A Łútsël K'é Dene First Nation cultural camp. Photo supplied by the Łútsël K'é Dene First Nation
A search warrant that allowed the NWT government’s wildlife officers to carry out a raid at a Łútsël K’é Dene First Nation cultural camp last month has been thrown out by the court.
The warrant, issued by a justice of the peace in September, was part of an investigation into the harvesting of 10 caribou inside a “mobile zone,” a no-hunting area intended to help protect the dwindling Bathurst caribou herd.
During the investigation, the NWT government conducted two searches: one inside the mobile zone, and another at the site of a cultural camp on Artillery Lake, northeast of Łútsël K’é but well to the south of the no-hunting area.
According to the Łútsël K’é Dene First Nation (LKDFN), however, the raid was an invasive 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,” the First Nation reported in a press release shortly after the raid.
“The officers threatened to charge people with obstruction and bring in additional officers if they refused to comply with their demands,” the First Nation reported.
Although theNWT’s environment minister, Shane Thompson, and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) have defended the search, the Łútsël K’é Dene First Nation contested its legality.
Earlier this month, Larry Innes, a lawyer representing the First Nation, applied to have the search warrant quashed as it violated individuals’ rights. The application was submitted on behalf of John Maurice Catholique, an Elder, spiritual leader, and elected member of band council.
In a courtroom on Monday, Supreme Court Justice Shannon Smallwood granted the application to quash the warrant when two lawyers representing the territorial government did not object. Both parties also agreed that items seized during the search, such as samples of caribou meat and antler velvet, would be forfeited.
“This is very much a vindication of Łútsël K’é’s position,” Innes told reporters outside the courtroom. “This warrant should never have been issued, the search should never have taken place.”
Not the end of the matter
Iris Catholique, who manages the Thaidene Nëné protected area on behalf of the First Nation, said the decision comes with mixed emotions.
“I’m happy that we’re able to quash the warrant,” she said. At the same time, she and others still feel very upset and hurt. “It’s hard to even think about it without getting emotional,” she said.
The warrant allowed officers entry to the camp, which included a cabin, roughly two dozen tents and tepees, freezers, caches, and other facilities. Approximately 80 people witnessed the search, including Łútsël K’é leaders, youth, Elders and guests, the First Nation reported in a press release on Monday.
“We have been working so hard to heal from the violence that our Elders and ancestors have experienced at the hands of government officials through things like residential school and wildlife policy, and also to protect our young people from those kinds of experiences,” Iris Catholique said in the same press release.
The search brought all that history to a head, she said. In an affidavit submitted with the application, John Maurice Catholique writes that he attended residential school for 13 years. The search, he writes, “reminded me of the fear and the feeling of powerlessness I felt at residential school, where I feared physical abuse if I stood up for myself.”
While the First Nation welcomes the government’s admission that the warrant and search were unlawful, it’s not the end of the matter.
“LKDFN repeats its call for an investigation into the conduct of the wildlife officers and the events that led to the warrant and also an apology for what happened at our camp in September,” Chief James Marlowe said in the press release. “We believe the officials who sanctioned this raid should resign.”
Mike Westwick, a spokesperson for ENR, said by email that the department is undertaking an independent review of the officers’ conduct during the search, as it committed to last month.
Although ENR could not comment on the court proceedings and decisions made on behalf of the Attorney General, the investigation into illegal harvest and wastage remains open, Westwick wrote.
According to Iris Catholique, the issue is not going away anytime soon. The First Nation is considering its legal options, including pursuing a civil lawsuit against the GNWT for the search.
“At the end of the day, our constitutional rights were trampled on,” she said. “There’s a lot of reconciliation that still needs to occur.”