Poor Peter Penashue. Now there’s a man stuck on the horns of a dilemma. Lucky for him, caribou horns aren’t as sharp as others. He might just get away with a bad bruising, rather than some serious lacerations.
Labrador’s Conservative member of Parliament was recently interviewed about the Innu Nation defying the Newfoundland government’s five-year ban on hunting animals from the George River caribou herd.
He dodged a direct response by making a general, but correct remark about how caribou populations are declining across Canada and not only in Labrador.
However, he then incorrectly stated that he did not know why it was happening.
Well, to be fair, maybe Penashue wasn’t being intentionally inaccurate about his level of knowledge concerning the Ungava caribou herds. Maybe he just forgot what he knew and then forgot that he used to know it.
If he needs a reminder, here’s what he himself (while he was president of the Innu Nation) wrote to a national newspaper in 2004 about the dwindling Red Wine Mountain caribou: “There are a number of possible explanations as to why a herd that sustained our people for milleniums teeters on the brink of extinction. Hydroelectric developments in the 1970s flooded part of the animals’ range, and a highway now runs through it. Military jets roar at tree-top level over the herd’s rugged habitat. Hunting may have been banned too late, and wolves, bears and other predators continue to take their share. We must now put politics at the top of this list.”
The politics Penashue was referring to at the time was the decision by Quebec Innu to ignore the Labrador Innu ban on hunting the Red Wine herd. Today that could be interpreted as applying to the Innu Nation hunt, but it might more accurately equate to Penashue’s own political actions — and his subsequent amnesia about caribou habitat.
The point is, all the caribou-harming factors he mentioned almost 10 years ago are examples of habitat disruption and destruction.
He was correct to point out, as he did then, that herds are not brought low by human or wildlife predation, but today he seems unable to even say that much.
Nor can he any longer acknowledge that destroying the land and ecosystems that sustain the caribou has anything to do with driving them to “the brink of extinction.”
He can’t because Peter Penashue is no longer the president of the Innu Nation, able to speak his mind on any issue of concern to his constituents.
Now he’s a member of the federal Conservative caucus and a minister in the Stephen Harper cabinet. As such, he must stick strictly to the party line, something he has never shown hesitation in doing. That leaves him very little to say on the subject of caribou, except what he did say: that their decline is a big mystery to him.
If he supports the decision of the Innu Nation, then he goes against his new dam-building partners in St. John’s.
If he weighs in against the Innu hunt, as he did in 2004 on the grounds that the Quebec Innu were only making a needlessly harmful political gesture, then he risks isolating himself even further from his base support.
It’s even possible that he can no longer hold bears and wolves blameless, saying they are only
continuing “to take their share,” because that could be seen as a criticism of the wolf cull ordered by the Alberta government ostensibly to protect woodland caribou herds that are actually being threatened by widespread industrial destruction of their natural habitat.
To Penashue, the truth, to borrow a phrase, appears to have become politically and personally inconvenient.
The government of Newfoundland and Labrador denies outright, arguing against all evidence, that industrial activities like mineral exploration, mining, road construction, transmission line construction and dam building have anything to do with the decline of the Ungava caribou, that they could have any negative impact worth mentioning. So who is our MP to argue against that?
One thing is certain: Penashue will never again be heard to blame the construction of massive hydroelectric dams for the flooding of vital wildlife habitat, or for any other bad thing for that matter.
He has so much at stake in the multibillion-dollar project that perhaps the choice he must make between truth and wilful ignorance, between concrete and caribou, isn’t so hard after all.
Michael Johansen is a writer
living in Labrador.