© Gary Grant
The Labrador Innu leaders have decided to disobey the provincial ban on hunting the George River caribou herd. Both Innu Nation Grand Chief Prote Poker and Mushuau Innu band council Chief Simeon Tshakapesh say they will allow 300 male caribou to be hunted between the two communities.
"We will make tags for ourselves," says Poker. "We're aware that we may be prosecuted, (but) what we're doing is conservation and we're also looking at our culture as well."
The provincial government estimates the George River caribou herd, once 800,000 animals strong, is now down to around 20,000, prompting the provincial government to implement a five-year ban on hunting the herd. Poker says he, and many others in the Innu communities, think the number of animals is higher.
"We also (talked) about doing a count ourselves, we want to go to the root, where they migrate," says Poker. "We want to go there this spring, take photographs of the caribou passing through."
"We're going to establish our own monitoring system," says Tshakapesh.
Neither Poker nor Tshakapesh seem to be phased by the idea of legal repercussions for disobeying the five-year ban.
The decision to continue hunting comes after several days of consultation talks with Innu elders and community members in Sheshatshiu and Natuashish. A primary focus of the meetings was to get the opinions of the Innu elders.
"The community of elders doesn't want any prohibition from caribou (hunting)," says Poker. "The Sheshatshiu elders talk about the ban on the Mealy Mountain herd ... so they don't want to agree to a ban to the George River herd as well, because it's the only caribou that's available now."
Tshakapesh says that there are cultural reasons for not supporting the ban. He says there are Innu in both communities, himself included, who rely on caribou for their diet. He also says there's an important, ceremonial caribou hunt that takes place every year.
"It's a spiritual thing that the Innu have had for thousands and thousands of years," says Tshakapesh.
The 300 tags will, probably, not be enough to give every Innu hunter a caribou. Both Poker and Tshakapesh agree that giving the tags to elders, first, should be a priority.
Tshakapesh has faith that the hunters in the Innu communities will not overhunt the caribou, or go beyond the limits that have been set.
Inevitably, there will be backlash for the decision to continue hunting, especially since representatives from the other Labrador aboriginal groups have supported a hunting ban.
No representatives from the provincial government were invited to the consultations in the Innu communities. But both chiefs indicated they are willing to sit at the table with the government to talk about the issue of caribou hunting, if the government is willing.
"That's what we want," says Poker. "We don't want to take this to the courts; we want to have an agreement with the province on this."
No representatives from the provincial government could be reached as of press time for comment.