Seven Indigenous Nations Put Forth New Model to Conserve Caribou
October 17, 2017
By Valerie Courtois
In August, I had the opportunity to visit with the Kaska people in the MacKenzie Mountains, in an area known as “Dechenla”. There, a young Kaska became a man by hunting his first caribou. His fellow hunters ripped his sleeve off as a sign of his transition to manhood, and they brought its meat to our camp for preparation. That evening, I ate caribou for the first time in over a year. It was delicious; I felt its energy immediately. I was eating ribs, which are fairly lean, but I could still taste some of the fat that I love so much.
Why is this story exceptional? Because as an Innu woman who arrived in Labrador in the early 2000s, when caribou was so abundant that on my first drive across the Trans-Labrador Highway I had to wait for nearly an hour as the herd crossed the road, the current reality of not eating caribou except once a year, is my new normal. I can now name and count the times I ate caribou in the past couple of years, like others can name other significant events in their lives. It means that much to me.
The Innu are caribou people. Our food, language, stories and traditions are shaped by the caribou, and our elders carry generations’ worth of knowledge about the herds. Yet in recent years, we watched the size of the George River Herd plummet from at least 770,000 in 1993 to less than 9,000 today. This rapid decline spurred all of us into action: we knew the future of caribou and, therefore, our very identity was at stake. The Innu joined with other caribou people of the Ungava Peninsula four years ago to create a new way to preserve the herds for generations to come.
On October 17, seven Indigenous Nations and groups announced our ground-breaking strategy for restoring caribou across 1.5 million square kilometres of Quebec, Labrador and Nunavik.
Known as the Ungava Peninsula Caribou Aboriginal Round Table (UPCART), it will help address critical gaps. Crown governments have not had a formal management plan for the George River Herd since 2007. Now, Indigenous Peoples are stepping in and exercising our responsibilities to caribou.
UPCART is the first cooperative Indigenous agreement for wildlife management at this scale in Canada. This collaboration itself is a breakthrough. Some UPCART members used to war with each other. Others have been split in recent times by provincial boundaries, comprehensive land claims policy and other colonial structures. The urgent need to care for caribou—a fundamental part of our role on this Earth—has brought us together, including within our own communities. The work the Innu did around UPCART, for instance, has led to formalizing the Nation Innue as a Nation. It has brought me great pride to know that our work at the UPCART will not only have lasting impacts for the caribou, but also for the future of our Nations as governments.
“Our unity is a gift from the caribou. We have to honour it,” said one Innu Elder during the process of Innu unification.
We honour it by continuing to work with one another. UPCART has strengthened our ties and our governments, and now we have tools to care for caribou and the land they depend on. Going forward, we can discuss when an industrial project is proposed in the Labrador Trough or when plans emerge for an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area. UPCART has shown us that we are stronger together, and we can be more responsible for the land by working in concert.
In late 2012, I traveled to the George River with a group of Innu elders and Innu colleagues, at Mushuau-nipi, located in Caribou House, which is a “center of habitation” for caribou. The land is still raw from the last glacial period, and archeological evidence confirms that Innu and caribou have been meeting there for over 8000 years. There we heard the news that the size of the herd had dropped to emergency levels. At the same time, other Indigenous Peoples in the Ungava were noticing the steep decline and discussing it. This prompted a call for action, and with formal invitations by the Government of Nunatsiavut and the Innu Nation, we all came together.
The first emergency summit of the Peoples of the Ungava concerning caribou happened Kuujjuaq in January 2013, which led to the creation of the UPCART. It was formalized three months later and now has formal Executive and Technical committees.
After much sharing of sciences, understandings, and perspectives on how to fulfill our collective responsibility towards caribou for the past four years, the UPCART has released its joint caribou strategy. Combining Indigenous knowledge and western science, it presents a series of decision wheels that guide action based on constantly monitored indicators of the health of the herds. The first action is to develop a sharing agreement between all seven Nations about who will hunt what, where and when. And because the UPCART is a living, publicly available document, everyone, including non-Indigenous hunters, will be able to see how decisions are being made.
Too often, Crown governments have used the equivalent of an on/off-switch, “turning on” hunting and allowing all users access, then “turning off” hunting with bans and quotas. UPCART offers a more nuanced approach. It also calls for managing not just hunting, but also the industrial activities on the land that erode caribou habitat. Habitat quality and availability are the two most significant factors affecting caribou populations, yet very little habitat management has been done in the case of migratory caribou. The UPCART plan begins to address this vital issue.
The UPCART strategy will continue to evolve based on what we learn on the ground. Meanwhile, it has already started to influence decisions in Quebec and Labrador. And the model is already inspiring others across Turtle Island.
Across the country, Indigenous Peoples are coming together to honour our responsibility to caribou, and in turn, the caribou is making us stronger. As they have always done.
This piece originally appeared on the Indigenous Leadership Initiative’s blog.