'Stop posing as scientists' researchers plead after Sask. conservation officer's fishing sting

Researchers want conservation officers to stop posing as scientists in their efforts to catch poachers.

FSIN chief says First Nation should've been told about illegal fishing before sting operation began

A man from a northern Saskatchewan First Nation was found guilty in January of illegally selling $90 worth of fish to a conservation officer after a prolonged sting operation, in which the officer posed as a scientist. (CBC)

Researchers want conservation officers to stop posing as scientists in their efforts to catch poachers. 

That response comes following the release of details of a case in which a conservation officer travelled to Canoe Narrows, Sask., to investigate complaints about a man who had allegedly been selling fish illegally for 20 years. 

"Taking an approach where folks are pretending to be scientists only to potentially cause harm is not going to do us any favours, from a scientific community," said Melissa Arcand, an assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan.

Donald Iron, from Canoe Lake — a First Nations community near Canoe Narrows, about 270 kilometres northwest of Prince Albert — was found guilty in January of illegally selling $90 worth of fish to a conservation officer.

While Iron was found guilty six months ago, details about the prolonged sting operation only became available to the public this week, after CBC News successfully challenged a section of a publication ban on the case.

Court documents show the prolonged sting operation started in 2016 after complaints that Iron had allegedly been selling fish illegally. The officer involved said he was a scientist and paid Iron to allow him to place "air-quality monitoring equipment," which was fake, in Iron's yard.

The undercover officer "checked" the equipment once or twice a month for 16 months.

Iron sold him a bag of fish in February 2017 for $10. Transactions continued until $90 worth of fish was purchased.

The U of Saskatchewan's Arcand, who is Cree, said the Ministry of Environment's undercover operation undermines scientists' work and relationship building with First Nations communities and others.

"You'd think that they would consider the role that scientists play and respect that our work has impact and implications to wider society," she said.

"If they undermine that, they can actually make conservation initiatives even more difficult to implement. If they're undermining the work that we're doing, they're going to undermine the work that they are hoping to do."

Angela K. Bedard-Haughn, from the college of agriculture and bioresources at the U of S, condemns the undercover operation. 'If they do it again, it will just be disastrous,' she says. (Submitted by Angela K. Bedard-Haughn)

Prof. Angela Bedard-Haughn is the associate dean of research and graduate studies at the college of agriculture and bioresources at the U of S. She said she was shocked and upset when she heard about the sting.

"You're talking months to years in some cases to build that trust," said Bedard-Haughn.

"And events like this can really damage that very quickly because you need to work back and forth, establish that kind of rapport, that understanding of how information that's being collected will be used. To really establish that foundation of trust is a crucial part of this type of research."

Bedard-Haughn said about half a dozen scientists from her faculty work with First Nations communities on a regular basis.

She said she is worried that new relationships will be hard to establish due to suspicion, and feels that some researchers may never gain trust from First Nations people.

"My call to action would be to stop posing as scientists. It is not in the best interests of the public," she said.

"There has to be another option for them to carry out the type of work that they need to do without undermining our authority and our ability to build relationships with these communities.

"If they do it again, it will just be disastrous."

Case won't end undercover operations: ministry

The Ministry of Environment stands by its decision to go forward with the operation and eventually charge Iron.

Bill Zimmer, with the compliance services branch of the ministry, said that stings aren't common but can be effective if needed. He said similar cases could be handled the same way in the future.

"Officers conduct covert operations on an ongoing basis to detect illegal activities to ensure the province's natural resources are not jeopardized," Zimmer told CBC.

"If all other efforts have been exhausted to stop violations of our natural resource laws, and it's deemed that we must go into a more in-depth method of apprehending those who violate the laws, then this type of method would continue."

The identity of the conservation officer who posed as a scientist in Iron's case remains protected by the publication ban.

He said he hopes the case sends a message that officers are diligently protecting resources in the province.

He responded to the researchers' concerns by saying that he doesn't think undercover operations undermine their efforts to build relationships. He urges scientists to provide credentials to prove that they are who they say they are.

"I don't think it's going to jeopardize their work," Zimmer said.

'A complete waste of time'

Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Chief Bobby Cameron said he plans to contact Environment Minister Dustin Duncan to share his disappointment with how the case was handled.

"What a complete waste of time and embarrassment on the conservation officers of Saskatchewan," said Cameron.

"To waste thousands and thousands of dollars of taxpayers' money on a case and tricking this individual, a man that is obviously living in poverty, who's struggling to make ends meet and put food on the table — they put in all this time and effort to do this.

"Shouldn't they be concentrating on bigger issues, combating the major problems here in Saskatchewan?"

'Our First Nations are on guard now, said Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Chief Bobby Cameron. He says he will speak with the province following the sting. (CBC)

Cameron said the ministry should be focusing on issues like climate change. He said having a good relationship with First Nations people, especially elders who have knowledge of the land, could help the ministry achieve more in that area. Instead, he said, the sting operation creates distrust.

He also said the chief and council of Iron's First Nation should have been contacted so that Iron could have been given a warning instead of being charged.

"Our First Nations are on guard now."

With files from Bonnie Allen, Janani Whitfield and Bryan Eneas