Quebec Innu hunters may be charged

Minister says no double standard for aboriginal hunters

Adam Randell adam.randell@tc.tc
Published on March 2, 2010
More than 100 Quebec Innu crossed the provincial border into Labrador and killed 250 caribou in a closed zone, claiming they were exercising their aboriginal rights. - Photo by Adam Randell/The Labradorian

Justice Minister Felix Collins says there are not two standards for white and Innu people caught hunting in closed zones.

About 150 Quebec Innu completed a caribou hunt in the Cache River area of Labrador last Wednesday, taking 250 animals.

Justice Minister Felix Collins says there are not two standards for white and Innu people caught hunting in closed zones.

About 150 Quebec Innu completed a caribou hunt in the Cache River area of Labrador last Wednesday, taking 250 animals.

The area of the hunt is a closed zone because the endangered Red Wine caribou herd - which only had an estimated 87 animals left - live in the area year-round.

When the hunt began, hundreds of caribou from the George River Herd had migrated into the area as they do each year.

The Newfoundland and Labrador government made it clear the hunt was illegal, and said charges will be laid if sufficient evidence was gathered by the RCMP and conservation officers during the five-day hunt last week.

Officers monitored the hunt from the ground and the air, but did not attempt to arrest the hunters.

"My understanding is the calibre of the surveillance is good, and in all likelihood, good enough to have charges laid and we're hoping that'll be the case," Collins told The Telegram Monday.

Some people in the province have complained the government didn't stop the hunt because the hunters were Innu.

But Collins said that's not true.

He said all hunters - regardless of their background - caught in a closed zone will have to forfeit vehicles and gear and face being arrested.

Collins said that would have happened last week if it was a dozen or so Innu hunters.

"But it's a different ball game when you put 200 people there," he said. "That was the collective consensus. Going into this, we would not put people in harm's way."

Considering the volatility of the situation, with 150 to 200 armed hunters on the ground, Collins said it could have escalated to be like "the showdown at the O.K. Corral" if the RCMP or conservation officers tried to make arrests.

"Nobody in their right mind is going to put people's safety at risk in that kind of a situation," said the minister.

Collins also said provincial statistics indicate wildlife charges in Labrador are evenly split between Innu and non-Innu hunters.

Last week's hunters, from five different Quebec communities, weren't concerned about being charged because they believe they have an aboriginal right to hunt in the area.

"We are not criminals, we do what we have to do to protect our rights," Chief Real McKenzie of Matimekush-Lac John, Que., told The Labradorian.

He contends the Red Wine caribou are not endangered because they are part of the larger George River Herd.

"According to our Innu biologist, (the herds are) the same," McKenzie said. "(The Red Wine), it's a split from the George River group that decided to stay here."

But in an e-mailed statement to The Telegram, Environment Minister Charlene Johnson disputed that claim.

"The George River and Red Wine caribou herds are unique and different in many ways," she said.

Johnson said the Red Wine caribou are forest-dwellers while the George River animals are migratory.

"Generally, forest-dwelling caribou ... are longer, taller and heavier than migratory caribou. However, it can be difficult to tell them apart in the field, as different ages and genders are mixed together," she said.

Johnson said the two herds do not interbreed and have unique "behavioural, morphological and genetic differences."

The hunt was also a protest as the Quebec Innu claim this province left them out of the New Dawn Agreement, which will provide Labrador Innu with economic benefits from the proposed Lower Churchill hydroelectric project.

McKenzie believes this is why the Labrador Innu didn't partake in the hunt.

He said Deputy Grand Chief Peter Penashue of the Labrador Innu didn't want to sour relations with the Newfoundland and Labrador government.

"We are sad because we were hoping to be here together," McKenzie said.

Penashue could not be reached for comment before The Telegram's deadline.

But Collins said the New Dawn Agreement was one step in a lands claim agreement with the Labrador Innu.

He said if the Quebec Innu want to make a claim for rights in Labrador, that would have to be negotiated as an "overlapping interest," and those discussions have to involve the federal government, which has jurisdiction over land claims.

Collins said the Quebec Innu know this.

Still, the minister hopes the leaders of the Quebec Innu will meet with the province about the conservation of the Red Wine herd.

dbartlett@thetelegram.com