot communities and Northwest Territories communities that use the caribou herds that migrate through the mine area.

"Communities in the Northwest Territories have a lot more experience in mining and development. The board wants to hear from the elders of those communities what the impacts could be on development on this side of the territorial border," she said.

Sabina held community meetings in Yellowknife and in the Kitikmeot from April 17 to 24.

Around 45 people attended in Kugaaruk, 10 in Yellowknife, and 30 in Gjoa Haven, according to Sabina's Matthew Pickard.

Taloyoak Mayor Simon Qingnaqtuq said there were between 10 and 20 people at the Taloyoak meeting on April 20.

"Their main concern was the wildlife, the caribou migration," he said. "They were worried about scaring off the caribou in the area."

Attendees were asking if noise levels from explosives used at the mine would startle herds and deter the animals from coming near the area in future.

Caribou mitigation was the main point of presentation for the Sabina community meetings, said Pickard. He also noted that at least half of the questions were about jobs and employment.

In late August, Sabina, the Government of Nunavut and the Kitikmeot Inuit Association partnered to petition INAC to have the mine project reconsidered.

"We want the Back River to move forward for jobs and benefits," Kugluktuk elders Tommy Norberg, Alice Ayalik and Mona Tiktalek stated in a letter of support for the mine, dated July 6, to Bennett and NIRB chairperson Elizabeth Copland. "Please keep the land and water clean for us and our animals ... The project is important to us and our families. The community needs jobs."

WWF has called the proposed mine site a critical habitat for caribou herds.

Despite the project being in a state of stasis, Sabina is continuing its existing exploration for the project. On April 11, the company announced it had begun drilling for the spring at one of the Back River camps.

"The drilling is exploration drilling under current permits, it's not related to site development," said Pickard. "Since the minister sent the project back for reconsideration, we felt it was still appropriate to do some of this work."

He said there is no site development or mobilization happening.

Gjoa Haven residents attend a community meeting held by Matthew Pickard of Sabina Gold and Silver, on the Back River gold mine project. - photo courtesy of Jason Prno