A Łútsël K'é Dene First Nation cultural camp. Photo supplied by the Łútsël K'é Dene First Nation
The Łútsël K’é Dene First Nation says the NWT government’s wildlife officers carried out an “aggressive and disrespectful” raid of a cultural camp this week.
The NWT’s environment minister, Shane Thompson, said the camp search was part of an investigation into the harvesting of 10 caribou inside a separate no-hunting “mobile zone,” farther north.
Two searches took place, Thompson said: one at the site inside the mobile zone and one at the Timber Bay cultural camp site on Artillery Lake.
“The site where 10 caribou were harvested was located within the mobile zone and a significant amount of suspected wasted edible meat was identified,” the minister said in a statement on Thursday, providing photos of the carcasses.
The Bathurst caribou herd and others like it are protected by a series of measures designed to stop the herds, already drastically reduced in number, from blinking out of existence entirely.
The Łútsël K’é Dene First Nation, however, stated no charges had yet been laid and characterized the search as an over-the-top and traumatizing display of force.
“After descending on the camp by helicopter, the officers questioned community members, carried out an invasive search of family tents and teepees (including children’s tents) and seized samples of country food over a period of four hours,” a Wednesday press release from the First Nation stated.
“The officers stated that they were investigating alleged illegal hunting within the Mobile Core Bathurst Caribou Management Zone, over 150 km to the north of the camp. The officers threatened to charge people with obstruction and bring in additional officers if they refused to comply with their demands.”
Iris Catholique, who manages the Thaidene Nëné protected area on behalf of the First Nation, said in the same press release: “These kinds of tactics remind us of the past, when our people were persecuted by wildlife officers for practising their way of life. During this tent-by-tent search, children were crying and Elders were traumatized. This behaviour is not something we can accept in 2022.”
The First Nation said it had referred the matter to its legal counsel, Larry Innes.
Innes told Cabin Radio on Wednesday: “The fundamental concern here is the conduct of the officers and the extraordinary, completely inappropriate scope of their search. Effectively, officers descended on their camp by helicopter and demanded access to every tent, freezer, and everything that could possibly contain meat in that camp.
“I’ve never even heard of a warrant being issued with that sort of breadth. To imagine this could happen at a cultural camp in front of Elders, children and people traumatized by excessive and inappropriate law enforcement over generations? For that to happen in 2022 is unimaginable, particularly in a community like Łútsël K’é that has demonstrated leadership in caribou conservation.
“Up until yesterday, Łútsël K’é thought it had a pretty good relationship with the GNWT. There needs to be some accountability for how this was carried out.”
The minister’s statement did not suggest any charges have been laid and did not discuss the First Nation’s characterization of wildlife officers’ actions at the camp, beyond confirming a search had taken place.
Officers were filmed
The cultural camp at Artillery Lake, northeast of Łútsël K’é, is an annual event that lasts for a number of weeks. Around 70 to 80 people are reported to have been present.
Catholique told Cabin Radio multiple people at the camp recorded video of what transpired, footage expected to make its way to social media in the coming days.
A film crew is also understood to have been present.
Thompson, responding on Thursday, acknowledged video footage was likely to emerge of two officers searching the Timber Bay site, but said he would not discuss specifics of an active investigation.
The minister did, however, broadly defend the role of officers working for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in searching the cultural camp.
“Many ENR officers are longtime northerners and their job includes implementation of caribou conservation measures that have been developed collaboratively with our co-management partners,” Thompson wrote.
“Caribou are important to them, the communities they live and work in, and to Elders. Investigations like this are challenging. Enforcement of the mobile zone is an important part of the collaborative conservation measures we are taking to conserve the Bathurst herd.
“Officials and leadership from ENR and Łútsël K’é Dene First Nation have had ongoing discussions about barren-ground caribou conservation, and these discussions include the topic of enforcement actions in general and why they need to be taken. ENR is committed to continuing those discussions and working together.”
Two reports triggered search
The Bathurst caribou herd has plunged in size since the 1980s. Both the GNWT and Łútsël K’é Dene First Nation agree that urgent action is needed to preserve the herd’s existence.
By the NWT government’s count, a herd that numbered 470,000 in 1986 contained just 6,200 animals in 2021.
“Everyone cares deeply about their survival,” Thompson wrote.
“ENR has been working closely with Indigenous governments, Indigenous organizations, and other co-management partners to protect the Bathurst herd. We all want to ensure that the Bathurst caribou herd continues to roam these lands for generations to come, which continues to require hard work and a shared commitment by all involved.”
Thompson said Indigenous governments and ENR had met in December 2021 and January 2022 to discuss illegal harvesting in the mobile zone and recommendations to address it.
This week’s investigation, he wrote, had begun after “two independent reports from members of the public” regarding illegal harvesting in the zone.
First Nation ‘contests legality’ of search
The Łútsël K’é Dene First Nation said the principle of managing and protecting caribou was not at issue, but ENR’s manner of handling the search at the camp could not be tolerated.
“We are shocked that the GNWT would carry out what amounted to a forceful invasion of our cultural camp”, stated Catholique in Wednesday’s press release.
“This was a completely unreasonable search and an unnecessary violation of our Aboriginal and treaty rights. It reminds us that all the talk about reconciliation and new relationships is just talk until there is a real change in how other governments deal with us on the ground.
“LKDFN is deeply committed to caribou conservation and intends to continue to collaborate with other governments, including the GNWT, to work toward healthier herds. But treating our members like criminals is deeply disrespectful of our constitutionally protected Aboriginal and treaty right to practise our way of life. This incident is a serious setback to our relationship with the GNWT and it will do nothing to halt the decline of the Bathurst caribou herd.”
Innes said the First Nation wants an investigation to be opened into the conduct of the officers and the basis for the search. He told Cabin Radio he believes the warrant was “improperly obtained and unconstitutional,” adding that “a search of the entire camp in front of 70-odd people was textbook unreasonable.”
“They can bring charges if they believe they have evidence, but we would obviously contest the legality of the search,” Innes said by phone.
“Setting those issues aside, there is the relationship that needs to be considered. Łútsël K’é has tried for many years to work with the GNWT on caribou conservation.
“I don’t know where you pick that up after an incident like this.”