The MLA representing Łútsël K’é and the Dene Nation are demanding an apology from the NWT government for wildlife officers’ search of a cultural camp this month.
The Łútsël K’é First Nation says the two officers’ search of its camp at Artillery Lake, carried out as part of an investigation into illegal caribou harvesting, was “aggressive and disrespectful.”
NWT environment minister Shane Thompson has defended the officers’ role in upholding rules put in place to preserve the few animals that remain in the Bathurst caribou herd.
No charges have so far been announced related to the investigation, which began following reports of 10 caribou carcasses abandoned inside a no-hunting area well north of the camp.
The Dene Nation has called for “the immediate resignation of officials that directed and supported the raid,” saying the search demonstrated “a blatant lack of respect and recognition of our inherent Dene and treaty rights.”
The Department of Environment and Natural Resources has so far expressed no contrition over the search or its aftermath, instead asking for time for its investigation to play out. However, as that clock ticks, an increasing number of Indigenous leaders are voicing their disapproval.
In a press release posted to his Facebook page on Wednesday, Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Richard Edjericon said Thompson should formally apologize for the search and begin a new investigation into how the raid came to pass.
“Everyone has the right to be secure against unreasonable search and seizure,” Edjericon wrote.
“What happened to the people of Łútsël K’é at Timber Bay was a gross violation of those rights. More than 80 people, including children and Elders, were forced to submit to an outrageous overreach of government authority as their cabins, tents and belongings were searched for evidence of illegal hunting.”
Tents at the camp should be afforded the same privacy “that everyone expects in their own home,” Edjericon continued, adding that a warrant to search any dwelling place would require that officers “meet a very high standard.”
The First Nation has already suggested a legal challenge could follow on the grounds that the search was not legal.
“I find it hard to believe that such an extensive and invasive search could have been justified,” Edjericon wrote.
“I find it equally hard to believe that no one in government considered the impacts that it would have on the people of Łútsël K’é.”
Suggesting that the officers’ conduct “triggered memories of intergenerational trauma” for Elders at the camp, Edjericon said a failure by Thompson to apologize “runs the risk of setting Indigenous relations back another 150 years.”
“Our reputation as a progressive jurisdiction that respects Indigenous peoples and all their rights is at risk,” he concluded. “It is imperative that our government take immediate action to ensure the damage done to the dignity and sovereignty of First Nations is not repeated in the future by the GNWT or any other government.”
The minister has made no comment since his initial defence of the search last week.
At the time, Thompson said in a statement: “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.
“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.”
Late last week, a spokesperson for the department said officers were “continuing to thoroughly investigate” reports of illegal caribou harvesting.
“Wildlife investigations are complex and decisions on whether to lay charges take time,” the spokesperson wrote.
The department had no comment by the end of Thursday but was understood to be preparing an update for distribution to newsrooms on Friday.