Environmental stewardship is not innate

Peter Jackson
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If there was ever a microcosm to illustrate aboriginal issues raised by the Idle No More movement, it is the George River caribou hunt in Labrador.

It incorporates most of the concerns and conflicts raised by native groups across the country, including land claims, self-governance and resource management.

I reference aboriginal concerns exclusively because that was the original impetus for the movement: defying federal legislation that appears to intrude on long-standing treaty rights. Those who say Idle No More is about more than native issues have, for the most part, merely hitched their anti-Stephen Harper wagons to a convenient cause.

The George River caribou herd is in serious trouble. In good times, the herd has reached populations well into the hundreds of thousands. An intergovernmental study last year found the number had plummeted to about 27,000, and that figure may now be closer to 20,000.

On Tuesday, the province announced a five-year moratorium on hunting George River caribou. In reaching that decision, officials had, wisely, consulted aboriginal groups and garnered a general concensus about the need to avoid hunting. Typically, though, it has not translated into full co-operation.

Innu Nation Grand Chief Prote Poker said the Innu, for one, will not recognize the moratorium.

“We’ve been talking to our elders, and they did not agree to a total ban on our people,” he said.

It’s a troubling trend, one that surfaces almost every year. In 2010, provincial wildlife officers arrested and charged two Quebec Innu hunters, but did not follow through. In that case, as well, the hunters were backed by their elders, who did not concur with scientific surveys.

University of Calgary professor Frances Widdowson addressed this notion of “traditional knowledge” in a 2010 paper called “Indigenous Ways of Knowing and the Environment: Does Epistemological Relativism Contribute to the Protection of Western Lands?”

Widdowson’s research into basic precepts of native advocacy in Canada has been greeted with virulent hostility.

But you still have to wonder why these questions can’t even be asked, let alone answered.

In this case, why is so much weight afforded to what is essentially raw, localized experience? If you strip away its spiritual accoutrements, you’re left with little more than the same wisdom that allows a fisherman to gauge impeding weather, or derive crude conclusions on the state of fish stocks.

Mind you, this knowledge is useful.

It can sometimes add to and even guide scientific inquiry.

But it certainly can’t replace it.

Widdowson says the emphasis on traditional knowledge draws its strength from long-held notions about indigenous and non-indigenous cultures.

In a nutshell: “Since aboriginal people did not destroy the environment, while ‘whites’ did, it must be the former’s ancestrally (racially) determined philosophy that ensured environmental sustainability. It is not considered that the primitive technology and subsistence economies that existed in the Americas before contact would have precluded a significant impact on the environment.”

Surely this is common sense. A person of any race or background can, at least in theory, be equally capable of protecting or destroying the environment.

When Quebec Innu hunters roar into Labrador on snowmobiles and shoot caribou with modern rifles, there is no mystical buffer that makes their actions any more or less destructive than any other hunter.

Prote Poker says Innu elders are, in fact, more optimistic about the herd’s survival than government scientists. “They think the caribou is coming back,” he said.

Given the fickleness of caribou populations, they may be right.

But such an intuitive approach has no place in sound conservation policy.

Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s

commentary editor. Email pjackson@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: University of Calgary

Geographic location: George River, Quebec, Western Lands Canada Americas Labrador

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Recent comments

  • Doug Smith
    February 01, 2013 - 09:13

    Mr. Jackson , are you out of your mind? Your dismissal of the Innu stance on the caribou hunt in favour of , “sound conservation policy” leads me to think you don’t know what your talking about. The government’s ,“sound conservation policy” is just stop hunting. Now that is OK for non Innu people but the few hundred (300-400) animals the Innu will take won’t hurt the 20,000 member herd. The government has no idea why the herd went from 800,000 to 20,000. Their credibility on this issue is zero. Respect the Innu’s rights. Doug Smith, GFW

  • Fintip
    January 31, 2013 - 13:27

    'Tough critique or hate speech?' asks Maclean's Magazine of Widdowson's anti-aboriginal rants. And yet this is the piece of pseudo-scientific garbage on which Jackson has predicated yet another ill-informed comment on Canada’s native peoples. In fairness, his put-down of those whose traditional way of life brings them close to the land and sea isn't confined to aboriginals. Natives, he asserts, are no more reliable observers of the environment than fishermen who think they possess special insights on the state of fish stocks. Jackson seems oblivious to the fact that for decades prior to the cod moratorium, it was local fishermen - not DFO scientists - who sounded the alarm that cod stocks were in peril. In exactly the same way that Ottawa was ultimately responsible for the collapse of the cod fishery, so is this province responsible for the precarious state of the George River herd. The problem is we don't have an adequate understanding of the reasons for the decline. The level of scientific research on the issue has been woefully slow and inadequate. Does this mean we should dismiss the limited science we do have, and in its place accept the views of some native leaders that the hunt should continue? No, because the risks of being wrong are unacceptable. But when it comes to native anger at the prospect of losing a traditional way of life, people like Jackson and Simms need to respect it - not feed it. Think back to the anger of fishermen and fish plant workers when Crosbie announced the cod moratorium. We accepted then that fishermen were financially damaged and deserving of compensation. Not only do Jackson and Simms ignore the issue of compensation, they imply that natives are themselves responsible for the decimation of the herd. Are they so naive as to think the aboriginal hunt is the principal, let alone sole, factor in the herd's decline from 800,000 to 20,000 head? Hopefully clear-thinking fair-minded leaders will put this new plight of our northern native communities in proper perspective.

  • Pierre Neary
    January 30, 2013 - 15:50

    Politics aside conservation has to be first and foremost.