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 firstname.lastname@example.org.