If it seems like I’ve been silent for a while, it’s frankly because I haven’t had much left to ponder about this pandemic. Usually, I get all geared up to write this column when I am cranky about something. 

On the Covid-19 front, there hasn’t been much to complain about. We enjoy more freedoms within our borders than other parts of the country, any Covid-19 cases are quickly contained, and we have the highest vaccination rate in Canada. Our plan to “Emerge Wisely” from this pandemic has worked so far, despite gripes from some corners – including mine.

Given my lack of pandemic related issues to write about, I asked the publisher of this paper if I could expand my column beyond pandemic related matters. In a decision he may yet regret, he agreed.

So I turn my attention beyond the pandemic to another crisis – the state of barren ground caribou. As most people know, the Bathurst caribou herd has declined catastrophically, with only about two per cent of the herd remaining. 

This herd is in such critical state that there is a total ban on hunting Bathurst animals. Caribou can still be hunted from other NWT herds, though they are also seeing similar, less dramatic downward trends. Nobody knows for certain what is causing this decline, though it is likely a combination of industrial development, climate change, and hunting pressure.

Recently I had the fortune to go hunting with friends in the barrenlands. We travelled far to the east of the Bathurst no hunting zone, with hopes of finding caribou from other herds. Though there were very few animals across the vast area we traveled, we were fortunate to have some modest success.

We purposely avoided the area just off the ice road around Lac de Gras, immediately to the east of the Bathurst no hunting zone. 

This is where caribou were readily accessible and most hunting was taking place. Hunters who had been in this area shared awful stories, describing what was going on as a “war zone”. Bullets whizzed around dangerously, leaving in their wake many wounded caribou left to die unharvested. 

Caribou meat wasted

We witnessed carcasses left behind with wasted meat. Camps were left filthy. 

Caribou meat was being harvested with the intent of being sold – most commonly as drymeat, the NWT’s black gold.

We spoke with some resource officers – all Northern Indigenous people – that had returned from patrol in the area, and they were shell shocked. These officers are people who grew up with a love of the land, instilled in them by their families and culture. They were especially hurt that it was primarily other Northern Indigenous people that were responsible for these shameful actions. And they said that this same thing has been happening year after year.

Now the NWT has master hunters in all its communities, and many of us have had the privilege of being mentored by them on respectful hunting practices. 

I owe a great debt to the likes of the late Sam Boucher of Lutsel K’e for his teachings, and I have the fortune of keeping the company of friends who practice respectful hunting. Most hunters take their stewardship responsibility seriously, and what is happening in the Lac de Gras area is not their doing. Unfortunately, the acts of a few are reflecting badly on us all.

Many of us have heard whispers of slaughters such as the one up the ice road over the years – second-hand stories, rumours and tales at the coffee shop. Occasionally a story will flare up in the news, only to fade quickly away as our GNWT and Indigenous leaders stay silent. Caribou are a political minefield. 

The most we usually get is the pointing of fingers. It’s that community over there that is disrespectful of caribou, not mine. The government messed this up, not us. Or it has nothing to do with roads and mining, it’s you people who hunt too much.

Guess what? We all share a part of the blame. We are all responsible. With the right to hunt caribou comes a great responsibility for their care, and collectively we have not taken this responsibility seriously enough. 

And unless we start being honest with what is happening and doing more than having yet another meeting to blame each other, the caribou will have the final revenge. We will not deserve them, and they will disappear.

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