Caribou harvest in northern Quebec a worry for Cree

The area where the hunt happened is in the far eastern region of Cree territory, in an area where the Innu say they also traditionally hunted. It is territory that is covered by the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, signed in 1975, to which the Innu were not signatories. 

About 280 caribou were reportedly harvested by a group of Innu hunters

A troupe of caribou on December 4, 2018, along the Hudson Bay coast, near Whapmagoostui/Kuujjuarapik, Que. The Cree in northern Quebec are concerned over a recent hunt by an Innu hunting party in the far eastern reaches of Cree territory. (Matthew Mukash)

A community caribou hunt organized in northern Quebec by some Innu hunters from Matimekush-Lac John, near Schefferville, Que., has some Chisasibi tallymen and Cree government officials worried. 

The hunt happened on lands west of Schefferville and east of Chisasibi, northwest of Brisay, in northern Quebec between the end of January and mid-February. The area is more than 1,800 kilometres northeast of Montreal.

About 280 caribou from the Leaf River herd were reportedly harvested by the group, a Cree investigation found, according to Cree Grand Chief Abel Bosum. 

"We are not against hunting of caribou by the Innu of that community, but only that protocols were not followed, where those people whose trap lines where the hunt took place were not informed beforehand," said Bosum in Cree, adding he was also concerned so many caribou were harvested from a vulnerable herd. 

We are not against hunting of caribou by the Innu.- Abel Bosum, Cree Nation Grand Chief 

One of the traplines where the hunt took place is the responsibility of Cree tallyman Bobby Neacappo. He said he was also disappointed in how the hunt was carried out. 

"I feel that the hunt was not respectful, in the amount of caribou that were taken," said Neacappo in Cree. Tallymen are what Cree land stewards are called.

Hunting restrictions in place

In 2018, the Cree Nation Government put voluntary limits on the harvesting of the Leaf River herd. The sport hunt on the Leaf River herd has been closed since 2018. The government also banned the Indigenous hunt of the George River caribou herd.

Bosum said he is aware of how important the caribou is for Innu people. 

"We understand there is a need ... the Innu people [have].… [The caribou hunt] that's their way of life, and we respect that and we acknowledge that, " said Bosum, who added that Cree leadership have sent a letter expressing their concerns over the hunt to Réal McKenzie, Chief of Matimekush-Lac John.

Caribou near Radisson, Que., in 2019. (Luc Gervais)

"We need to maintain that respect among nations and also the respect for our trappers and our tallymen ... who depend on the wildlife," said Bosum, in English.

McKenzie did not respond to requests for an interview.

The population of the Leaf River herd stands at around 190,000, down from 600,000 20 years ago. The 2020 George River Caribou census estimates the population of the herd to be 8,100 animals, which is up from historic lows in 2018, but drastically down from population highs of 750,000 animals, according to figures from Newfoundland and Labrador.

Overlapping territory

The area where this recent hunt happened is at the far eastern regions of Cree territory in an area where the Innu say they also traditionally hunted. It is territory that is covered by the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, signed in 1975, to which the Innu were not signatories. 

''There [are] certainly areas that have been considered overlaps between the [James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement] signatories and the Innu," said Bosum, in English. 

"There's been a number of attempts in the past to try to resolve these overlaps. But nothing has come out of it."

Bosum said Cree leadership is also asking for a meeting with Quebec government officials. 

"To discuss both what happened, but more importantly to see what are the options going forward," said Bosum.

Leaf River caribou near the Cree community of Chisasibi on Nov. 16, 2020. Cree officials say conservation efforts are working, but now is not the time to over-harvest. (L. George Pachanos)

Chisasibi tallyman Bobby Neacappo said in the past, the hunts by the Cree, the Naskapi Nation of Kawawachikamach and Innu of Matimekush-Lac John in that area, were an "occasion, where people were happy to see each other."

"In those days, there was always a leader that the hunting group would listen to. This was always how it was in the past," said Neacappo, in Cree.

Neacappo said he didn't want the harvested caribou taken away from the hunters, but to have them stay with hunters from Matimekush-Lac John.

"Our community is in the process of addressing this with the Innu community and CNG (Cree Nation Government), and I'll wait for that to happen, because this should not happen again."