Inuvik man defends himself against charge of 'unlawfully' killing a polar bear

Justin Elias was on trial Wednesday in Inuvik on charges of unlawfully killing a polar bear, and keeping its hide. He said he was only defending himself.

Justin Elias said he’d never seen a polar bear, except in a zoo, before killing one last year

An Inuvik, N.W.T., man defended his decision to kill a polar bear last year, saying he was defending himself. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Justin Elias says he was just defending himself when he killed a polar bear last year.

Elias, 31, was on trial Wednesday for killing a polar bear without a bear tag sometime between Aug. 29 and Sept. 6, 2018. He is also charged with being in unlawful possession of an animal hide. Elias had earlier pleaded not guilty to both Wildlife Act charges.

Some of the agreed statement of facts in the case were read at the beginning of the territorial court trial in Inuvik.

Elias had been hunting with a family member, Merreck Allen. The two were looking for beluga whales and caribou. They had successfully killed a caribou earlier in the trip, and had the animal's meat on board their boat.

They then landed on Garry Island, near the Kendall Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary in the north Mackenzie Delta region, with the hopes of spotting belugas and hunting them.

Both Allen and Elias were asked to testify about what happened next.

Elias alone in boat

Allen testified that as soon as they showed up to the island, but before they anchored the boat, "they saw the polar bear."

At that point, Allen left to look for belugas, leaving Elias in the boat.

Allen said he wasn't scared because "Justin [Elias] had the gun and I told him to make sure it doesn't come around."

Elias and Allen have differing views on what happened next.

Both agreed that the polar bear was closer to Elias, but there was confusion on what side of a hill the polar bear was on.

Elias said he'd only seen a polar bear before at the Calgary Zoo, and this was his first interaction with one in the wild.

He said the bear started to slowly walk toward him, and he thinks it's because it smelled the caribou meat on board the boat.

Elias claims that's when "he became intimidated" and fired a couple of warning shots with his shotgun to try and get the bear to leave, but it kept coming toward him.

"So I aimed right at it and shot it," he said.

Skinned bear, but didn't report to ENR

Elias said he then shot it again in the head to make sure it was dead. He said he felt that it was a situation where he could've been killed had he not taken action first.

Elias and Allen both said they then skinned the polar bear and brought the fur back to Inuvik.

Elias said he mentioned killing the bear to somebody at the Hunters and Trappers Committee in Inuvik. However, he didn't report it to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, even though Allen had told him to do so.

Elias said, "I'm in the wrong in that situation." He said although he knew he had to report it, he also wanted to keep the fur for himself.

One of the charges Elias faces under the Wildlife Act states, "No person shall possess game or other prescribed wildlife that is dead, or a part or prescribed derivative of it, unless … the person lawfully harvested it."

Defence lawyer Kate Oja said her client was simply defending himself and his property. The Wildlife Act states that a "person may kill wildlife if it is necessary to prevent injury or death to a person," or if it's "necessary to prevent damage to property."

Oja said that he should be acquitted on the grounds that there would've been damage to life and property had Elias not shot the bear.

"To shoot the polar bear is a completely reasonable [option]," she told the court.

Counsel for the Attorney General of the N.W.T., Roger Shepard, argued that Elias didn't need to kill the polar bear.

He said Elias could have chosen not to anchor at the island once he saw the polar bear, or he could have tried to go in the opposite direction when it was approaching him.

"The question is whether there was imminent peril," said Shepard.

He said "the fact of the matter is Mr. Elias saw the bear" and made the choice to kill it, tried to get the fur cleaned in town and keep it for himself, despite having been advised by his hunting partner, Allen, to report it.

However, Oja said that "wanting to keep the hide isn't solely associated with guilt."

Judge Christine Gagnon said she will make her decision on Aug. 26.