Let’s talk about the raid by wildlife officers on people gathered at Timber Bay on Artillery Lake, Sept. 13, 2022. There had been a report of illegally harvested caribou and meat wastage in what’s called a mobile (which means it can move with the caribou) no-hunting zone. The officers helicoptered in with a search warrant that made everyone a suspect and subject to search.

The facts paint a picture of a government that has completely lost its way, violating the trust of the people they serve. Dene, Metis and Inuvialuit Elders are likely watching this tale unfold thinking they have seen this before. Wildlife laws have been used to control their hunting, push them off lands and starve them in the past. It’s not a good history.

That search warrant was as wide as a fishnet, designed more for a time when Dene had no rights to land they lived on. Now the Dene have rights forged in the cold fires of colonial courts. The search warrant was quashed by those same courts. The question yet to be answered: Who issued the flawed search warrant? Who was not protecting the public from unlawful search and seizure?

Dene National Chief Gerald Antoine, Lutsel K’e Chief James Marlowe and Tu Nedhe MLA Richard Edjericon want investigations into why the raid occurred and they want people fired. They also want an apology. Minister of Environment and Natural Resources Shane Thompson agrees with an investigation but not firings and refused to apologize. Protection of the caribou trumps all, he says. Well as an unelected, aspiring MLA, I can’t fire anybody but I can suggest who not to fire.

The officers were given a task. Caribou down, wildlife infractions must be investigated. That’s their job. Staff did nothing wrong and cannot be fired for the poor decisions of their uninformed and misdirected supervisors.

Thompson and Premier Caroline Cochrane, on the other hand, and all MLAs, signed an oath to honour and respect the treaties. Where do the terms of Treaty 8 say the Dene are subject to wildlife raids and seizures at the pleasure of the Crown and subject to penalties set by the government of the day? It’s not in the treaty — the legal basis of the relationship and shared authority with the GNWT over wildlife on Akaitcho lands.

The premier states frequently how important this relationship is with Indigenous governments. Added to that, the Dene were gathered in a national park heralded as a shining example of partnership between the federal government and the Lutsel K’e Dene Government after decades of effort. Caribou are important too, all agree.

So wildlife managers should have been mindful of the larger political considerations, instructing their officers: collect all the evidence in the mobile zone, bring it to your manager. Then a senior civil servant should have called Marlowe and asked how to proceed in a way that would respect Dene laws and expectations. The matter would have been under investigation and a joint statement would have been issued. That’s wildlife co-management.

With due respect to the deceased caribou, wildlife laws on Akaitcho lands are based upon the treaty of cooperation. There is no land claim giving the GNWT any powers. Breaking laws to enforce other laws is not allowed.

Here’s an apology for Cochrane to issue. Consider it a cadet-MLA exercise. Apologies are sometimes necessary in the legislative assembly to acknowledge mistakes. The assembly should pass a motion to direct the premier to speak as follows:

I stand to address the people of Lutsel K’e Dene Nation about the wildlife officers landing at Timber Bay to conduct an investigation Sept. 13, 2022. Those officers were acting under the authority of my government and the direction of their supervisors.

I wish I had prevented the regrettable intrusion on a cultural event. It was inexcusable. Worse, I signed an oath to uphold and respect the treaties. I failed in that. I will commit to making this right by meeting with the people at the camp, seeking direction as to how department officials can establish relationships with the Lutsel K’e government. I will have a final report with all lessons learned. I am not too old to learn.

Therefore, I sincerely apologize on behalf of the Government of the Northwest Territories to Dene of Lutsel K’e and our other Dene, Metis and Inuvialuit partners. In the collaborative spirit of the assembly, I thank my fellow MLAs for holding me accountable. Mahsi cho.

Bruce Valpy is a longtime Northerner living in Yellowknife and former publisher/CEO of NNSL Media. He has declared his candidacy to run for MLA in the Oct. 3, 2023 territorial election. His platform can be found at NWT2023.ca.

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