Inuvialuit Game Council sides with minister in Colville Lake caribou court challenge

Caribou on the Bluenose-East range west of Kugluktuk, Nunavut, in July 2020. Colville Lake, N.W.T. is arguing that environment Minister Shane Thompson breached their land claim agreement in rejecting the community's caribou management plan that involved lifting the total allowable harvest.  (Submitted by Jan Adamczewski - image credit)
Caribou on the Bluenose-East range west of Kugluktuk, Nunavut, in July 2020. Colville Lake, N.W.T. is arguing that environment Minister Shane Thompson breached their land claim agreement in rejecting the community's caribou management plan that involved lifting the total allowable harvest. (Submitted by Jan Adamczewski - image credit)

The Sahtú Renewable Resources Board (SRRB) is arguing the environment minister's decision to uphold a total allowable caribou harvest in Colville Lake, N.W.T., should be quashed.

The Inuvialuit Game Council argued the decision should be upheld.

The court heard from both groups on the second day of what's expected to be a three-day hearing in a case before the Supreme Court of the Northwest Territories.

Colville Lake — a community of about 161 mostly Dene people and sits north of the Arctic Circle —  is challenging a decision by the territory to set a quota on how many caribou hunters can take each year on its traditional territory.

Justice Andrew Mahar listened to arguments from lawyers representing the Colville Lake Renewable Resources Council, Behdzi Ahda First Nation and Ayoni Keh Land Corporation during the first day of the hearing.

Colville Lake Renewable Resources Board wants to see a plan that would remove the government's tag and quota system, known as total allowable harvest for the Bluenose West caribou herd. In its place, Colville Lake would preserve the herd with a plan based on cultural and traditional values and knowledge.

Environment and Natural Resources Minister Shane Thompson rejected the idea of removing the harvest limit.

Both the Sahtú Renewable Resources Board and the Inuvialuit Game Council are interveners in the case. That means that neither party has a direct interest in the lawsuit, but both have interest in its outcome.

The SRRB, represented by Mark Underhill, told the court Wednesday that Thompson's decision should be overturned.

Underhill built on Tuesday's argument from the Colville Lake Renewable Resources Council, Behdzi Ahda First Nation and Ayoni Keh Land Corporation that the minister is violating the Sahtú Dene and Metis Comprehensive Land Claim.

He said the agreement is based in co-management and that in rejecting the community's plan, the minister isn't engaging in meaningful dialogue.

Underhill quoted sections of the claim stating objectives "to provide the Sahtú Dene and Metis with wildlife harvesting rights," and "the right to participate in decision making concerning wildlife harvesting and management."

He said that "meaningful co-management is consensus on how best to manage caribou populations," and that the government's decision is inconsistent with the promise of co-management.

Wildlife co-management a 'lifetime commitment'

The Inuvialuit Game Council represents Inuvialuit interests in wildlife management.

John Donihee spoke on the council's behalf.

He told the court that the council was chosen as an intervener to provide a "broader perspective" on how the minister's decision impacts other groups.

Donihee said that since the Bluenose West caribou are a migratory herd, they move between the Sahtú settlement region onto Inuvialuit and Gwitchin land.

He said resolutions on herd management should therefore reflect the fact that three land claims are involved. While the SRRB doesn't have authority outside the Sahtú, Donihee said the minister has to consider his broader obligations to residents of the territory, the wildlife act and the species at risk act.

"It would be a mistake for the minister not to consider those other interests," Donihee said Wednesday.

Donihee said that the minister, in his decisions, told the community he would be open to revisiting the total allowable harvest in the future and that his decision to reject the plan didn't come lightly.

Donihee said that shows good faith and that the minister didn't breach the land claim agreement.

He said the co-management is a "complex, dynamic and continuing process," and that conversations on how best to preserve the herd would be ongoing.

Wildlife co-management "isn't one stop shopping," Donihee said. "It's a lifetime commitment."

The hearing continues Thursday with submissions from the Northwest Territories government. It's expected to be the final day.