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The Bathurst caribou hunting ban took effect Jan. 1, barring aboriginal and non-aboriginal hunters from harvesting caribou in the N.W.T.'s North Slave region.

N.W.T. government and Dene officials met Monday night to discuss the territory's controversial Bathurst caribou hunting ban, debating the month-old issue in public for the first time.

Roughly 200 people filled a hotel conference room in Yellowknife for the debate, in which territorial government officials defended the ban while the Dene Nation disputed the numbers behind it.

The hunting ban began Jan. 1 and prohibits all hunters from harvesting caribou in a no-hunting zone — the Bathurst herd's winter range — north of Great Slave Lake to the boundary with Nunavut.

The N.W.T. government put the temporary no-hunting zone in place amid concerns about the Bathurst herd's population, which government surveys indicate is in steep decline.

"In the last three years, it's from 100,000 to 32,000, and that rate of decline has really increased," Susan Fleck, the N.W.T. government's director of wildlife, said at Monday night's meeting.

Accuracy questioned

But Fred Sangris, the Dene Nation's caribou committee chairman, questioned whether the government's caribou counts are accurate to begin with.

"A photograph from satellite is taken to determine a number of animals on the ground," Sangris said. "There's problems with that kind of counting."

If the government's numbers are wrong, Dene leaders say the hunting ban becomes even less palatable than it already has been for many aboriginal subsistence hunters.

Monday's meeting marked the first time the public saw the government and Dene leaders debating the hunting ban in the same room.

Many who attended the meeting said hunters were being unfairly targeted for issues that were beyond their control.

"Managing hunting's a Band-Aid solution," said Daniel T'sellie.

"I think the two most important issues that people have touched on, in the long-term, will be development and climate change. Any conservation plan in the long term really has to take those into account."

MLAs pass motion

Earlier on Monday, N.W.T. MLAs passed a motion calling on the government to consult more with aboriginal people on managing caribou in the territory.

The motion, introduced by Sahtu MLA Norman Yakeleya, also calls for a joint territorial-aboriginal government effort to find an alternative to banning the Bathurst caribou hunt.

Yakeleya's motion is not binding on cabinet, and cabinet members abstained when it came to a vote.

Premier Floyd Roland insisted that current consultations on the ban are sufficient and ongoing.

"We do engage, we do consult, and we work to accommodate," Roland said in the legislative assembly.

But Yakeleya did not agree, saying the government's idea of "meaningful consultation" with aboriginal governments would not "stand up in the Supreme Court of Canada."

Other regular members, like Yellowknife Centre MLA Robert Hawkins, also questioned the government's caribou numbers.

"One hundred thousand caribou or more just do not disappear or fall off the land in the Northwest Territories," Hawkins said.

"I could be sitting here and saying maybe they were abducted."

Roland and other cabinet ministers insisted that it's their duty to act quickly to conserve the Bathurst caribou herd.

Court to consider question

Justice Minister Jackson Lafferty said Monday that he will ask the N.W.T. Supreme Court to rule on whether the government really does have the legislative authority to regulate the aboriginal caribou hunt.

Lafferty maintained that the government does have that authority, but said some people believe otherwise when it comes to the aboriginal subsistence hunt.

Lafferty said he will refer a question to the court within a week.

The court will likely have much to consider in this case: aboriginal peoples are guaranteed the right to hunt, but the government's responsibility for wildlife can trump that right when animal populations are threatened.

However, the government has a constitutional obligation to have meaningful consultations with aboriginal peoples before their hunting rights are affected.

The government also has to demonstrate that the wildlife protection measures are necessary.