N.W.T. Métis harvester from Alberta says gov't employee threatened to call RCMP if he didn't leave

Russell Clarke, a member of the N.W.T. Métis Nation who resides in High Level, Alta., said he was asked to leave the territory after travelling to a small area outside Fort Resolution earlier this week — even though Indigenous harvesters have exemptions under the territory's border closures.

Indigenous harvesters have exemptions to the territory's public health order

Russell Clarke resides in High Level, Alta., but is a member of the N.W.T Métis Nation. He said he was threatened to be forcibly removed from the territory by a government employee after going to his cabin outside of Fort Resolution, N.W.T., to exercise his harvest rights. (Submitted by Russell Clarke)

A member of the N.W.T. Métis Nation who resides in High Level, Alta., alleges he was threatened by a government employee to be forcibly removed from the territory by RCMP after travelling to a small area outside Fort Resolution, N.W.T., earlier this week. 

Russell Clarke said he drove from his home in High Level to the border checkpoint in Enterprise, N.W.T., on Monday, where he showed authorities his status card and told them he was going up for three weeks of harvesting at his cabin in Little Buffalo River Territorial Park — 20 kilometres outside of Fort Resolution.

Clarke is a member of the N.W.T. Métis Nation who was born in the Northwest Territories but resides in High Level for work. Before the pandemic, he returned to his cabin every second week to harvest or spend time with family. 

CBC was provided with a photo of Clarke's Métis Nation status card which confirms his membership. 

Clarke said he was assured by authorities at the Enterprise checkstop that he would be able to travel to his cabin. He said they told him that Indigenous harvesters are exempt from the territory's rule of having to self-isolate for 14 days in a regional centre as long as they don't plan to enter other smaller communities. 

But his arrival close to Fort Resolution, a community of just over 500 people, created a stir, Clarke said. 

"Some were getting upset, [but] some were agreeing with me," he said. 

Clarke said he had no plans to enter Fort Resolution while he was at his cabin, so he would not be violating the territory's public health order. 

'To me, that was just more bullying'

Patrick Simon, the mayor of Fort Resolution, confirmed to CBC News that he "wasn't exactly thrilled" with the arrival of an Alberta resident close to his community earlier this week. He said he contacted the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs immediately to get answers. 

By Tuesday afternoon, Clarke said he got a phone call from a territorial employee, saying that he had to leave immediately. 

Clarke said the employee threatened to have him forcibly removed by RCMP if he did not return to High Level. 

"To me, that was just more bullying," Clarke said. "I said I followed all the steps to actually enter the territories and he's like, 'No no, you're wrong.' As far as I know, I followed all the steps, I didn't violate any laws." 

Workers in Fort Resolution supervise a check stop on the main road into the community, Highway 6. The driver of each vehicle is questioned and non-residents who aren't visiting family or providing services are asked to leave. (Deninu Kue First Nation/Facebook)

Garry Bailey, president of the N.W.T Métis Nation, said he convinced the government employee to give Clarke at least 24 hours to leave the territory before sending in the RCMP. 

The employee eventually relented and gave Clarke until 10 a.m. Wednesday to leave. 

CBC News has asked the territorial government to confirm whether a threat was made to get RCMP involved, but did not receive an immediate reply. 

To me, that was infringing my harvesting rights.- Russell Clarke, N.W.T. Métis Nation member 

Mike Westwick, a spokesperson for the territory, previously told CBC an individual was directed to leave the territory by their enforcement staff and was given a verbal warning.

CBC also contacted RCMP to confirm whether they are on standby to conduct forced removals during the pandemic for those that do not comply with the public health order, but have yet to hear a response.  

Clarke said he packed up all of his belongings and left for High Level at 6 a.m. Wednesday, getting back home about four hours later. 

"They were infringing on my harvesting rights, but rather than make a big deal of it, I just left," Clarke said. 

An agreement-in-principle signed by the N.W.T. Métis Nation from 2015 says that anyone with status has the right to harvest fish, plants and wildlife on Métis land, which is outside the areas of Fort Resolution, Fort Smith and Hay River. 

Bailey said the government has already made it clear in their exemptions that Métis members should have the right to harvest during the pandemic. 

"I read English and it's perfectly clear to me that you're harvesting, you're on the land — you're exempt," Bailey said. 

The government has also been asked to clarify the harvesting rights for Métis and First Nations members who reside outside of the territory. 

Community definition unclear during pandemic 

Little Buffalo River Territorial Park has a few cabins that are home to people from Fort Resolution, Clarke said, but does not have anyone living there year round. 

Bailey said Little Buffalo River is within the hamlet's municipal boundary, but does not receive services from Fort Resolution.

"That boundary was created to keep development out of the community, it wasn't to keep people out of harvesting," he said.

Clarke said the government employee who told him to leave the territory "made it sound like he was in Fort Resolution," even though he was actually in the territorial park 20 kilometres outside the hamlet. 

Little Buffalo River Territorial Park is also not listed as an official community of the N.W.T.

"They have to clarify which areas we can be in and cannot be in," Clarke said.

CBC has asked the territory to clarify what constitutes a community during the pandemic in response to this incident.

Bailey said he would support Clarke if he decides to bring this up to a higher level of government. 

As for Clarke, he said harvesting will have to wait until after the pandemic because he does not "want to stir up a bunch of trouble" by going through the border again.