Former minister says ending permits for Indigenous-harvested meat was for health reasons

A former minister of natural resources says the province put restrictions on the sale of meat harvested by Indigenous hunters in 2003 in order to protect public health.

Jeannot Volpé said he was concerned in the wake of the 1999 Marshall decision that there would be an unregulated market in moose meat that would not go through the same food-inspection process as other meat.

That's why the then-Progressive Conservative government ended the issuing of "special transfer permits" in 2003, he said.

"It's got to be inspected," he said. "You cannot sell — First Nations or not — you cannot sell meat [that's] not inspected."

The permits had allowed First Nations hunters to sell their meat to non-Indigenous New Brunswickers.

Last year the New Brunswick Court of Appeal ruled that in eliminating the permits, the province was "attempting to do indirectly what it could not do directly" — restrict Indigenous hunting, contrary to the Marshall ruling.

'It's not about rights'

Volpé said that, in fact, he was worried that meat that had not been through any inspection process would be sold and make someone sick.

"You are not allowed to sell meat that is not proper for consumption," he said in an interview with CBC News.

"It's not about rights, it's about public safety and health, and saving lives in this country."

The Supreme Court of Canada decision in the Donald Marshall case gave Indigenous people the right to earn "a moderate livelihood" from fishing and hunting. The ruling wasn't open-ended and allowed some government regulation of how they exercised those rights, including for public safety.

​Volpé said he tried between 1999 and 2003 to get public health officials to come up with a system for inspecting meat harvested by First Nations, "and they didn't want to touch it," he said. "They said, 'Oh my God, we've got enough on our hands and we don't want to touch it.'"

Health officials were reluctant to wade into the legal arguments and argued it wasn't their mandate, he said.

In the wake of the Marshall decision, the New Brunswick government created a temporary permit system for non-Indigenous buyers of Indigenous-hunted meat.

Without the permit, it would be illegal to possess the meat.

Conviction thrown out

But in 2003, the province stopped issuing the permits, in effect making it impossible for Indigenous hunters to sell meat to non-Indigenous buyers.

That led to charges in 2012 against Woodstock First Nation member Michael Reynolds — not for hunting meat but for being an accessory to the offence of possession by his non-Indigenous buyer.

The Appeal Court threw out the conviction, agreeing with Reynolds that the province was making an "end-run" around his Marshall rights and calling the situation "unfair and oppressive."

The province decided not to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court of Canada but hasn't said yet whether it will bring back the permits. The Appeal Court decision acquitted Reynolds but didn't strike down any existing laws or policies.

The Reynolds ruling does not mention the health-inspection issue and does not refer to government lawyers raising that in their arguments.

But Volpé said it's common sense, comparing it to the requirement for annual motor vehicle inspections, despite the "right" to drive a car.

"You can drive a car but the car needs to be to [safety] standards, so you don't create accidents for somebody else," he said.

'Like driving a car with no brakes'

Volpé, whose former Madawaska riding included pig farms and a major chicken slaughterhouse, said the regular food-inspection process involves seeing the animals while they're alive and monitoring how they are slaughtered.

But with no inspection for Indigenous-harvested meat, a moose killed in a highway collision could be cut up and sold, creating a health risk.

"You can kill somebody if the meat is not good," he said. "It's like driving a car with no brakes."

New Brunswick's chief medical officer of health did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

The provincial government said last month it was studying "potential implications" of the Reynolds decision but would not comment on what policies it was considering.