Quebec’s recently implemented long-gun registry is already impacting the lives of people throughout Eeyou Istchee. Many noticed an increased presence of Sûreté du Québec officers in the region following the January 29 registration deadline, many warning Cree hunters to register their firearms or face fines of up to $5,000.
While returning home to Chisasibi after hunting ptarmigan a few weeks ago, Samuel Cox was surprised by two SQ officers on snowmobile who questioned him and his grandson for 30 minutes.
“We were just hunting for the Elders to be fed traditional food,” Cox told the Nation. “I was on my trapline too. I’m the tallyman for the trapline.”
They had been attending an annual two-week gathering at his hunting camp near Duncan Lake. Cox was waiting for his grandson near a Hydro-Québec dumpsite when the SQ showed up, asking why they weren’t wearing helmets and whether their snowmobiles and firearms were registered.
The police took their personal details and checked for Cox’s Possession and Acquisition Licence (PAL) card, which he wasn’t carrying at the time. After they left, Cox learned his 19-year-old grandson would be fined for not having licence plates on his snowmobile.
“I think there’s too much police in the area where we are,” asserted Cox. “I know they keep hanging around where my camp is as if they’re stalking, waiting for us to come around with firearms.”
Since the incident, Cox has been warning others that the police can track their trails deep into the bush. His colleague at the Cree Trappers Association (CTA), Jimmy R. Fireman, feels that the SQ’s intimidating presence infringes upon their freedom of hunting. When fetching water and firewood along the James Bay Highway, he no longer brings guns in the case he encounters game.
“I can’t take my firearm anymore because I’m afraid the SQ will check me and take it away so I can’t do what I used to,” Fireman told the Nation. “I do keep some of my firearms for goose hunting at my camp in the bush so nobody can take them. A lot of people feel that way.”
The CTA has been assisting members with the free online registration process, including providing physical forms, but Fireman said much confusion remains about the registry. Many are unaware that the previous federal gun registry was abolished in 2012 and that guns need to be registered again under the new provincial system.
“You can do it online but a lot of the Elders don’t speak English and don’t use computers; the courses have to be translated into Cree,” explained Cox, who intends to register his firearms soon to avoid further problems. “It’s those people I’m worried about, the ones who don’t speak English.”
The Cree Nation and CTA have been working with the Quebec government to adapt the law so it better reflects Cree reality and territorial rights. Funding and training have been secured that will provide the CTA with resources to assist community members with firearm registration, which is expected to be implemented following Goose Break.
“We were anticipating something like this might happen,” said CTA Executive Director Clark Shecapio. “Just recently everything was finalized and we’re preparing at the moment to have our local administrators informed properly about this new law and for them to have the resources to assist our members, especially the Elders.”
According to Grand Council Executive Director Bill Namagoose, the possibility of Cree exemption from the law or the adjustment of certain regulations is still on the table. He stated that the JBNQA does provide the right to hunt in Eeyou Istchee with the tools required to do so, including firearms, but acknowledged that these rights may be regulated for safety reasons by Quebec and Canada.
“There are certain regulations in relation to the gun registry law that are difficult to apply in Eeyou Istchee within the very specific context of the JBNQA and may represent unjustifiable infringements on our rights,” Namagoose stated in an email to the Nation. “There are certain regulations that we will continue to address at this level.”
Melissa Saganash, the Grand Council’s Director of Cree-Quebec Relations, said the required legislative changes would take some time.
“For now, we’re remaining collaborative as a government, knowing full well that the people understand their rights,” said Saganash. “This is where we’re going to try to be collaborative, but if there’s unjustified infringement on our rights then this is where we have to have a conversation with the province.”
Namagoose suggested that young SQ officers new to the north might not understand the local cultural, social and judicial realities, including the Cree right to hunt on their traplines.
“As for the SQ intercepting Crees in Eeyou Istchee, this is an ongoing issue where better and constant communication between the EEPF [Eeyou Eenou Police Force] and SQ needs to be addressed and prioritized,” he said. “The EEPF has been reaching out to the SQ in the Nord-du-Québec district in order to establish better relations and avoid misunderstandings that are often preventable.”
While Quebec asserts that this new law is one of public safety and security concern, Namagoose responds that safety is always of utmost concern in Cree communities and those practicing essential hunting and gathering traditions are taught from a young age about firearm safety. Neither the SQ nor the EEPF answered the Nation’s requests for interviews.