In the NWT where the Dene are now facing a hunting ban on the Bathurst Caribou herd there has been much talk about who has the authority to ban hunting between hunters and wildlife managers. In Nunavut, Inuit have seen dramatic herd declines in North Baffin and in the Thelon region as well.
There can be no doubt that wildlife conservation measures strike at the very heart of indigenous rights. The history of wildlife conservation in Canada is a sordid one. Some of Canada's first wildlife conservation measures were developed by a racist judge, Judge Prince in Ontario in the late 19th Century, specifically to prevent aboriginal harvesting.
This legacy will perhaps forever haunt the debate on conservation and wildlife measures for aboriginal people. There is no doubt that there continue to be good reasons to be suspicious of many conservation initiatives. Not all are science-based, many continue to pander to populist ideals that favour restrictions on hunting the cute and the charismatic. The sealskin ban in the EU is a perfect example of this. Likewise many are often grounded in a weak understanding of animal populations and ecology, the bowhead whale controversy in Nunavut being but one example.
In the case of the Bathurst Caribou too, one may rightly question the decision to ban hunting instead of creating protected areas in the heavily mineral tenured Bathurst Inlet region. Nunavut has long been allowing irresponsible levels of mineral exploration and development activity in the Nunavut portions of the Bathurst herd's range and particularly in their calving areas. Likewise the NWT has been allowing diamond mining in calving areas since the 1990s. Indeed Nunavut's decision to build a deep sea port and allow numerous exploration projects in the Bathurst Herd's calving grounds are more to blame for a lack of access to the Bathurst Herd than NWT wildlife management decisions.
For example, ten years ago there was a Bathhurst Caribou Management Committee formed to prepare a ten-year management strategy for the Bathurst herd. In 2004 a draft management strategy was produced and the NWT released a final management strategy for barren-ground Caribou in 2006. The strategy outlines that since the 1990s Caribou protection measures were lifted to facilitate building two diamond mines on the spring migration and calving grounds of the Bathurst herd and that, in 2006 there were two further diamond mines under construction. However there were absolutely no habitat protection measures put in place in that strategy.
Likewise, the 2005 Beverly Qamanirjuaq Caribou Management Plan for the Thelon region recommends that calving and migration routes be protected for these herds. The Board has publicly come out on numerous occasions against allowing exploration or mining in Caribou migration and calving areas. However the Board has no authority to create protected areas and no leadership in the territorial government or from Inuit organizations in Nunavut has supported the Board by creating protected areas on the calving grounds.
Perhaps the only official in Nunavut to seriously address mining and caribou habitat was the biologist Mitch Campbell with Nunavut environment who gave a presentation at the last Nunavut Mining Symposium in March 2009. Mr. Campbell for one of the first times contrasted the choices and tradeoffs involved in mineral extraction.
One can search in vain for a single statement by any Inuit organization leader in Nunavut from the last ten years supporting caribou habitat protection of any kind. For its part, the territorial Inuit organization NTI has opposed numerous potential hunting restrictions (for example the listing of Peary Caribou as threatened under federal species at risk legislation in 2007). However no one has come out in favour of protecting the habitat of those same animals. Instead NTI has invested in mining. Not one debate in the legislative assembly website for Nunavut even discusses caribou habitat protection. Not a single Nunavut MLA has mentioned it as a distinct issue in recent memory. In fact the only place where caribou calving and mining is mentioned in the Nunavut debates is in the youth parliament from 2008 where Ms. Simik stated the issue very aptly by making job training and conservation her focus:
" I will get the people training for mining; also, it would be great if the mining isn't near a calving ground. We have to think of our wildlife, too, since they are our main food. Thank you, Madam Speaker."
It would therefore be extremely unfair to call the attitude of adult Inuit and Nunavut political leaders on this issue "childish" for failing to debate, acknowledge, and recognize the choices that are being made in Nunavut in favour of mineral extraction over caribou harvesting. Clearly Inuit youth have a vastly better appreciation for how to make balanced decisions on caribou harvesting and economic development. Meanwhile, Nunavut's leadership wants to have their diamonds and eat caribou too, without so much as a hint of a plan to make that possible.
Regardless of the specific conservation issues in-play, the obsessive focus of Nunavut's Inuit leadership on control over harvesting restrictions instead of habitat protection dramatically undermines their credibility as protectors of Inuit harvesting rights. These rights are utterly without content if there are no more caribou to hunt because these same leaders have authorized, promoted and even demanded uncontrolled development in important caribou areas. After all the best way to avoid future hunting restrictions and endangered species listings is to ensure the habitat integrity is robust enough to maintain population sizes.
The current debate between the Dene and NWT wildlife managers as well as the struggles between Nunavut Inuit leaders and federal wildlife officials amounts to little more than embarrassing arguments over who can authorize or prevent the shooting of the last animals and who gets the tags. It is a sad commentary indeed that aboriginal leaders in the Eastern Arctic are playing who's the boss in caribou harvesting restrictions, instead of taking responsibility for addressing the causes of herd declines. Instead, everyone should be working together to create protected calving and migration routes to ensure the long-term integrity of these animals.