This month’s search by wildlife officers at a Łútsël K’é Dene First Nation cultural camp will be referred by the NWT government for review by an outside agency.
The Department of Environment and Natural Resources and environment minister Shane Thompson have defended the search as a necessity in enforcing laws that aim to prevent illegal caribou harvesting.
But multiple Indigenous leaders have condemned the search of the camp by two officers as an overly aggressive tactic that is endangering relations between the territorial government and Indigenous governments as the dispute lingers.
The Dene Nation and Łútsël K’é’s MLA, Richard Edjericon, have each called this week for the NWT government to apologize and for an investigation to take place.
On Friday, a spokesperson for the territorial department gave no suggestion that an apology was forthcoming but said a review would be ordered.
“We are planning to engage outside enforcement specialists to complete a review of this enforcement action,” the spokesperson stated by email, without specifying who that third party would be or a timeline for such a review.
“This review will respect the confidentiality of investigations ongoing,” the statement continued. “The review would not cover matters such as the validity of a search. The validity of any search warrant issued is appropriately decided by courts.”
Edjericon and the Łútsël K’é Dene First Nation have each suggested no legal warrant could be broad enough to allow a thorough search of every tent and structure at a cultural camp being attended by some 70 to 80 people.
Indigenous leaders have also asked if Thompson was aware of the search before it took place. The department on Friday said the minister “was not aware of any details related to the investigation” and decisions had been taken by investigating officers.
Illegal harvesting investigations continue
The investigation in question began, the department has said, when reports were received of 10 caribou carcasses and suspected meat wastage inside a mobile no-hunting zone well to the north of the First Nation’s Artillery Lake cultural camp.
A search took place inside the mobile zone (so named because it moves over time), as did a search of the camp. The searches were connected, but the precise link has not been made clear and no charges have yet been filed.
A second investigation within the same week, apparently not connected to the first investigation, found a further eight caribou carcasses in another area of the no-hunting zone.
On Friday, the territorial government sought to stress the importance of enforcing rules designed to protect the few caribou that remain in the Bathurst herd – part of a strategy that the department said had been drawn up with Indigenous partners.
“This matters,” an ENR spokesperson stated by email. “The Bathurst herd has declined almost 99 percent from 470,000 in 1996 to a little over 6,200 animals today.
“Zero harvest of Bathurst caribou, implemented through the mobile zone, is just one measure that we have all worked on together on across the region.
“Harvesting within the mobile zone and wasteful harvesting are choices. Most engage in respectful harvesting and do not do these things. It is a small number of people who make these choices. And that is why education, outreach, and investigating kill sites are all important.”
Both investigations into illegal harvesting are ongoing, the department said.