The sight of healthy caribou stampeding past the Chisasibi band office in early November excited many in the community and prompted calls from community leaders to protect the herds that are so important to the Cree.
In a public notice, Chisasibi Band Council subsequently advised hunters to abide by Eeyou laws to ensure there is no waste or inconsiderate behaviour. Hunters are urged to be careful about where they shoot, and to respect community members, traplines and, especially, the caribou.
“There seem to be many of them because they’re coming into the communities but they’re still vulnerable,” said Nadia Saganash, the Cree Nation’s former wildlife management administrator, now senior advisor for Cree-Quebec governance. “If people are going into the territory of Chisasibi and harvesting caribou, consider the traditional ways of doing things. Respect communities and the trapper who is going to be receiving you.”
While numbers of the Leaf River herd seen in Chisasibi have remained stable at about 190,000 over the past few years, it’s important to note there were more than three times this figure 20 years ago. The George River herd has declined 99% since the 1990s, which prompted a ban on hunting these caribou in 2018.
Last month, it was announced that the George River herd in eastern Quebec had recovered from a low of 5,500 in 2018 to an estimated 8,100. Saganash said a complete hunting ban needs to be maintained to encourage this growth – the herd’s first positive inventory result since 1993.
“We need to continue to act with caution and maintain conservation efforts,” Saganash insisted. “If we start putting more pressure on the herd, we might see it declining again. For the moment, what we can do is try to maintain the low harvest rate for the Leaf River herd.”
In 2013, the Cree Nation Government along with six other First Nations in Quebec and Labrador formed the Ungava Peninsula Caribou Aboriginal Roundtable to develop a shared vision for caribou in the region. The historic wildlife management plan established steps to monitor and manage the herd, as well as other conservation measures.
“We did a lot of work this past year,” Saganash shared. “The Aboriginal Roundtable recommends not more than a 2% harvest rate for the Leaf River herd. That’s an acceptable harvest rate of 3,740 caribou – not just for the Cree, but for the Inuit, Naskapi and other nations that depend on this herd.”
After cautioning that this calculation was a maximum level, she emphasized the importance of reporting harvests to your local Cree Trappers’ Association (CTA). Last month, the CTA introduced a mobile app to enable hunters to report harvests remotely in real-time while also noting changes in wildlife observations and keeping track of safety conditions.
“Reporting is key in the management of the population,” asserted Saganash. “If we know the harvesting that is being done, we can better forecast the pressure on the herd and what we need to do in terms of conservation measures. Without a reliable number, it’s difficult to do that.”
The new Eeyou Istchee Land Keepers program is currently building community awareness about the caribou herd status through posters, pamphlets and other information. The organization’s mandate is to act as “eyes on the ground” to monitor ecological health, report suspicious activities and promote cultural awareness.
One priority in awareness campaigns is ensuring people harvest only what they need while
recognizing the traditional value of using all parts of the animal. As Saganash observed, “Reintroducing our traditional knowledge about how we use all the parts of the animal is an awesome initiative – I hope all the communities will be able to learn from that.”
In early November, the Whapmagoostui Men’s Group provided teachings at the local cultural camp about the “real” way to clean and dispose of caribou bones.
“We use the bone marrow to make caribou fat, which was very important to our ancestors,” explained workshop organizer James George. “A long time ago, once an Elder cleaned the bones, they would crush them to make broth. After the broth, they would take out the fat from the broth, because it would create more fat. With that broth, they mix that broth fat plus the bone marrow to make caribou fat.”
Several participants were paid to crush these bones over 13 days. George said the young people he spoke to were enthusiastic and hoped to return to learn more from Elders overseeing the workshop.
“We’re setting up a feast for the whole community this Sunday to have the caribou fat and caribou meat,” George said. “We’re going to ask the young people to be the caterers for the traditional food, so they’ll know how to handle this meal. There are certain parts of the caribou we use for the caribou fat to be eaten with.”
George follows the caribou’s roaming patterns on the news and blames its disappearance from his community on past disrespectful behaviours. The last time the herd came nearby he remembers people shooting animals for sport, chasing them with skidoos and leaving carcasses by the side of the road.
“Learning from my grandfather and father, when we don’t respect this animal, it will change its migration route, which we’ve seen in our community,” he said.
Chisasibi’s guidelines also noted that the posting of pictures of caribou harvests on social media can be perceived as disrespectful, especially for Elders.
“The key principle of caribou management is the respect we show to the animals,” confirmed Saganash. “Keep that relationship with the animal intimate.”