By Brendan Marshall
As the largest economic driver in Canada’s North, there is no question that the mining sector’s presence in Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, and the Yukon is significant. According to the Conference Board of Canada, mining industry GDP contributions for 2021 for the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and the Yukon are forecast at 27 per cent, 42 per cent, and 12.8 per cent respectively, totalling nearly $3 billion. Companies like Agnico Eagle, Baffinland, De Beers, Rio Tinto, and Arctic Canadian Diamond Company that operate in the region using standards like Towards Sustainable Mining are frequently recognized for their commitment to responsibly mining the materials we use every day.
So, what needs to happen for the North to truly reach its potential as a preferred destination for mining? The answer lies in continuing challenges on infrastructure development, or the lack thereof, that make northern Canada one of the most expensive places to mine in the world. Without strategic improvements in infrastructure to enhance investment competitiveness, these regions and their inhabitants will remain disproportionately reliant on transfer funding for core services and program delivery, frequently at lower standards than southern Canadian jurisdictions enjoy.
Strategic investments in energy infrastructure specifically are essential to reduce northern reliance on costly and higher-emitting fossil fuels. Off-grid mining companies, which encompass almost all mining operations in the North, are overwhelmingly dependent on liquid fuels for power generation and will remain so until a paradigm shift ushers in the next generation of technologies. Until then, it remains in Canada’s best interest, and consistent with Indigenous reconciliation and clean technology development policy priorities, to ensure these vulnerable assets are not artificially rendered redundant.
Electricity production for Nunavut alone consumes 55 million litres of diesel each year. Nunavut’s four operating mines have invested in best-in-class diesel energy infrastructure, which still requires more than 100 million litres of diesel each year to power their mine sites. Currently, there are no other energy alternatives for Nunavut communities or industry, though a number of projects and applications which would support decarbonization are at various stages of development and partnership.
The Kivalliq Hydro-Fibre Link is just one example of an Inuit-led project that will deliver renewable energy and broadband service to underserved remote communities while enabling the region’s mining sector to flourish. The Hydro-Fibre Link project is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to decarbonize communities and industry in Nunavut, improve quality of life and connectivity, and create new economic opportunities long into the future. The benefits from this project will be enormous for the environment and for the economies of Nunavut and Canada, and would work to solve two persistent problems at once.
Gold, diamond, and iron ore mining are excellent examples of the driving force the mining industry plays in supporting Indigenous reconciliation in remote regions. In Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, companies that mine these materials are the largest Indigenous employers and business partners in these territories. It took decades to cultivate relationships with local communities, establish meaningful partnerships, construct mines, train local workforces, and ultimately generate the wealth and prosperity this effort has made possible.
There is no question the future of Canada’s mining industry lies increasingly in Canada’s North, with its abundance of minerals and metals and committed local workforce, but strategic policy decisions are needed to help overcome both acute and longstanding challenges in order for the region to truly seize the opportunity before it.
Brendan Marshall is the vice-president for Economic and Northern Affairs for the Mining Association of Canada.