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Notes from the Trail: Caribou herds cannot withstand many more acts of senseless violence

Nancy Vail is a longtime Yellowknifer concerned about social justice issues.

Late last month, the carcasses of a dozen or more caribou were found along the Tibbitt to Contwoyto winter road by someone who said the slaughter and wastage was an act of disrespect and greed.

While the incident is being investigated by GNWT environmental officials, it is surprising that it was not mentioned in the legislature since this is the second incident of wastage recorded during this winter road season and it puts lives at risk.

If anything, once again, this slaughter is a call for this winter road to be closed to public access and closely monitored by the mines who need to start doing their part to patrol them since they were built for them. They certainly were not built for the benefit of the caribou who are massacred on these roads every year.

This recent targeted kill was an act of cowardice designed to satisfy the appetites of a few selfish individuals while robbing the greater community of a badly needed food source – it was an act of violence to the animals, the First Nations community and the well-being of the North itself.

These senseless acts happen every year and every year they draw outrage from the greater community who vow to stop it, yet nothing happens. So it occurs over and over again.

In the meantime, caribou numbers continue their rapid decline with some herds on the brink of extinction. Caribou do not grow on trees or fall from the sky, and the government cannot provide more once the herds are gone. Both the government and the mines need to step up and stop these slaughters through rigorous enforcement and hefty penalties once and for all.

Jail time would be a good deterrent.

The caribou do not have an easy life. With the effects of climate change including bug infestations, diminished food sources, drought and increased predation, the challenge of their survival becomes harder every year. Yet this slaughter and wastage never gets the attention it needs because it is politically sensitive. It’s not sensitive to the caribou… they just want to live.

At what point do we stop arguing about people’s rights and stand up for the animals who have rights too? When will The GNWTs Department of Environment and Climate Change and the mines act more decisively? Assigning a few officers to investigate is a step but it is not enough.

Of course, the blood of these caribou is on the hands of those who committed the crime and anyone who benefitted from the kill.

Keegan Black-Fowler, who discovered and photographed the site, said he was “enraged” by what he saw. He said that “people that are hungry could have used the caribou and would be grateful to have it. My people believe that the caribou will give their lives for us to keep living. This slaughter just shows the greed and disrespect of some people only caring for themselves.”

Wastage is a crime. It’s a crime against nature, against the people and against the North itself. On a more practical level, it is a violation of the Wildlife Act of the NWT leading to fines of up to $50,000 and a one-year jail sentence, something Black-Fowler said the culprits probably knew since it was obvious the butchering happened quickly. Whoever did this knew they had to move fast. It was a crime of intention, then.

“They probably only did that so they can sell their meat and make money,” Black-Fowler said.

If you bought this meat, if you ate it, if you accepted any of it, you had a hand in this kill.

Those responsible need to have the courage to come forward and take responsibility. And anyone who knows who is responsible also needs to come forward, otherwise they are accomplices to a crime.

All of this makes it evident that these roads need to be closed to the public and tightly monitored by the mines who are responsible for their creation.

The mines and the GNWT need to act. The caribou herds cannot withstand many more senseless acts of violence such as these.

Though we grow weary of hearing about this butchery year after year, we cannot allow the behaviour to be normalized. The very existence of the herds and thus the North is at stake.

Environment Minister Jay Macdonald, we are waiting to hear from you.

—Nancy Vail is a longtime Yellowknifer concerned about social justice issues.