Felix Collins, Newfoundland and Labrador's justice minister, said prosecuting individual hunters may be difficult. ((CBC))

Chiefs representing Innu communities in northeastern Quebec are defending the actions of hunters who killed animals near a protected caribou herd in Labrador last week.

Quebec hunters say the slaughter was to protest their exclusion from a deal that will compensate Labrador Innu for the proposed Lower Churchill hydroelectric megaproject.

In all, 250 caribou were killed and will be used for food supplies for the communities, the chiefs said in a statement released Monday.

The expedition "was successful and also a great victory," said Georges-Ernest Grégoire, chief of Uashat Mak Mani Utenam. He said the kill had raised the attention of the Newfoundland and Labrador government.

"For thousands of years, we have practised the caribou hunt on a territory we call Nitassinan," said Réal McKenzie, chief of Matimekush-Lac-John.  "No border drawn up by Euro-Canadians, upon their arrival four centuries ago, can limit Nitassinan and the inherent rights of its people."

Charges may be laid

Newfoundland and Labrador's justice minister said Monday he expects charges to be laid against the Quebec Innu hunters.

"We certainly do," Felix Collins told CBC News. "We certainly hope that the evidence will be sufficient to lay charges."

Quebec Innu hunters sparked a furor last week when they pursued caribou near the protected Red Wine herd, which the Newfoundland and Labrador government believes has just 100 animals.

Collins said the government does not know how many animals were killed in last week's hunt, but "we're assuming it's anywhere from 150 to 200."

The zone where the hunt took place is closed to hunting in order to protect the Red Wine herd.

Collins admitted that it might be difficult to press charges against individual hunters. Conservation officers were kept from the scene last week, largely for safety reasons, and much of the evidence will be based on video surveillance from the air.

"When you put 200 people in there in a volatile situation, a highly charged situation, then the decision of government is not to put our people in harm's way," Collins told CBC News.

"Evidence taken from surveillance cameras presents some challenges because you have to identify a shooter with a dead animal on the ground, and given the angles of the cameras and the lighting and the clothing and distinguishing one individual from the other and what not, it takes quite a challenge to do that."

Collins said no evidence was seized at the scene.

Threat to animals downplayed

The Innu chiefs disputed the idea that hunting by their community members could endanger the caribou.

"It is not the caribou herd that is on the verge of extinction, but rather the Innu Nation that must fight against assimilation and extinction policies. For us, exercising our rights is a matter of survival," said Jean-Charles Piétacho, Chief of Ekuanitshit.

Innu hunters prioritize the respect of the animal and elders used last week’s expedition to pass on those skills to the younger generation, the chiefs said in the statement.

"Our action was not directed against our brothers and sisters of the Innu in Labrador, but against governments that refuse to recognize our rights and impose fictitious boundaries," said Raphaël Picard, chief of Pessamit.