Cree and Innu sign agreement over caribou harvest in Cree territory

Three hundred caribou from the Leaf River herd are being "gifted" to the nine communities of the Innu nation. They're coming out of a guaranteed Cree harvest of 850 caribou that is part of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement signed in 1975, said Cree officials. 

Agreement spells out protocols, will allow Innu hunters to harvest 300 caribou

An agreement signed Monday between Cree and Innu nations of Quebec sets out a series of protocols and will allow Innu hunting parties to harvest caribou on Chisasibi traditional territory. (Katrina Noel)

Cree and Innu leaders in northern Quebec have signed a nation to nation agreement allowing Innu hunters to harvest 300 caribou this winter on Cree traditional territory east of Chisasibi.

The agreement is called Maamuu nisituhtimuwin/ Matinueu-mashinaikan atiku e uauinakanit, which translates to "mutual understanding" and was signed during a virtual ceremony Monday afternoon. 

"[It] is an historic event for both nations, because it really signals for the first time in history, Indigenous groups getting together and working on a preservation and conservation approach that's based on cultural and traditional exchanges," said Cree Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty. Chisasibi is located some 1,700 kilometres north of Montreal.

The 300 caribou from the Leaf River herd are being "gifted" to the nine communities of the Innu nation and are coming out of a guaranteed Cree harvest of 850 caribou that is part of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement signed in 1975, said Cree officials. 

Innu leaders said Monday the gesture is deeply appreciated.

A sharing relationship that dates back to time immemorial.-Mike McKenzie, Chief of  Uashat Mak Mani-utenam

"For us, this community hunt will not only meet a need for our Elders' food security, but also perpetuate a sharing relationship that dates back to time immemorial," said Chief Mike McKenzie, Chief of the Innu community of Uashat Mak Mani-utenam and spokesperson for the nine Innu communities, in a news release.

Caribou in decline

Caribou populations have been in severe decline for many years, in particular the George River herd, which was most present on the traditional territory of the Innu and Inuit in both Quebec and Labrador. 

That herd is down to just over 8,000 animals, just 1 per cent of its 1990 population of more than 800,000 animals. There has been a complete ban on hunting the George River herd in both Labrador and Quebec for several years. 

Mike Mckenzie, chief of Uashat Mak Mani-utenam, during the virtual signing Monday. He said the gesture by Cree is deeply appreciated. (Grand Council of the Crees)

In 2019, Innu Elders sent a letter to Cree leadership asking for help to preserve the important cultural practice of the caribou hunt. 

"They did not want to lose their cultural practices of hunting and everything that goes along with that — the preparation of the meat, the preparation of the hide — all of these things are important cultural knowledge that has to be transferred to youth," said Gull-Masty.

Chisasibi Elders, land users and tallymen (Cree land stewards) heard that request, according to Cree leadership, and were instrumental in the success of the inter-nation discussions. 

"Gifting and sharing is part of our culture, especially with those in need," said Chisasibi Chief Daisy House. 

Protocols spelled out

The agreement signed Monday sets out a series of protocols agreed to by both nations, including a requirement that a hunting party receive written prior permission from local Chisasibi authorities, take a recognized guide and agree to conduct the hunt according to "traditional customs and values."

That means conducting the hunt with no wastage, respect for the animals and environment and the safety and security of individuals. The hunting parties must also agree that the harvest is for cultural, spiritual, educational or sustenance purposes only.

The agreement was signed during a virtual ceremony by chiefs of the nine Innu communities and Cree leaders. (Grand Council of the Crees)

Leaf River herd numbers also down

Population numbers for the Leaf River herd, which is the main herd present in Chisasibi traditional territory, have been stable at approximately 190,000 for the last few years. But that is still down significantly from 2000, when the count was more than 600,000. Quebec closed the sport hunt of the Leaf River herd in 2018. 

"Although the more abundant Leaf River herd can enable some access to caribou, the herd still remains vulnerable. We must be very cautious and continue our collaboration to make sure that our harvest is managed sustainably," said Gull-Masty. 

Cree officials are expecting an update on the status of the Leaf River herd later this year and say the number of caribou shared with Innu hunting parties could change from year to year.

Leaf River caribou near the Cree community of Chisasibi on Nov. 16, 2020. (L. George Pachanos)

The agreement was several years in the making. In 2013, several Indigenous nations participated in the creation of the Ungava Peninsula Caribou Aboriginal Round Table (UPCART).And in 2017, the group signed a strategy for the conservation of Ungava Caribou, including the George River and Leaf River herds. 

But on the ground there have been tensions. 

In 2018, caribou harvested in Quebec were seized on their way to Innu territory by Quebec wildlife officials. 

And last year, Cree leaders expressed concern about an unauthorized Innu hunting party that harvested a suspected 280 caribou on lands east of Chisasibi covered by the JBNQA. 

Gull-Masty said they were frustrated by the lack of help on the file from the Quebec government and says, with this agreement, they have found a more sustainable and culturally relevant solution. 

"I think this is really a return to our roots and using those cultural approaches to enhance our relationships with other nations," said Gull-Masty.

Cree Grand Chie Mandy Gull-Masty says the agreement is a return to traditional ways. (Grand Council of the Crees)