“It’s time for us to help the caribou.” That’s how a meeting began between Innu Nation monitors and almost a dozen hunters from Sheshatshiu last November.
It was held to figure out what Innu people should do about Labrador’s declining caribou herds. While the men did not entirely trust the numbers given them by wildlife officials, they had themselves seen that things were terribly wrong.
“It was fall when they were seen passing and we didn’t see a lot of calves,” one monitor reported. “Maybe in all we only saw 20 and probably that’s the reason why the numbers of caribou are going down. I saw a photograph taken from a helicopter … of 34 dead caribou. Why had the caribou died? They didn’t see any wolf tracks. They only saw a black bear. … They could have starved, but we don’t know why.”
“The caribou is showing us something, that things are not right,” one hunter responded.
The men seemed to accept Wildlife’s explanation that the George River herd simply grew too big and ran out of food, but they suspect there’s more involved — not only the things that the akaneshau do, but also how the Innu themselves treat the animals.
The men revealed that almost everyone has been over-hunting and they accused Innu society as a whole of endangering the age-old bond between the people and the caribou by wasting their meat and skins and by treating their bones like trash.
“We treat caribou differently now and we don’t respect them
anymore. We don’t care what our grandfathers taught us. We don’t respect it.”
The men came up with a practical course of action.
They agreed that hunting should be immediately curtailed — that only three animals should be taken by any hunter, not the dozens currently shot.
More particularly, the practice of killing pregnant females had to stop.
To help the population recover the Innu Nation (with other aboriginal groups, both Innu and
non-Innu, as well as with the government of Newfoundland and Labrador) should establish regulations and enforce them with Innu wildlife officers.
“They should make rules. For example, me: they should have my name on a list. This person would go out hunting for caribou. He would report back how many he killed and then his name would be taken off the list and he wouldn’t be allowed to kill any more caribou. … It would be noted how many he killed on what day and what kind of caribou: female or male or calf, and that would be written down, too. … And as for the people who ask others to get caribou for them, they would have their names on the list, too. … If there was no paper and no system like that, someone might say they killed caribou for someone else and there wouldn’t be a way to know for sure what happened.”
The men discussed banning hunting from any road and making a prolonged stay in the country a prerequisite for permission to hunt. Also, they spoke of their community relearning how to pay traditional respect to the caribou. Although these proposals might have allowed everyone to avoid the moratorium recently proclaimed by the provincial government, it appears little was done within the Innu Nation to implement them.
Nor did the government hear them. At least, it acts as if it doesn’t realize the Innu see themselves as the prime stewards of the caribou.
Innu will decide how and when they will hunt. Threatening prison won’t change that. Threats only anger people.
A unilateral ban will obviously not work. Do government officials not see how it amounts to a direct assault on aboriginal rights?
From almost every angle, the ban is a mistake. The only thing it achieves is that is allows the government to maintain the ludicrous claim that rampant industrial development does nothing to harm the caribou. It apparently occurred to no one in government, however, that the ban might backfire, which it has.
The Innu Nation considers it a violation of the New Dawn Agreement. If the Innu decide that the province has rendered that deal meaningless, then the government may soon learn that if anyone in Labrador can stop a Nalcor dam, it’s a re-radicalized Innu Nation.
Michael Johansen is a writer
living in Labrador.