Shooting nose to spite face

Michael Johansen
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Dozens of hand-drawn pictures of caribou are posted on the walls in the hallway outside the art class in the brand new Sheshatshiu Innu School: black caribou, red caribou, brown ones, blue ones and rainbow-coloured ones standing against backgrounds of clouds, stars, snow, trees and pink moss.
Images of caribou spring readily from the minds and imaginations of the young children who make them. The animals have always been part of their lives, always around them in art, in stories and in their traditional meals.
Lately, the caribou have been in all the talk around the community and in the news outside. While the children drew them and coloured them, their parents were out on the land, hunting them in a place the provincial government calls illegal.
Innu leaders cast blame for the situation onto wildlife officials, saying they are interfering with Innu aboriginal rights.
Those officials, on the other hand (more reluctant to speak publicly), throw the blame back onto the Innu leadership, saying they know full well that a closed hunting zone only protects an endangered herd. They claim the illegal hunt was pursued for political purposes, to boost support for leaders who have been losing it lately.

Hunting grounds
Conservation is supposed to trump all other considerations, including aboriginal rights, but reality is different on the hunting grounds. Many Innu are convinced that either the endangered Red Wine Mountain herd is unimportant, or it doesn't actually exist. Some say the herd is a fiction created by the provincial government just to stop Innu from hunting in certain areas. Some Innu leaders have encouraged the misconceptions and have gone so far as to claim Innu hunters can be forgiven for shooting the last remaining Red Wine animals because they look just like their more plentiful George River cousins.
Support for this attitude is growing, with some hunters from other Labrador communities welcoming the coming extinction of the Red Wine herd because that would mean nearby zones would no longer have to be closed. They won't have to drive so far to go hunting.
The Innu leaders are right about one thing: The Innu did not start the destruction of Labrador's woodland caribou. They're just finishing up the job.
The government did far more harm by drowning the once-large herd's habitat under the Smallwood Reservoir, reducing its numbers, which were already declining because of the Quebec North Shore and Labrador Railway, to the small remnants seen today.
Caribou have always been at the heart of Innu culture. The great herds have fed them, clothed them and defined them for countless generations, for millennia. Naturally, they approach the heart of Innu politics as well. That's a problem, because short-term political thinking might see nothing wrong with sacrificing something that is about to die off by itself anyway.
However, this approach only works in the long term if there's an endless supply of caribou from the George River herd. If, on the other hand, the last of the Red Wine herd is wiped out, there's a chance no one will ever see any caribou in the closed zones ever again.
The George River herd is shrinking fast. Only 15 years ago, it had almost a million members and they had to migrate far outside of their traditional range in search of enough food. Now, they've dropped to about 150,000 individuals, and officials expect the herd to shrink to half of that very soon.
When that happens, the George River herd won't have any reason to come anywhere near the Red Wine territory.
If the Red Wine herd is left alone and allowed to grow, it could one day be large enough to hunt. If it is allowed to disappear, hunters will have a long, long way to go to find any caribou to shoot, whether the zones are closed or not.

Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.

Organizations: Sheshatshiu Innu School, Labrador Railway

Geographic location: Red Wine Mountain, George River, Labrador

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