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Ross River suit aims to tackle overhunting

The Ross River Dena Council is turning to the courts in an attempt to deal with what it calls overhunting in its traditional territory.
Yukon Quest

The Ross River Dena Council is turning to the courts in an attempt to deal with what it calls overhunting in its traditional territory.

On Oct. 28 the First Nation asked the Yukon Supreme Court for a declaration the Yukon government has to consult with it prior to issuing hunting licences.

It also wants the Supreme Court to rule that issuing hunting licences in its traditional territory could adversely impact its rights.

Chief Jack Caesar said the situation is worrying, with a large number of hunters coming from the Northwest Territories to hunt.

“It’s pretty disturbing,” he said, of the caribou and moose numbers in the area.

He wants the government to look at putting a temporary ban on hunting in the area to help wildlife recover.

“All Yukoners should be concerned that it’s going to disappear,” he said.

And unlike trophy hunters, Kaska people rely on caribou and moose hunting for food, he said.

“It’s what we subsist on,” he said. “If that disappears… we’re in trouble.”

He confirmed some RRDC members thought about blocking the Canol Road during the last hunting season, which he called “intense.”

But he quickly added he hopes it won’t come to that.

In its statement of claim, the First Nation identifies a tract of land “of particular importance to the Ross River Dena Council and its members,” southeast of Ross River.

To get there, hunters coming from the Northwest Territories using the Canol Road have to go through Ross River.

It’s not the first time the First Nation has gone to court over hunting licences. Last December, Justice Ron Veale ruled the issuing of hunting licences had the potential to adversely affect Aboriginal title and right to hunt.

But he refused to issue an order to force the government to consult the First Nation before hunting licences are issued, ruling Environment Yukon had demonstrated it was already consulting the First Nation.

RRDC wanted that ruling overturned at first, but later abandoned the appeal.

This new lawsuit relies on the United Nation Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) to make its case.

In a court document, the First Nation cites a part of the declaration dealing with protection of traditional land and respect of indigenous customs.

How UNDRIP might affect the case is still unknown, Merle Alexander, a Vancouver lawyer practising Aboriginal law, told the News.

That’s because Canada hasn’t ratified the document yet.

“A core element of international law is that an international treaty doesn’t become binding unless it’s ratified,” Alexander said.

A year ago the federal Liberals announced they would implement UNDRIP. Given how much time it can take a case to go to trial, by the time Ross River makes its case before a judge, UNDRIP could be ratified, Alexander said.

UNDRIP could be especially useful for Ross River because it doesn’t have a treaty with the federal or the territorial governments, Alexander said.

“We’re sort of in a legal no man’s land because of the transition period,” he said.

Regardless, UNDRIP isn’t “some obscure international treaty,” he said, adding that many of its concepts such as the duty to consult have already been enshrined in Canadian law by the Supreme Court.

Still, Caesar hopes the First Nation and the newly elected Liberal government will be able to work together.

“The new government in place… they may be able to listen to our concerns.”

The First Nation’s traditional territory, which includes Faro and Ross River, covers about 63,000 square kilometres in the north end of the Kaska traditional territory.

RRDC is one of three First Nations without a land claim agreement in the territory. It has often turned to the court when dealing with Aboriginal title.

In 2012 the Yukon Court of Appeal ruled the government had to consult with the First Nation before mineral claims could be staked.

Numbers from Veale’s 2015 decision show that between between 1995 and 2013, an average of 164 moose, 69 caribou and 29 sheep were harvested annually in the Ross River area. That represents 24 per cent of the Yukon harvest for moose, 30 per cent for caribou and 12 per cent for sheep.

With files from Ashley Joannou

Contact Pierre Chauvin at