A controversy is brewing in parts of Manitoba over the practice of night hunting, one that has the premier and rural politicians calling for an outright ban on the practice — while placing unproven blame on First Nations people.

"Young Indigenous men — a preponderance of them are offenders, with criminal records — are going off shooting guns in the middle of the night. It doesn't make sense," Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister is quoted as saying, when a reporter from Maclean's tracked him down at his Costa Rican retreat. 

Night hunting often involves "spotlighting," in which a hunter shines powerful lights on prey; it is illegal in Manitoba for non-Indigenous people. 

But First Nations have a right to hunt for food at night, a right protected by the Constitution Act of 1982, provided it is done safely and under certain conditions — such as on reserves, unoccupied Crown land or private land with permission.

"What is fair about going out and shooting at a pair of eyes in the night with a high-powered rifle? What's sustainable about that?" Pallister said Jan. 16 at a Progressive Conservative Party luncheon in Virden, Man.

Anecdotes, not stats

Shortly after the premier's comments, reeves from southwest Manitoba demanded action from the province.

"In the case of Indigenous people, they've got certain rights that allow them to hunt over and above what the rest of us can hunt, but there's no need to hunt at nighttime," said Archie McPherson, the reeve of the rural municipality of Pipestone, Man.

"It's an extreme danger to everyone. Livestock and whatnot have been shot. There's been machinery with bullets through it."

In January, the province announced that conservation officers received 245 reports of night hunting or dangerous hunting in 2016 and a further 164 reports of hunting on private land without permission.

"Photos and stories of dead animals, including moose, deer and some livestock, have been discovered and either reported to conservation or distributed via social media," said Cathy Cox, Manitoba's minister of sustainable development. 

Conservation made 44 arrests for hunting at night in 2016, up from 25 arrests the year before.

CBC has been asking for information on who was charged and where the offences took place, but has yet to receive a response, so it's not clear whether First Nations hunters were responsible for any of the infractions.

Given that night hunting is legal for First Nations, it's unclear why any Indigenous people would be charged.

CBC asked the RCMP in Manitoba to confirm whether there's been an increase in spotlighting complaints or reports of property being shot at, but hasn't received a response.

Declining moose?

In recent years, some have blamed First Nations hunters for the decline in moose populations.

"It's the unregulated harvest by a [small number] of our First Nation peoples, and now in part of Manitoba, the Métis peoples," Vince Crichton, a former Manitoba Conservation biologist, told CBC in 2016.

Manitoba Wildlife Federation NightWatch campaign

The Manitoba Wildlife Federation's NightWatch campaign, which was launched in 2015, calls on the provincial government to ban spotlighting. (CBC)

"Young Indigenous guys going out and shooting a bunch of moose 'cause they can, 'cause they say it's their right, doesn't make any sense to me," Pallister said during the luncheon in Virden.

There is no data about how many big game animals are being hunted by First Nations in Manitoba — legally or otherwise.

But a spokesperson from the province said in 2015, Manitoba issued more than 3,300 moose hunting licences to non-Indigenous hunters, who harvested an estimated 600 moose during the roughly two-month-long season.

​Legality of ban

There's the question of whether an outright ban on night hunting is even possible.

The right of First Nations to hunt for food is protected under the Constitution Act (1982), while the right to hunt at night with lights was most recently upheld in the Supreme Court case R v. Morris.

First Nations in Manitoba could probably challenge any blanket night hunting ban in the courts, said Benjamin Ralston, who teaches Indigenous law at the University of Saskatchewan — depending on whether an Indigenous nation night hunted historically.

"If it were the case that particular First Nations in Manitoba engaged in night hunting by way of illumination prior to treaty, then the government of Manitoba will have a very steep hill to climb," said Ralston.

Culture and food, not sport

Darwyn Paupanekis, a member of Pimicikamak in Northern Manitoba, said the public needs to understand that his people have been hunting for food and to pass on important traditions since long before there were Canadian laws.

"Hunting is a part of our culture," Paupanekis said. "I don't know anyone who hunts for sport."

And Paupanekis said First Nations hunters like himself will likely continue to hunt, day or night, winter or summer, for years to come — safely away from roads and settlements — ban or no ban.