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OTTAWA — A Federal Court judge has sided with Environment Minister Catherine McKenna in a decision she made to reduce the number of polar bears that Nunavik Inuit can hunt, despite claims that she failed to consider traditional knowledge about the health of the bear population.
The decision was the culmination of a years-long process, the first of its kind under a modern treaty signed by the Nunavik Inuit and the federal government in 2006, meant to balance Inuit knowledge with scientific evidence.
The case highlights an ongoing source of tension between Inuit hunters and researchers when it comes to polar bear populations. Several Inuit communities have reported an increased number of bear encounters and attacks in recent years, prompting calls to increase hunting quotas. Scientists, however, insist that populations are on the decline, and that the larger number of sightings is because bears are spending more time on land as sea ice dwindles.
The Makivik Corporation, the legal representative of the Nunavik Inuit, launched a legal challenge in 2016 of McKenna’s decision, which concerned the Southern Hudson Bay polar bear population. Scientific evidence suggests the population is very likely declining, but an affidavit filed in this case states that, “By and large, Nunavik residents have observed an increase in the polar bear population, and a particularly notable increase since the 1980s.”
The history of the case dates back to 2010, when there was a sudden spike in polar bear hunting in Nunavik, a vast area comprising the northern third of Quebec. For several years prior, the Nunavik Inuit had hunted up to 11 polar bears each year. But in 2010, that number jumped to 36, and then to 74 bears in 2011, sparking concerns about the sustainability of the hunt. A voluntary agreement reached in the fall of 2011 limited the Nunavik Inuit to 26 bears. There had never before been a limit on the hunt.
In 2012, then-Conservative environment minister Peter Kent wrote to the Nunavik Marine Region Wildlife Board, a co-management board made up of members appointed by Makivik and representatives of the federal and Nunavut governments, asking it to establish a formal quota. The board is responsible for wildlife management in the region, and is supposed to weigh western science and traditional knowledge. It was created under the Nunavik Inuit Land Claim Agreement (NILCA), a modern treaty signed in 2006.
The resulting process took several years, as the board waited for the results of an aerial survey of the bear population, conducted public hearings, and prepared a study of Inuit traditional knowledge. In July 2015, the board sent its decision to the environment ministers in Nunavut and Ottawa, establishing a quota of 28 bears.
In September, however, both governments rejected the decision. According to court documents, the federal deputy environment minister told the board that the quota “is likely not sustainable and creates conservation concerns for this management unit.” Instead, Ottawa said, the harvest should not exceed 4.5 per cent of the total population.
But the board stood its ground in a final decision submitted to the government in December 2015, arguing the deputy minister’s rejection “clearly disregards the extensive body of Inuit traditional knowledge” and was based “solely on the scientific population estimate.”
Finally, in October 2016, McKenna advised the board she was cutting the quota to 23 bears, which would bring it closer to the 4.5 per cent maximum, “to ensure the population remains stable and the harvest sustainable.”
In its application for judicial review, Makivik argued that McKenna had “pre-judged the outcome” of the process, “(set) aside entirely the Inuit traditional knowledge” the board had relied on, and “(failed) to even attempt the integration of the two systems of knowledge.”
Makivik also claimed that McKenna “approached the issue with a closed mind, failed to respect the decision-making procedure established by NILCA, (and) undermined the confidence of Nunavik Inuit in the wildlife management system.”
The organization said the Nunavik Inuit rely on the polar bear hunt for meat, economic benefits from the sale of hides, and the transmission of Inuit culture between generations. But it also argued this case is less about polar bears and more about the implementation of Inuit treaty rights.
The federal government countered that McKenna did consider Inuit knowledge in her decision, and that a quota of 23 bears is actually slightly higher than a harvest rate of 4.5 per cent. That decision was a result of the inclusion of traditional knowledge, government lawyers argued.
In a judgment released on Oct. 30, Federal Court Justice Paul Favel found that McKenna acted reasonably when she made her decision and considered a number of relevant factors, including Inuit knowledge. However, he also acknowledged the co-management process didn’t work as smoothly as it should have, and said there was room for improvement. “In the future, the parties would benefit from better communication so that wildlife management decisions are properly made at the board and ministerial level rather than by recourse through the courts,” he wrote.
In a statement, a spokesperson for McKenna said the minister respects the court’s findings. “Indigenous peoples are key partners in conserving and protecting nature, and we recognize their unique perspectives, knowledge, rights and responsibilities that can improve conservation outcomes,” Sabrina Kim said.
Nicholas Dodd, a lawyer for Makivik, declined to speak about the case with the National Post. On Friday, however, he told the Lawyer’s Daily that his client is considering an appeal of the decision. The deadline to file an appeal is Nov. 29.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019