Voisey’s Bay nickel mine in Labrador was strongly opposed by Innu and Innuit when explorations and operations began. The mine is now being expanded by Vale, a Brazil based global mining company to include underground mining operations which will produce cobalt, which is in demand for use in cell phones and electric car batteries.
The Voisey's Bay nickel-copper-cobalt mine is located in northern Labrador, about 35km southwest of Nain and 350 km north of Happy Valley-Goose Bay on the eastern edge of a vast expanse of northern wilderness. Rich in resources, the region has seen thousands of mineral claims. These offer revenue for the provincial government (Arctic Circle, n.d.).
The project encompasses a mine and concentrator at Voisey's Bay, port facilities in nearby Anaktalak Bay and a processing plant at Long Harbour, on Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula (Higgins, 2011). The bulk carrier ship Umiak I was built to transport ore from the mine. (Wikipedia, Voisy, n.d.)
Voisey’s Bay is a “6,000 tonnes-per-day facility produces two types of concentrate: nickel-cobalt-copper concentrate and copper concentrate. Voisey’s Bay is a fly-in/fly-out operation (Vale, n.d.). "Workers at Voisey's Bay are flown in from other communities in the province, and reside at a work camp while onsite. There are no current plans to build a permanent settlement at Voisey" (Wikipedia, Voisy, n.d.).
"This deposit is considered to be one of the most substantial mineral discoveries in Canada in the last 40 years and is estimated to contain 141 million tonnes at 1.6% nickel" (Wikipedia, Voisy, n.d.). "The prospecting company Diamond Resources discovered the mineral reserves in 1993 and sold them to Canadian mining company Inco (now Brazilian-owned Vale Inco) in 1996 for $4.3 billion" (Higgins, 2011).
Voisey's Bay is on the territory of both Innu Nation and the Nunatsiavut (Inuit) and subject to land claims by both peoples. The Innu never signed treaties and do not fall under Canada's Indian Act, they have no reserves nor treaty rights (Innes, 2001). Vale has negotiated separate Impacts and Benefits Agreements (IBA) with the Innu and the Nunatsiavut (Vale, n.d.). "To the Innu, this land is known as Kapukuanipant-kauashat, or as Eimish (or "Emish"). To the Inuit, it is Tasiujatsoak. Settlers called it Voisey's Bay after the family that established a trading post here in the early 1900s, and this is the name that found its way onto the government maps and into public consciousness in November 1994, when Diamond Fields Resources made a significant mineral find" (Innes, 2001).
"The mine currently employs about 500 people, more than half of whom are Inuit or Innu, while more than 80% of contracts are with Indigenous-owned and operated businesses" (Jamasmie, 2018). “The resulting report of the Environmental Assessment Panel was considered by the Innu to be a valuable document. The Panel made 107 recommendations, to be met before the project went ahead. Unfortunately, the two most important of these, that a land claims agreement and an impact-benefits agreement be negotiated with the Innu and the Inuit prior to any further development were ignored by both levels of government (Mining Watch, 1999).
The Innu and Inuit have tried many means to halt the company’s construction plans, including an unsuccessful appeal to Newfoundland Supreme Court.
Timeline of the issue:
1977: The Innu Nation first filed their land claims with the Canadian Government (Arctic Circle, n.d.)
1993: Orr deposit discovered.
November 1994: Diamond Fields Resources (DFR) made a significant mineral find in the area (Innes, 2001).
Fall 1994: Without consultation with the Innu or Inuit, DFR began its exploration work in earnest. This work began with no prior scientific research to compile the baseline data necessary to assess the impacts of their activities on Innu land and the area wildlife.
February 1995: Mushuau Innu First Nation Council issued an eviction order to Diamond Fields Resources. “About 100 Innu from Utshimassit traveled to Eimish by snowmobile along the ice-bound Labrador coast. Once at the site, Chief Simeon Tshakapesh and Daniel Ashini delivered an eviction notice to the chief geologist, giving the company twenty-four hours to shut down operations and leave Innu land (Innes, 2001). The Innu “demanded that DFR stop drilling until they had prepared an environmental and cultural protection plan. 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 RCMP (Arctic Circle n.d.). There was a two-week standoff between the Innu and the RCMP (Innes, 2001). An attempt by the Labrador Inuit Association and the Innu Nation to reach a negotiated agreement with the company ended abruptly when they made it clear that the company would not recognize Aboriginal rights and resumed exploration activity (Arctic Circle n.d.). “Although the Innu action against the company failed to achieve the practical outcome the Innu desired, it was singularly important in many other ways. Publicly, the action established the Innu as one of the principle actors in the drama unfolding around the mineral discovery, but it also helped to unify the Innu response to the project. Innu leaders, spokespeople, elders, and community members consistently articulated positions that centered on the effects of the project on Innu rights, Innu land, and the Innu way of life (Innes, 2001).
Fall 1995: The Innu Nation, under tremendous pressure to respond to this mining activity decided to set up a Task Force on Mining Activities.
1996: Inco Ltd. acquired the rights to the Voisey’s Bay mine and took over operations.
1997: Innu and Innuit negotiations with Inco broke down after the company “refused to halt construction work on the project. The Innu and Inuit want work stopped until agreement is reached on an environmental assessment and a deal on compensation. The Innu and Inuit of Labrador staged a joint protest at the massive mining development at Voisey’s Bay. Inuit arrived from Nain to set up a protest camp, and more than 250 Innu from Davis Inlet and Sheshatshiu joined them” (The Nation, 1997).
2005: Mine opened.
October 2006: Inco was purchased by Vale.
Summer 2006: Workers at the site went on strike. A core issue in the dispute was pay equity with workers at Vale Inco's facilities in Greater Sudbury, Port Colborne and Thompson (Wikipedia, Voisy, n.d.)
2014: The Long Harbour Processing Plant (LHPP) began operations.
June 2018: Premier Dwight Ball announced that Vale was moving forward with its underground mine at Voisey's Bay (Wikipedia, Voisy, n.d.). Transiting Voisey's Bay nickel mine from open-pit operations to underground will cost about $2 billion and is expected to extend its productive life to 2035... Once operational, and including the Long Harbour processing plant, direct employment will hit 1,700 jobs. Vale will partly finance the expansion through a pioneering agreement to sell future production of cobalt from the Canadian operation to Wheaton Precious Metals and Cobalt 27. Both companies will make a combined purchase equal to 75% of Voisey's Bay cobalt production from Jan. 1, 2021 onward. (Jamasmie, 2018). Faced with a depressed market for nickel and other minerals…‘Vale is looking to sell unmined cobalt, worth hundreds of millions of dollars” (Roberts, 2018). “The streaming deal – making an upfront payment in exchange for future production – is for $690 million of cobalt and comes as speculation rises over a shortage of the metal needed to make batteries that has been pushing companies to secure long-term supply. Cobalt is “one of the crucial elements in batteries for cellphones and electric vehicles” (Jamasmie, 2018). Income from cobalt is a way for Vale to finance construction of the underground mine at Voisey's Bay (Roberts, 2018). Vale has hired the Bank of Montreal to raise around $500 million from bidders for cobalt that will be produced at Voisey's Bay. The deal would be for 3,000 tonnes annually (Roberts, 2018) Vale claims to be “planning to continue working with Innu and Inuit partners for the new expansions” (Vale, n.d.). “Johannes Lampe, president of the Nunatsiavut government, said the announcement marks ‘a happy day for Labrador Inuit,’ with new opportunities for direct employees and contract jobs in transportation and infrastructure around the site. Labrador Inuit are guaranteed jobs in the new operations under the impacts and benefits agreement the Nunatsiat government has signed with Vale. The Innu government also has an agreement with the company” (McKenzie-Sutter, 2018).
Given that IBAs have been ignored before in this conflict, there is reason to doubt this. In addition, the risks are high. “History has proven that underground mining tends to be quite hazardous and risky… there are higher numbers of incidents like explosions with underground mines compared to open pit mines” (McKenzie-Sutter, 2018).