New Zealand researchers on cultural exchange in Łutsel K'e shocked by ENR raid on camp

A group of researchers from New Zealand visiting Łutsel K'e Dene First Nation for a cultural exchange said they were shocked by the "almost militant" raid on the culture camp by wildlife officers investigating illegal caribou harvesting. 

Officers were investigating illegal hunting of Bathurst caribou: minister

Wildlife officers can be seen searching a culture camp after reports of illegal caribou harvesting. The Łutsel K'e Dene First Nation, which ran the camp, called the investigation a "forceful invasion," and said the search traumatized elders and children. (Gahdële Rosie/Facebook)

A pair of researchers from New Zealand visiting Łutsel K'e Dene First Nation for a cultural exchange said they were shocked by the "almost militant" raid on the culture camp by wildlife officers investigating illegal caribou harvesting. 

Puke Timoti is a researcher with the Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research, a Crown research institute on land, environment and biodiversity.

Timoti is Māori, an Indigenous person from New Zealand, a nation with a colonial history similar to Canada's.

"I was just shocked around just how certain approaches are still continuing in that manner," he told CBC News.

"We're very familiar with that back home and we just thought we wouldn't ever see it in another place."

Phil Lyver, left, and Puke Timoti were in Łutsel K'e Dene First Nation for a cultural exchange, where they witnessed a raid by wildlife officers investigating illegal caribou hunting. The pair said they found the raid to be an overreaction. (Luke Carroll/CBC)

The N.W.T. Department of Environment says officers were executing a search warrant after reports of illegal caribou hunting.

Environment Minister Shane Thompson said in a statement on Friday officers found the carcasses of 10 caribou within the mobile no-hunting zone that follows the endangered Bathurst caribou herd to protect it from hunters.

Talk it out

Phil Lyver, also a researcher with Manaaki Whenua, said the situation could've been rectified more peacefully.

"What they should have done was ... come up the beach, had a talk with the elders at the camp," he said. "Let's have a cup of tea. Seriously, sit around the fire."

Instead, Lyver said they witnessed numerous officers dressed in tactical gear searching all the tents and teepees at the camp. 

"There's a huge amount of hurt around the community with that response," he said.

"To come in and search the tents like that, we just felt was an… overreaction." 

Learning about Thaidene Nëné National Park

A wildlife officer inspects meat following reports of illegal hunting of caribou. (Iris Catholique/Facebook)

The pair were part of a 16-person group taking part in a two-week cultural exchange that was being done to learn about the First Nation's involvement in the Thaidene Nëné National Park, where the raid took place. 

"It was actually about what benefits they're achieving through the establishment of a national park," Lyver said. 

The park is the product of an agreement signed in 2019 between Parks Canada, the Łutsel K'e Dene First Nation, the Deninu K'ue First Nation, Yellowknives Dene First Nation, the Northwest Territory Métis Nation and the Northwest Territories government.

But Lyver said the raid has given them a new perspective on the territorial government's relationship with Indigenous nations. 

"We've got these partnerships, you've got these agreements, but then you get a response like that from a government agency. And so it's just, it's just compounding the whole colonial experience," he said.

Video of raid posted to Facebook

Footage posted to Facebook by Iris Catholique, the Thaidene Nëné manager for Łutsel K'e Dene First Nation, shows a few minutes of the raid.

In one video a person can be heard asking officers, "Why are you doing this to elders?" as they search a Ziploc bag of meat. 

According to the First Nation, wildlife officers helicoptered into the camp on Artillery Lake on Sept. 13.

About 80 Łutsel K'e Dene First Nation members were taking part in a culture camp at the time. 

Two legs of caribou meat lie against mossy ground.
A photo taken by environment officers within the mobile zone shows wasted meat from the carcasses of caribou. (Submitted by Environment and Natural Resources)

In the statement, Shane Thompson, the environment minister, said officers received two independent reports from members of the public on Monday about illegal harvesting.

"Officers initiated a field investigation at the site as well as at a secondary location working under the authority of the Wildlife Act, with a search warrant," he wrote.

Thompson added, "a significant amount of suspected wasted edible meat was identified."

The department can't share a lot of details, he said, because an active investigation is underway.

Thompson added many wildlife officers with his department have lived in the North for a long time.

"Caribou are important to them, the communities they live and work in and to elders," he said.

"Investigations like this are challenging. Enforcement of the mobile zone is an important part of the collaborative conservation measures we are taking to conserve the Bathurst herd."

The Bathurst herd has dwindled to about 6,200 animals from 470,000 in 1986.

With files from April Hudson and Marc Winkler