Tradition 'snatched away': Labrador Inuit struggle with caribou hunting ban

It's been five years since the George River caribou ban was put in place and the numbers are even worse than when it began.

There are fewer than 9,000 animals estimated to be left in the George River herd

George River caribou run outside Nain late last year. (Submitted by Brandon Pardy)

Five years into a ban on hunting the George River caribou herd, some Labrador residents say they miss the meat and feel an important part of their culture has been lost.

"It's different now to look out here across the land and see everything barren," said Allan Vincent, standing on a hill overlooking his hometown of Hopedale.

There was a time in the 1980s, Vincent said, the hills were covered with caribou.

"It actually looked like the hills [were] moving. There were so [many] animals on the land that it looked like they were the land."

Allan Vincent says the area around Hopedale used to be covered in caribou but now there are none. (John Gaudi/CBC)

There are no caribou around Hopedale these days. Vincent hasn't seen one since the year before the ban was put in place.

Today's reality

In the early 1990s there were an estimated 800,000 caribou in the George River herd. Today, that number has plummeted to below 9,000.

An advisory committee to the federal government has recommended the herd and another in the Torngat Mountains be classified as endangered.

The Nunatsiavut government has asked for a harvest of about 90 animals in 2018, to be divided among Labrador's Indigenous groups.

Seven groups sign a caribou co-management agreement in November. The Innu Nation has since left the group. (Susan Bell/CBC)

It is part of a strategy agreed to by a coalition of seven Indigenous groups in Labrador and Quebec, but the Innu Nation has walked away from the agreement. 

The Innu Nation has defied the ban imposed by the Newfoundland and Labrador government in 2013, made its own management plan and continued to hunt 300 animals per year for ceremonial purposes. This year, with the grim numbers facing the herd, the Innu will take 100 animals.

Some have been caught and charged with illegally hunting the animal. Some cases are still before the courts but the continued hunting is a bone of contention for the Nunatsiavut government and many who have respected the ban from the start.

If we don't go ahead and kill them — and the Innu are still killing them now — they're going to be gone anyway.- Allan Vincent

Vincent says with the continuing hunt and animals being killed off by other predators and natural causes, the remainder of the herd in his area will be wiped out.

"If we don't go ahead and kill them — and the Innu are still killing them now — they're going to be gone anyway, so why not let us enjoy a bit of caribou meat while we still can? There's still going to be caribou in other areas."

He fears he will never hunt again or share the experience with his son, Allan Jr..

"The bond that we would have on his first game hunt, killing that first caribou, we'll never get to experience that now because of what's going on," Vincent said.

Allan Vincent sits with his son Allan Jr. He fears he may never get to hunt caribou with his son as he did with his father (John Gaudi/CBC)

He's also starting to doubt what scientists are saying about the numbers, feeling the herd has moved somewhere else.

"I still believe in the Inuit tradition and the knowledge of the elders that the caribou move from area to area … they have to move and to go where the feed is. How accurate are they getting that count that is the George River herd?  

Still around

Though there is no sign of the animals in Hopedale, you just might catch a glimpse further north in Nain. That's where David Dicker saw the herd just outside town late last year.

"I actually drove up to the caribou herd and was almost touching the caribou. It felt so good," Dicker said.

David Dicker respects the ban on the caribou. He hopes to see the day when it is lifted. (John Gaudi/CBC)

He has gone for five years without caribou meat and it's been a challenge. 

"I want the caribou to increase in numbers and for our future generations for my people here in Nain … and all along the coast," Dicker said.

"Our culture and our main source of food has been snatched away from us for that time. It's hard to respect the ban when other people are not and are continuing to hunt."

Why should we accept this ban when other people don't accept it at all?- David Dicker

Dicker respects the Innu Nation and their traditions but he, like the Nunatsiavut government, is not pleased with their decision to defy the ban.

"Why are the Innu still hunting our caribou herd?" Dicker asked.

"If they can, why can't we? My peers and my parents and a lot of my community members really think it's wrong. Why should we accept this ban when other people don't accept it at all?"

A picture of a young David Dicker taken by his father in front of a herd of Caribou. (David Dicker/Submitted)

Gerry Byrne, the provincial minister of fisheries and land resources, said that there will continue to be an enforcement presence in Labrador but he is also calling for self-regulation and self-discipline. He has said he favours a co-management approach by those who are closest to the herd. What that means for the future of the ban has yet to be revealed. 

"I will still respect the ban until we get the go ahead to go and hunt," Dicker said. "For me and my family, I think it would be a great hunt."

With files from John Gaudi