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Listen to the people before drafting policies

Randall Pokiak lives in Tuktoyaktuk but his home is on the land.The plains are his front porch and the ocean, his backyard.

Randall Pokiak lives in Tuktoyaktuk but his home is on the land.

The plains are his front porch and the ocean, his backyard.

The Inuvialuit hunter and trapper spends nine months of the year on the land, and he has seen how the changing climate affects wildlife.

Migration patterns that you could “set your watch to” decades ago are changing, he said.

Fishers used to be sure that the run would be strong for three weeks in July. Now the animals are late to come, and the runs are sporadic.

The same thing has happened to birds and belugas.

More and more often, hunters are coming home with nothing to show for their days spent tracking prey.

“Sometimes they come back with nothing,” said Pokiak.

But this information is not new.

Pokiak and others have been sharing their firsthand traditional knowledge of the changing environment for decades.

They’ve been saying the same things over and over again, but it seems to be falling on deaf ears, said Pokiak.

“Sometimes I think I’ve been meeting with these people for so long,” he told the scientists, bureaucrats and stewards gathered at the Westmark Hotel this week for the North Slope Conference.

Pokiak helped settle the Inuvialuit Final Agreement.

Currently, he sits on the North Slope’s Wildlife Management Advisory Council and he’s sat on countless boards and committees over the past few decades.

During one conference, Pokiak sat down to eat lunch with his 14-year-old daughter, but their meal kept getting interrupted by Pokiak’s friends — people who work in science, industry and government.

Pokiak’s daughter said to him: “Dad, boy, you know lots of people and when they talk about a certain thing, you know what they’re talking about.’

“I said, ‘I have to know about those guys, they’re influencing my life and my lifestyle,’” said Pokiak.

“The government told us it was their job to look after the land and wildlife.

“We told them they were doing a bad job.”

People who make their livings off the land suffer the most from bad policies and decisions.

So Pokiak got involved.

And harvesters want to be more involved, but it’s not easy, Pokiak told the conference delegates on Thursday morning.

“The scientific community should know the kind of contribution we could make,” he said.

His voice was hoarse when he spoke.

Earlier in the week he went out to check his trapline and a broken engine left him stranded many kilometres from home.

So, to make it back in time to catch the plane that would ferry him from the NWT to the Whitehorse conference, he began walking.

He arrived home dehydrated and without a voice at 4:30 a.m., and caught the flight a few hours later.

“This is what harvesters go through,” said Pokiak.

“It’s easier to stay out on the land rather than worry about something else.”

Travelling from home to meet at conferences or sit on co-management boards can be difficult and expensive for harvesters.

Pokiak would like to see them compensated for their efforts and their information.

“When knowledge is given, it benefits everybody, but the giver of the knowledge should be compensated,” he said.

“I’m not benefiting from the government or from industry; a lot of the harvesters out there are not. The only revenue they’re getting is from the land.”

The Yukon government takes traditional knowledge into consideration when making wildlife management decisions.

But the information is not used as well as it could be, said Yukon’s chief of wildlife management Doug Larsen.

“It’s not a lack of trying, it’s a lack of understanding of how to use it,” said Larsen who also sits on two co-management boards.

“It amazes me that after 25 years we’re still struggling with a fundamental part of the land claims,” he said.

There is one example in the Yukon where traditional knowledge was the only factor used to guide a wildlife-management policy.

Porcupine Caribou Management Board banned hunting of the herd for the first week of its migration after consulting elders in Fort McPherson.

The elders told the board that the first of the herd must survive because they are the leaders.

In that case, there was no scientific knowledge to either confirm or deny it, said Larsen.

People who live on the land will often have a different and better perspective than a researcher who goes out for a few days or weeks, he said.

For Pokiak, attending an event like the North Slope Conference is both a blessing and a curse.

“I’m blessed because I can take part.

“And I’m cursed because it takes me away from the land.”

See related story on page 50.