Workshop arms Sahtu residents with tools to challenge caribou controls

In Colville Lake, N.W.T., 22 Sahtu residents are learning how to turn traditional stories about the territory’s dwindling caribou herds into compelling evidence for local control.

Colville Lake, N.W.T., plans pushes for local control of caribou conservation efforts

A workshop in Colville Lake, N.W.T. is arming residents with the tools to transform traditional knowledge into public policy. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

The next time the people of the Sahtu talk caribou with the N.W.T. government, they'll come prepared.

Last month, the community of Colville Lake, N.W.T., released its conservation plan for the territory's dwindling caribou herds — a plan that pushes strongly for changes to territorial policy.

And this week, 22 leaders from the Sahtu will learn how to turn traditional stories about the herds into compelling evidence for local control.

"If they understand it, they will … respect it," said Colville Lake Chief Wilbert Kochon.

The workshop, organized by the Sahtu Renewable Resources Board, follows one like it in Tulita, N.W.T., which trained local leaders on developing evidence-based policy from traditional knowledge.

"[We're] trying to create a bit of a meeting place," said Stuart Cowell, a trainer from the Australia-based Conservation Coaches Network who's leading the workshop.

"What we do is bring a set of tools that helps them organize that knowledge in a way that can be very powerful when we present [their] ideas … to outside parties," Cowell said.

Kirsten Jensen, who helped organize the workshop for the Sahtu Renewable Resources Board, said she hoped the workshop will help shift the balance of power in conversations with the territory's environmental regulators.

"That is the basis for why we are doing these workshops," she said.

Colville Lake Chief Wilbert Kochon said his community's relationship to caribou can sometimes be hard to explain to outsiders. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

'Colonial system of control and criminalization'

Colville Lake is hoping to advance their caribou conservation plan at the Sahtu Renewable Resources Board's "public listening sessions" in January.

The board's executive director Deborah Simmons said she hopes those sessions can be an occasion to work on "cross-boundary" issues with caribou and food security.

Since 2016, Canada's Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife has considered barren-ground caribou as "threatened," due to a steep decline in the population of the major herds. The N.W.T. followed suit last year by listing barren-ground caribou, with the exception of the Porcupine caribou herd, as a "species at risk."

Traditional knowledge holders dispute the narrative that the population drop is unusual, arguing caribou herds have always experienced cycles of growth and decline — a fact verified in scientific records.

Like many other Indigenous communities in the N.W.T., Colville Lake has balked at hunting quotas and tagging systems imposed by the territory's Environment and Natural Resources Department.

The plan calls that system an "unprecedented colonial system of control and criminalization of Indigenous hunting."

In response, it proposes adopting traditional knowledge as the "leading edge of … harvesting knowledge" and Dehlá Got'ı̨ne ʔeʔa, the community's traditional law, as "the law that will guide all efforts to protect the animals."

That law is based on a close relationship with the ʔədə — meaning caribou — that has sometimes been difficult to describe.

A Bathurst bull caribou. In 2016, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada listed barren-ground caribou as threatened, and the N.W.T. followed suit in 2018. (N.W.T. Department of Environment and Natural Resources)

"It's hard to explain to people when they believe in the scientific world[view]," said Kochon. He said the relationship was "personal" and "spiritual."

The plan's opening declaration says the caribou were given as a "gift … for us to take."

"It is the Dehlá Got'ı̨ne [members of the Behdzi Ahda First Nation] responsibility to take care of the ʔədə and it is the responsibility of the ʔədə to take care of us," it reads. "If Dehlá Got'ı̨ne abandon Dehlá Got'ı̨ne responsibilities with the ʔədə, then Dehlá Got'ı̨ne will lose the gift of the ʔədə."

"Caribou is kind of a spiritual animal," said Kochon. "They can come and go from an area just like… the snap of a finger."

Kochon told the story of a 1980 slaughter of caribou in Fort Good Hope, after which caribou disappeared from the area.

"One elder was pretty mad, and said … 'The meat goes through the ground, and the caribou will never come back,'" he said. "And it's true, since then, they haven't been up … there again."

6 goals for conservation

Colville Lake's conservation plan includes six goals, mostly focused on articulating the traditional law that would guide the harvest.

The goals include formalizing the community's conservation policy, assessing the size of the local harvest, recording traditional knowledge on herd decline, and educating youth on responsible hunting.

Kochon said he hopes the workshop is a chance for residents to come to understand the principles underlying the new conservation plan.

"It's something that belongs to the Dene people of the Sahtu," he said.


  • This story has been updated to reflect that the Colville Lake conservation plan is for barren-ground caribou, not boreal caribou.
    Nov 05, 2019 11:02 AM CT