A High Arctic Experiment: Mining at Nanisivik

February 19, 2012

In 1976 a new mine began production on the northern tip of Baffin Island in the Canadian High Arctic – a location that experiences complete darkness from late November until early February and an average temperature of -29C in January. Located 750km north of the Arctic Circle, the Nanisivik lead-zinc mine was the first Arctic mine and northernmost mine in Canada at the time of its establishment in 1976. Opened by Mineral Resources International (MRI), the Nanisivik venture was supported by the government in the hope that this pioneer project would pave the way for mining across Canada’s northern resource frontier. The mine typically employed 200 people during its operation, and a purpose built town site including a school, church, post office, recreational centre, dining hall and housing was constructed to support those who worked at the mine. Understanding the establishment and impact of this unique venture has been one of the foci of my research over the past year.
Historical and contemporary documents reveal the captivating way in which Nanisivik was cast as an experiment to test the feasibility of operating in the Arctic. Jean Chrétien, Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, described Nanisivik as a “pilot Arctic mining venture involving many new concepts” and hailed Nanisivik as “a model for future mineral developments in the Arctic” that sought to ground- proof new technologies, fine tune Arctic operations and introduce Inuit to an industrial lifestyle (Gibson 1978, 51). In particular, this venture provided an opportunity to develop Canadian shipping in the Arctic, and through rigorous scientific study become a working model of technological innovation and engineering triumph (Yates 1975). The government envisaged Nanisivik as prompting an industrial revolution in the Baffin Region (Hickling Partners Inc 1981) but also as a “method of maintaining Canadian sovereignty and security in the North” (LAC archival files). To ensure that the legacies of this Arctic experiment were positive, the government and MRI formed the Strathcona Agreement under which MRI pledged compliance with the government’s social, environmental and economic objectives for the North (Indian Affairs and Northern Development 1976).
This experiment proved successful: the Nanisivik mine profitably operated for twenty- six years until its closure in 2002. Nanisivik’s closure renewed the importance of the mine as a pilot project amid efforts to ensure that Nanisivik left only positive legacies. Reclamation has been completed and monitoring is currently on-going, but contamination has resulted in demolition of the townsite and no new economic activity has developed at Nanisivik. Current research is investigating how the historic legacies of mining have been dealt with after the closure of this pioneering High Arctic mine – stay posted for updates!


Scott Midgley