Environment Minister Dennis Fentie is not responsible for this year’s hunting regulation debacle on the Dempster Highway.
Yes, Fentie permitted the regulations to be abandoned.
And that decision will put additional hunting stress on the Porcupine caribou herd, which has seen a troubling decline over the last few years.
Yes, it might have implications for the international fight to save the herd from oil development in its calving grounds.
And, yes, the loss of the regulations opens the door to park ‘n’ shoot hunting along the wilderness highway, a thoroughly repugnant practice that dredges up visions of fat, lazy, beer-sodden louts banging away from the warmth of their pickups and leaving frozen gut piles on the road, endangering motorists travelling it this winter.
This is all true.
But contrary to popular opinion, Fentie acted responsibly in making this tough call.
It’s the leadership of the Tr’ondek Hwech’in First Nation that should be shouldering the blame, not Fentie.
And chief Darren Taylor’s silence on this matter is cowardly, pure and simple.
Members of Taylor’s First Nation are using the territorial regulations like a whetstone to hone their aboriginal hunting rights.
They intentionally challenged the laws to get them nullified.
Of course, its members have a right to hunt that herd.
They even have a right to hunt the animals from the side of the road.
Perhaps, even, from the warmth of their trucks.
The Supreme Court dealt with a similar case in 2006, when it threw out charges against Ivan Morris and Carl Olsen, two members of the Tsartlip First Nation of Vancouver Island.
The two men were caught hunting with flashlights by BC conservation officers.
The men shot a fake deer five times. The decoy was placed by COs.
As on the Dempster, safety was an issue.
The Crown argued that shooting animals at night with flashlights was dangerous and violated provincial laws.
The Supreme Court, in a four-three decision, ruled that such provincial laws could not trump treaty rights allowing hunting.
The Supreme Court also dealt with safety.
It ruled that the First Nation had no right to hunt recklessly and without safety.
But, if the hunting did not endanger others — for example, if it was done responsibly in a wilderness area — it was permissible.
As well, general provincial regulations were too broad. They were “inconsistent with the common intention of the parties to the treaties, and completely eliminate a chosen method of exercising their treaty right,” ruled the court.
In such cases, provincial and territorial laws cannot override treaty rights, it decided.
Which is the case on the Dempster.
The territorial government couldn’t make its roadside hunting regulations stick. So Fentie abandoned them.
In light of the Supreme Court decision, he had no choice.
It would have been insanely stupid to enforce the 500-metre no-hunting corridor laid out in the regulations solely for non-native hunters.
Imagine, for a moment, if Fentie forced those hunters 500 metres off the road while native hunters were taking aim from the shoulders of the Dempster.
Given the circumstances, Fentie did the only safe thing. He threw out the rules for everyone.
The question the public should ask is whether the Tr’ondek Hwech’in leadership is being responsible when it advances its treaty rights at the expense of the Porcupine caribou herd.
The herd has seen an extremely troubling decline in recent years. And, of course, it is the focal point of a longstanding international fight between oil interests and conservationists.
The Tr’ondek Hwech’in decision to undermine the regulations, which hampers conservation efforts, will be noted by American interests seeking to open the herd’s calving grounds to oil interests.
Less known is the longstanding fight over the herd between the three northern First Nations — the Tr’ondek Hwech’in, the Vuntut Gwitchin and the Tetlit Gwich’in of the NWT.
All three hunt the herd, but many object to the Tetlit Gwich’in’s right to do so.
It received a special dispensation to hunt the herd in July 1991.
That’s when Tom Siddon, the former Progressive Conservative Northern Affairs minister, unilaterally decided to award the Tetlit 1,554 square kilometres of territorial land.
Many question that land claim, which was unanimously denounced by the Yukon legislature.
The Yukon regulations on the Dempster helped keep Tetlit hunting of the herd in check.
Now, through the actions of the Tr’ondek Hwech’in First Nation, many believe the hunting pressure from the Tetlit will be much more significant.
The Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, which relies on the herd for its food, is particularly threatened by increased hunting pressure.
And so, in pushing its rights, the Tr’ondek Hwech’in has, perhaps, endangered the traditional rights of the Vuntut Gwitchin.
Vuntut Gwitchin chief Joe Linklater questioned the other First Nation’s decision to advance its rights at the expense of conservation and safety.
It is a good question.
The Tr’ondek Hwech’in leaders have refused to justify their decision to push this issue.
They have holed up and let Fentie shoulder the blame.
That is cowardice.
If they want it, they should own it. (RM)