Innu treated 'like criminals' for hunting George River caribou, says grand chief

The Innu Nation says blaming the declining George River caribou herd population on hunting is a "shameful exercise of blaming the Innu."

Innu Nation Grand Chief Anastasia Qupee says similar herd decline happened in 1950s

Innu Nation Grand Chief Anastasia Qupee says the Innu aren't adhering to the provincial ban, but are cautious in their approach to hunting. (CBC)

The head of the Innu Nation says the provincial government has no scientific proof that hunting is responsible for the decline of the George River caribou — and to say otherwise is a "shameful exercise of blaming the Innu."

In a release issued Monday, government said the herd count has declined by 37 per cent in just two years and, if that rate continues the herd could be wiped out in less than five years.

"We have reached out to the province in the past to try to come up with a caribou management plan and that hasn't been acknowledged," Innu Nation Grand Chief Anastasia Qupee told CBC Radio's Labrador Morning on Wednesday. 

Environment and Climate Change Minister Perry Trimper said government is seeing some collared caribou being shot, and some First Nations elders believe hunting can continue despite a provincial ban.

Nunatsiavut endorses the province's 2013 ban, while the Innu Nation does not.

The George River caribou herd could be wiped out within five years if its current rate of decline continues, according to the provincial government. (CBC)

Qupee asserts that the Innu are very cautious in their approach to the hunt, as they are "primary stakeholders" in the caribou. But she said government has taken an "us and them" approach that doesn't serve anyone.

'You're being treated as a criminal [for] practicing your own culture.' - Anastasia  Qupee

"The hunters were selective about the sex and age of caribou we took, we used hunters that were skilled, and we made decisions based on our traditional knowledge of the herd and traditional knowledge from our elders," Qupee said.

She said other provincial governments work with First Nations when it comes to caribou recovery and sustainability.

"They collect information on the herds together … there's a lot of public education and compliance … to me, this what we've been looking for and we're still not there today."

'Just as concerned'

Qupee said there's an implication from government that indigenous people are to blame for declining caribou numbers, "and that's not right."

"That's the way that we've been treated in the past and … it's really hard to move forward when you're being treated as a criminal [for] practicing your own culture."

The provincial government says there are fewer than 9,000 animals left in the George River caribou herd. (CBC)

In a statement released Tuesday, Qupee said barren-ground caribou herds are in decline across the North.

She said a similar decline last occurred in the 1950s, and that there are 60 to 80 year cycles in the caribou herd. But Trimper said there are factors today that make recovery much harder.

Qupee said the caribou plays a significant role in Innu heritage and language.

"We're just as concerned as the province and any other aboriginal groups about the caribou."

'The utmost priority'

Darryl Shiwak, Nunatsiavut's minister of lands and natural resources, said it's extremely concerning — but not surprising — to hear there are fewer than 9,000 animals left in the herd.

Minister of Lands and Natural Resources Darryl Shiwak says it's frustrating that some groups have chosen to disregard the provincial caribou ban. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

He said it's frustrating that some groups aren't honouring the hunting ban, as everyone in Labrador needs to work together to protect the herd.

But he believes enforcement is something for the provincial government to address.

"We've always believed in the need to take care of the George River caribou herd," said Shiwak.

"Ever since it's been in decline, it's the utmost priority — that still hasn't changed."

Both the Innu Nation and Nunatsiavut government will continue the conservation discussion at the Ungava Peninsula Caribou Aboriginal Round Table meeting next week.

With files from Labrador Morning