In August, 1997, 250 members of Canada's Innu Nation and the Labrador Inuit Association staged a joint protest in northern Labrador at the site of one of the world's largest discoveries of nickel. This site, referred to as Emish by the Innu; Tasiujatsoak by the Inuit; and Voisey's Bay by outsiders - is significant in that: (a) the ore is rich in content; (b) is found at the surface minimizing costs of extraction; and (c) is located a short distance from tidewater significantly easing the expense of shipping to the outside world.

The copper-nickel deposit was first discovered in September of 1993 by Archean Inc., a prospecting firm hired by Diamond Fields Resources Inc. Within a year, the company realized it had found one of the richest deposits of nickel ore in the world. The rush to stake out claims was dramatic. By 1996, Diamond Fields Resources Inc. estimated that the complete deposit contained 100 million tonnes of ore. Further drilling tests followed as other mining companies became involved. While the ease of extraction and shipping ore has caused great enthusiasm in the mining industry, several key issues need to be addressed before the process can proceed. Primary among them are land claims and environmental assessment:

Land Claims: Both the Innu and Inuit have long claimed the region's land. The Innu Nation represent approximately 1,500 indigenous residents of Labrador. The approximately 5,000 Inuit, represented by the Labrador Inuit Association, are found along the Labrador coast, including the large community of Nain [pop: 1,000]. The Sheshatshiu and Utshimassiu Innu reside close by in Davis Inlet. In addition to the issue of land ownership, both indigenous communities fear the negative effects stemming from present exploration and future ore development.

Environmental Assessment: All large scale natural resource extraction in Canada must have a federally approved environmental assessment before undertaking the actual development. Key questions to be decided are: How damaging will be the impact of development be on the environment? Will the process be safe for industry workers and surrounding residents?  How should development of this resource be managed?   This determination is made by a panel of experts including participants with detailed knowledge of the industrial activity involved as well as environmental and social/cultural conditions in the local region.

Since mining development in Canada is a provincial responsibility, the Government of Newfoundland is also directly involved. Wanting to maximize their financial benefits, this government recently changed its mining laws to state that all minerals mined in the province must be smelted and refined there. Royalities and taxation are also provincially determined.

There is a history of indigenous protests over past environmental degradation and land ownership. Shortly after discovery of the the nickel ore deposits at Voisey's Bay, a militant group of Innu attacked a drilling site, burned the pumphouse providing water for mud that lubricated the drills and smashed the drill bits, bringing the operation to a halt. It took the arrival of the RCMP to get drilling re-instituted.

Since that time, Diamond Fields Inc. has significantly expanded its exploration in the expectation of early development of what is now recognized as a highly profitable multi-billion dollar mine venture. As reported by Daniel Ashini, an Innu leader, at an international consultation on mining and indigenous people, held in London, UK in May, 1996:

When the Innu realized that the activities at the site were intensifying in February of 1995, the Innu Nation and the Mushuau Innu First Nation Council issued an eviction order to Diamond Fields Resources. We demanded that they stop drilling until they had prepared an environmental and cultural protection plan. We went on to the land to protest for 12 days. It was a peaceful protest. The threat to economic development was, however, too much of a concern for the Newfoundland government. The Premier of Newfoundland sent in 56 officers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. An attempt by the Labrador Inuit Association, which also has rights in the Emish area, and the Innu Nation to reach a negotiated agreement with the company ended abruptly when they made it clear that it would not recognize Aboriginal rights and resumed exploration activity.

It has been more than a year since these events. During this time, Diamond Fields has dramatically expanded its exploration efforts at Emish, and there is now no question that the discovery will become a multi-billion dollar mine. There are now 14 drills active on the site, the main ore body has been delineated, and engineering and planning for the mine is now well under way. The two base camps now at the site now support a workforce of approximately 120 people, including a dozen Inuit and several Innu. As a result of exploration to date, the Voisey's Bay Nickel Company (partially owned by Diamond Fields Resources, Teck and Inco) has about 30 million tonnes of ore reserves including nickel, copper and cobalt which are valued at about $10 billion. In addition, other ore deposits are being explored, which could bring the total value of the Voisey's Bay deposits to $50 billion. By any account, the deposit is huge. Because of its importance in the nickel market, a bidding war between two major mining companies, Inco [International Nickel Company] and Falconbridge, took place. The current winner of that war is Inco. Inco bid $4.5 billion in order to obtain control of the mine. Recent newspaper reports at the end of April suggest that the ore deposit is estimated at 50 million tonnes higher than the previous 100 million tonnes estimate, which, if true, could substantially increase the dollar value of the deposit.

Of major significance is the fact that the Innu and Inuit have never ceded territory to the Government of Canada or Newfoundland. Although negotations are continuing, with over 250,000 mineral exploration claims in a severely economically depressed province, the pressure to develop these deposits is immense. To further heighten the conflict, the Province of Newfoundland has taken the position that mineral regulations should be based on the "free-entry" system which allows mineral exploration to take precedence over all other land uses - including those of the indigenous residents. Thus, as Daniel Ashini reminded his London audience in 1966, "mining companies can stake out claims on Innu lands not unlike a practice occurring 500 years ago when Giovanni Cabot, a Portuguese mercenary sailor [under orders from Henry the 7th, of England] gave orders to conquor, occupy and possess the lands of heathens and infidels," which included the territory now known as Newfoundland, a region long inhabited by the Micmac, the Beothuck, and the Innu."

In early 1997, the Innu Nation and Labrador Inuit took legal action by bringing their case to the provincial court demanding that the construction of a road and airstrip associated with the Voisey's Bay nickel mine stop until a full environmental assessment was undertaken - an assessment to include aboriginal representatives. The mining company's position was that present drilling and airport construction was limited to exploration [as opposed to mineral extraction] and thus, a full environmental assessment was not required. In July, Newfoundland's Supreme Court Justice, Ray Halley, rejected the legal basis for the claims of the two aboriginal organizations. This led to the Innu-Inuit protest in August of 1997, a demonstration of special significance in that it was the first time the two indigenous groups actively collaborated in support of their claims on the land. As summarized by Katie Rich, president of the Innu Nation:

Our thinking on this matter is very clear. A project of this nature requires proper planning and a proper environmental assessment. It also requires aboriginal consent. The Innu cannot give approval to this project without a land rights agreement and an Impact Benefits Agreement in place. Inco, Ltd. [the parent company of Voisey Bay Nickel Mine] is trying to proceed without any of this.

On September 22nd, much to the frustation of the provincial government of Newfoundland and the mining companies, the three judges of the Newfoundland Court of Appeals blocked the provincial government's order to allow a mining company to bypass environmental regulations and allow continuing exploration of nickel mining operations. Instead, they ruled that Voisey's Bay Nickel Company must go through a full environmental assessment for its proposed 12 kilometre road and 1 kilometre airstrip. In their 33 page statement, they further remarked:

Reconciling the use of the Earth's resources with the protection and preservation of the environment is recognized as one of the major challenges of our time.

And while recognizing the legimate interests of investors and the substantial numbers of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians "... who have legitimate expectations of badly needed employment," the three judges stated:

After all, indiscrimate development without regard to environmental impact translates eventually into agonizing problems for generations yet unborn from every corner of the province, whether it be the depleted fishery; forestry harvesting in the absence of silvaculture; uncontrolled effluent and emissions from plants; or, the tragedies of flourspar or asbestos mines....We are sure that all parties involved would not want to have the mining development at Voisey's Bay to be placed in the same category.

As to the aboriginal land claims, the Court was far less specific. Acknowledging the immediate concerns of the two indigenous populations and the land to which they have been linked for generations, the judges nevertheless stated that general issues must transcend those related to land claims. The Court of Appeal did award legal costs to the Labrador Inuit Association and the Innu Nation.


Recent Developments

The Innu Nation & Labrador Inuit Association struggle has experienced what might be a bifurcation in focus.  On November 5, 1997, the Labrador Inuit Asssociation (LIA) passed a resolution accepting an agreement with the provincial and federal government advancing their land claims process.  Among the principles agreed upon are provisions for royalty sharing and other entitlements vis-a-vis Voisey Bay.  What this means for the more politicized Innu Nation has yet to be seen. Acknowledging the cooperation of the LIA and the Innu Nation in the earlier militant protest surrounding Voisey Bay exploration and development, the Innu struggle may become even more acute.  At the moment, it is not clear whether the interests of the Innu and Inuit are united around issues of environmental assessment, environmental impact, employment and worker safety, and economic development.

What is clear is that substantial problems of Social Equity and Environmental Justice remain...

And without question, they will continue to be fought over on the land, in the courts, and in the press. Other case studies in Arctic Circle's continuing series on this topic offer important lessons from the past. Will these earlier experiences be taken into account by government and corporate leaders most directly involved in the decision-making process? Or will they repeat the all too frequent patterns of misjudgment made and false promises offered by those who preceeded them?


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