Tired of waiting on government, Indigenous groups to protect Quebec caribou on their own

Tradition 'snatched away': Labrador Inuit struggle with caribou hunting ban

With caribou populations in Quebec in steep decline, seven Inuit and First Nations groups have signed a "historic" cooperative wildlife management plan to try to protect and preserve the two principal herds in the Ungava Peninsula, something they say is a Canadian first. 

Populations of the George River and Leaf River herds are down by close to 90 percent over the last 20 years. In the case of the George River herd, numbers have gone from a peak in the early 1990's of 770,000 caribou to just 9,000 in 2016. 

"Inuit, Cree, Naskapi, Innu and Métis ... we are different as Indigenous people, but we all have the caribou in common," said Adamie Delisle Alaku, Co-Chair of the Ungava Peninsula Caribou Aboriginal Round Table (UPCART) and the executive vice president, resource development of Makivik Corporation, at a signing ceremony Tuesday in Montreal. 

"It's been our food, our shelter, our clothing, our culture, our legends and in our dreams. In more modern times it's a large part of our economy." 

The groups involved in the round table believe a cooperative approach and a monitored sharing of the resource by Indigenous people will ensure the long term survival of herds.

"When everybody is harvesting from the same resource that resource will be depleted," said Delisle Alaku. "So we need to safeguard and make sure we don't repeat what has happened with the George River (herd) on the Leaf River herd. So that our future generations may be able to harvest in the future."

'We have taken it upon ourselves'

The leaders who signed the agreement, named A Long Time Ago in the Future: Caribou and the people of Ungava, say they have been frustrated by a Quebec government that has been slow to react to persistent and repeated calls for a closure of the sport hunt. 

After several years of pressure, the Quebec government agreed to close the sport hunt in 2018. 

"I'm happy with the sports closure, but beyond that there is nothing concrete. It is still all grey zone," said Delisle Alaku.  "So we took it upon ourselves to come up with a management strategy. We grew tired of waiting on government, so we have taken it upon ourselves to come up with one."

The 55-page agreement formalizes steps to monitor and manage the herd, as well as an agreement to identify and implement conservation measures across the 1.5 million square kilometre of habitat. 

The agreement doesn't include quotas or any immediate restrictions on Indigenous hunting, as caribou is a key and nutritious traditional food badly needed in an area of the province dealing with food insecurity. However, an emphasis on conservation and how to harvest responsibly will be a key message taken back to hunters. 

"People took more than what they needed and I don't blame all that on sport hunters. Some of that was our doing," said Fred Tomatuk, president of the Cree Trappers Asssociation and one of the signatories to the agreement. "That has to change. If you need six caribou, you take six caribou. Not 10 or 12."

Many of the Indigenous people at the signing Tuesday say a wildlife management plan coming from Indigenous communities has a much better chance of being respected by hunters. 

One of the key elements of the agreement, according to Delisle Alaku, is the development of an Indigenous Sharing Agreement, which will allow different nations to overcome jurisdictional restrictions they say don't have the best interest of the migrating caribou nor the Indigenous hunter in mind.  

The group will next take the agreement to the federal and provincial governments.