Nfld. & Labrador

Crown stays charges against Innu caribou hunters dating back to 2013

A decade-long court battle between the Newfoundland and Labrador government and the Innu Nation ended Monday, when the Crown stayed charges against six men accused of illegally hunting and possessing caribou in 2013.

Innu Nation grand chief criticizes decision, says charges should be dropped outright

A herd of caribou running across a snowy field.
The George River caribou herd, pictured here outside Nain, has been dwindling for years. (Submitted by Brandon Pardy)

A decade-long court battle between the Newfoundland and Labrador government and the Innu Nation ended Monday, when the Crown stayed charges against six men accused of illegally hunting and possessing caribou in 2013.

The stay means the trial is halted and, unless the Crown decides to resume, will be considered to have never begun.

"It appears to me, that it is not practicable to proceed any further on the said informations," wrote Crown attorney Justin Mellor in his letter to the court Monday. 

The hunt in question happened not long after the provincial government banned hunting of the George River herd in 2013. The herd, which migrates between northern Labrador and parts of Quebec, has long been considered vulnerable, with the most recent count, in 2018, finding its population had dropped by more than 98 per cent since 2001

Ten hunters were initially charged under the Wildlife Act but in charges against four were dismissed at a hearing in Happy Valley-Goose Bay in 2017. The Innu Nation said charges were dropped when it "became clear that the police and wildlife officers involved in the case could not tell the Innu hunters apart from each other and could not recognize the people they had charged."

That left six men on the stand. 

Etienne Rich, grand chief of Innu Nation, called Monday's decision to stay the charges — leaving open the potential to resume the trial — rather than dropping them outright a "very dirty move by government."

Rich said the province should drop the charges against the remaining six men, given that a decade has gone by. 

"The Innu could be dragged back into court because of those old charges from 10 years ago. They didn't drop the charges, they just put them on hold," Rich said, who also wondered to others charged in 2021 and 2022 for the same thing.

"I think if they dropped all the charges, that would be the right thing to do."

A man wearing eye glasses and a white jacket is smiling.
Innu Nation Grand Chief Etienne Rich stands outside Supreme Court in St. John's in February. (Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada)

For years, Innu Nation has argued the caribou possession charges were unconstitutional because they have an Aboriginal right to hunt and possess the animal.

When the court case was launched, Innu Nation hoped it would establish a "constitutional precedent that would enshrine their caribou hunting rights once and for all," reads a media release issued Tuesday.

But Rich said Monday's decision keeps the charges hanging over the men's heads while not giving Innu Nation an opportunity for a constitutional challenge.

"What they did, it means that we cannot have our day in the court to fight the constitutional challenges," he said.

"They're still dragging it out and won't recognize that Innu have rights to hunt. They're playing legal tricks here and I want to know why are Innu being punished for being Innu."

Important tradition

The caribou has significant importance to the Innu and their traditional religious beliefs.

Rich said the Innu have tremendous respect for the animal and don't hunt it for sport. He said he's pushing the provincial government for an annual ceremonial hunt for the Innu.

"It's not just a food source from the caribou. It's the most respected animal in our lives. It's spirituality," he said.

"The government don't understand our stories, they don't understand our legends and they don't understand who's Innu."

Rich said he spoke with Premier Andrew Furey by phone on Tuesday about implementing a ceremonial hunt. 

"I want to continue those talks and I think it's very important," said Rich.

"We do have our own caribou management plan as well. We do believe those herds are important."

On Wednesday, CBC News asked the provincial government, including the premier, the Department of Justice, the Department of Forestry and the Department of Indigenous Affairs for comment. There has been no comment from the departments, while a spokesperson for the premier said Furey was unavailable.

CBC was told Furey was unavailable and hasn't received comment from the governmental departments. 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Bailey White