Bringing Sustainability to the People of Nunavut
Ross L. Sherlock, David J. Scott and Gordon MacKay

Nunavut is Canada’s newest territory, established on April 1, 1999. Encompassing about 20 percent of Canada’s landmass and accounting for nearly 70 percent of Canada’s coastline, Nunavut is roughly four and a half times the size of Texas. The territory has 26 communities, with populations ranging from 130 people in Grise Fiord on Ellesmere Island to more than 5,000 people in Iqaluit on Baffin Island, for a total population of about 28,000, 85 percent of whom are Inuit.

Nunavut is Canada’s frontier, as isolated and remote as any place in the world. No highways link the communities of Nunavut, and access to the territory is only by air or sea. Located on tidal flats, all communities are icebound six to 10 months of the year. The climatic conditions are harsh, with almost all of the territory above the tree line and more than half the communities above the Arctic Circle. Given the physical realities of Nunavut, the economy has only limited directions in which to expand; the only practical means is through responsible development of its natural resources.

Nunavut’s geology is diverse, representing more than 3 billion years of Earth’s history and encompassing many environments that are favorable for large ore bodies. Nunavut hosts several of the largest undeveloped lode-gold deposits in Canada — Meliadine, Meadowbank, Goose Lake-George Lake and Hope Bay — as well as large undeveloped zinc resources at Izok Lake and copper resources at High Lake. Recently a number of companies have been aggressively exploring for diamonds in different regions of Nunavut, and initial results are quite promising. In Nunavut, the potential to discover world-class mineral deposits is high.

These folded metamorphic rocks are typical of the ancient Canadian Shield bedrock that underlies Nunavut and is the source of much of its mineral wealth. Photo courtesy of Governments of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

The Government of Nunavut embraces the United Nations’ Brundtland definition of sustainable development, which states that development must be undertaken in ways that “meet the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (see story, this issue). This approach invariably involves maximizing the economic and social benefits to local people through training and support, so that mine closures leave the local communities in a sustainable state without environmental liabilities. In Nunavut, responsible development of natural resources is viewed as a mechanism to develop human capital, thereby creating a sustainable social and economic climate that can expand beyond a reliance on resource extraction.

Exploration and future mining projects are part of a balance, with a healthy diversified economy, environmental integrity and economic opportunities for today that do not compromise opportunities for future prosperity. Individual projects must use industry’s best practices and follow an underlying moral imperative to develop mineral resources in a responsible manner. Each project, however, is just part of a larger vehicle to ensure the economic and social viability of the territory through the transfer of benefits to Nunavut residents by development of its resources.

Meet the community

Key to understanding the concept of sustainable development in Nunavut is an appreciation of the physical and socioeconomic realities of the territory. The Inuit of Nunavut are in transition from a traditional to modern lifestyle. Many of the older residents of Nunavut were born on the land and moved into modern houses as children. Many Nunavummiut (residents of Nunavut of any ethnic background) still spend a large portion of the year in Nunavut, hunting, fishing and gathering. As a result, young Nunavummiut balance between the traditional lifestyle of their elders and the modern lifestyle that they are exposed to via television and the Internet.

Nunavut has a very young and rapidly growing population; about 60 percent is under the age of 25, and 41 percent under the age of 16. More than half the adult population has not completed high school, and only a small percentage of the population has a post-secondary education. Income levels in Nunavut are low, which, compounded with the very high cost of living, result in more than half of Nunavummiut needing some form of income support during any given year. Unfortunately, these socioeconomic conditions have resulted in serious health problems, such as high incidences of infant mortality, tuberculosis, diabetes, sexually transmitted diseases and lung cancer.

Nunavut, Canada’s newest territory, has a very young population, with more than half under the age of 25 and 40 percent under the age of 16. Photo courtesy of Governments of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

Nunavut’s economy is a unique mix of traditional activities (hunting, fishing and carving) as well as wage-based employment. The traditional activities are very important in terms of providing food, modest financial gains, and preserving the social and cultural infrastructure. However, the realities of the 21st century require Nunavummiut to increase their participation in the wage economy if they are to rise above the poverty line.

The wage-based economy in Nunavut is dominated by the public service industry, representing almost 40 percent of Nunavut’s gross domestic product (GDP), followed by mining and resource development (about 18 percent of GDP). The three operating mines in Nunavut have recently closed due to depleted resources, which will increase the economy’s reliance on government and government services. In a recent study, the Conference Board of Canada concluded that Nunavut’s reliance on government employment is not sustainable. The coming years will see a large influx of Nunavummiut seeking employment; the economy must diversify if the territory is to achieve sustainability.

Mineral rights

In 1993, the Inuit of Nunavut signed the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement (NLCA). Self-determination over resource development forms key sections in the agreement. The NLCA gave the Inuit ownership of 356,000 square kilometers of land (about 16 percent of Nunavut) and combined surface and mineral rights to about 35,000 square kilometers (about 2 percent of Nunavut) of the most promising ground. The mineral rights are held and administered by Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated (NTI), the nonprofit corporation established primarily to oversee implementation of the NLCA on behalf of the Inuit. Where the Inuit own the mineral rights, NTI issues licenses to explore and mine through its own mineral-tenure system. Although NTI holds mineral rights to only 2 percent of Nunavut, much of the territory’s mineral wealth belongs to the Inuit of Nunavut.

Ownership of mineral resources is critical to the future economic prosperity of Nunavut. The people of the territory, through NTI, regulate mining and exploration and collect royalties on future operations. These royalties can be very significant. A modern diamond mine, such as Ekati or Diavik in the Northwest Territories of Canada, could provide royalties in excess of Can$600 million over a mine’s 25-year life. Similarly, modern gold or base metal mines could provide Can$10 million to Can$100 million in royalties over a 10- to 20-year mine life. NTI can use these royalties to reinvest in the communities and directly improve the quality of life of the Nunavummiut.

In addition to royalties, the NLCA requires that project proponents establish impact-benefit agreements with the Inuit. These agreements typically create direct employment and training opportunities, building capacity in Nunavut’s communities and ensuring responsible development through community consultation and shared-monitoring programs. A key requirement of these agreements is improvement of basic education levels. Then, Nunavummiut will be able to participate in these economic opportunities and consequently help retain the benefits of mining in Nunavut.

Even prior to the commencement of mining operations, exploration projects offer economic benefits. These projects contribute approximately 10 percent of their total expenditures to the local communities, mainly through direct employment and provision of goods and services. Although a relatively small proportion, exploration programs in Nunavut are commonly in excess of Can$1 million per year, which can have a very significant impact on a small community that consists of several hundred people. Presently, the capacity of most communities is limited, such that one or two exploration projects will fully engage the service capacity of a community. This capacity gap is not unique to the exploration industry; it is prevalent throughout the developing economy. As Nunavut’s economy matures, and more impact-benefit agreements are completed, the capacity to service all forms of industry will improve. Local communities can then capture more of the benefits of exploration and other economic sectors.

Need for geoscience

A well-recognized relationship exists between the provision of public geoscience, increased exploration activity, and discovery and development of new mineral deposits. As established mines become depleted, exploration companies will increasingly explore in more remote areas; but they need geologic information in order to select areas and reduce their exploration risk. Public geoscience knowledge (bedrock and surficial geological framework) is reasonably complete in many mature jurisdictions of Canada and elsewhere; in these areas, the private sector can identify energy and mineral resources. Nunavut, however, as a frontier jurisdiction, lags far behind the rest of Canada in terms of providing a comprehensive geoscience database at a regional level. Large areas of the territory have never been mapped at a scale that is useful for mineral exploration or for making informed land-use planning decisions. Thus, there is an enormous opportunity for new mapping to stimulate further exploration.

Nunavut is competing worldwide for exploration dollars; companies can go anywhere in the world to explore and develop mineral deposits. To successfully compete, Nunavut needs to demonstrate its mineral potential through developing and maintaining a high-quality geoscience knowledge base that is available and readily accessible to the public. Ultimately, this knowledge will enable the discovery and development of mineral resources that will benefit the Nunavummiut, and allow the territory to develop a sustainable social and economic climate that can expand beyond a reliance on resource development. Although the potential to discover new economic mineral deposits is high, government-funded earth science must provide the geologic framework to facilitate these discoveries.

Sherlock is a research scientist with the Canada-Nunavut Geoscience Office (C-NGO) in Iqaluit, where he conducts research projects on mineral deposits in Nunavut.

Scott is the program manager of the Geological Survey of Canada’s Northern Resources Develop-ment Program, overseeing geoscience projects across Canada aimed at supporting sustainable development in Canada’s north. He was the founding chief geologist of the C-NGO in Iqaluit, a partnership formed to build geoscience capacity in Nunavut.

MacKay is the director of Environment and Integrated Resource Management with the Government of Nunavut’s Department of Sustainable Development. As a professional geologist with close to 20 years experience in government and the mining industry, MacKay is working to support the development of a strong Nunavut economy.

"Sustainable Development and the Use of Nonrenewable Resources," Geotimes, December 2003

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