Caribou stew, with a side order of guilt

Michael Johansen
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Anyone who thinks little is being done to protect eastern Canada’s endangered caribou herds hasn’t been for a meal in a Labrador restaurant lately.

You might think the Canadian government, the government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Innu Nation, the Nunatsiavut government, NunatuKavut, the Torngat Wildlife, Plants and Fisheries Secretariat, and Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro (a Nalcor energy company, so it says) have yet to do anything to halt or reverse the precipitous population decline.

But you’d be wrong.

Lift up your plate of lasagna (not many establishments can serve caribou burgers anymore) and have a look at your paper placemat. You’ll see what monumental things can be achieved when seven native and non-native governments and agencies get together to produce a colourful disposable dining aid.

“Woodland Caribou: Our Culture, Our Future!” the widely distributed placemat headlines in four languages: English, French, Innu-Eimun and Inuktitut — in that order. They’re printed across a montage of drawings, photographs and a map that marks out the territories of the Lac Joseph, Red Wine and Mealy Mountain herds.

“Three nonmigratory populations are threatened,” the diner is told. “Too many caribou are being harvested illegally and their habitat is being disturbed. They need our help.”

That point about caribou habitat is mentioned briefly once more, but otherwise the placemat implies that over-hunting is the primary cause of the problem and that the solution largely lies in educating supposedly ignorant people.

Justified or not, the authors of the placemat attempt to speak for all Labradorians (“Caribou give us food. They are part of our spirituality.”) and by doing so they try to put the burden of their own guilt on other shoulders.

“Share local knowledge,” the placemat instructs the dining public. “Teach others to respect caribou. Prevent needless disturbance to caribou habitat.”

The first two orders are easy to follow, since the Labrador Metis, Innu, Inuit and settlers who frequent local restaurants are usually happy to share the respect they feel and all they know with anyone who’s interested — neighbours and visitors alike. The trick is getting the people who could use the information effectively — people like government officials and company executives — to actually listen and understand.

The third instruction is quite puzzling and almost impossible to implement, since the people most guilty of disturbing the habitat of the woodland caribou are not those trying to eat dinner in peace, but the ones providing the patrons with fanciful paper mats.

It was the provincial government’s energy corporation, now called Nalcor, that not only disturbed, but destroyed most of the habitat of the woodland caribou, driving a once-large herd to near extinction by flooding their territory with the Smallwood Reservoir.

It was the federal government that allowed foreign air forces to train their jet pilots by harrying the scattered remnants with low-level flights.

Most recently, it was the provincial government that bisected the habitat of the Mealy Mountain herd — the only one of the three fragments that shows signs of a recovery — with the construction of the last phase of the Trans-Labrador Highway.

The placemat doesn’t explain how ordinary restaurant-going Labradorians can prevent big governments and corporations from inflicting further damage on the remaining caribou habitat, but it does claim that the three herds are under the protection of federal and provincial law.

There’s no mention that those laws have never been effectively enforced — with many Red Wine and Lac Jo animals paying the price — but as long as the governments can criticize ordinary citizens for illegal hunting, they can avoid admitting they caused the calamity in the first place and are probably the only ones who can actually solve it.

Politics, however, always seems to interfere in the woodlands, and when it does, what’s best for the caribou is forgotten and what’s best for petty human goals becomes paramount. Politics of all kinds — interprovincial, aboriginal and Newfoundland colonial — has infused and disrupted the management of the Ungava herds for so long that the caribou should probably be allowed to vote.

That is, if any of them live long enough to reach the age of majority.

Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.

Organizations: Plants and Fisheries Secretariat, Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro, Trans-Labrador Highway.The

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Eastern Canada, Red Wine Lac Joseph

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