The chorus of voices calling for the Northwest Territories government to apologize after environmental officers searched a Łutsel K’e culture camp during a caribou poaching investigation is growing louder.
On Sept. 13, Environment and Natural Resources officers helicoptered into a camp of about 80 people at Timber Bay on Artillery Lake and searched the camp for illegally harvested caribou meat, an incident the Łutsel K’e Dene First Nation described as a “forceful invasion” of the camp.
Since then, the Dene Nation and Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Richard Edjericon have joined the Łutsel K’e Dene First Nation in calling for a formal apology and investigation into what happened.
Dene National Chief Gerald Antoine called the search “unacceptable.”
“Who gave the order?” said Antoine.
The Dene Nation is calling for the resignation of officials who directed and supported the search.
The Łutsel K’e Dene First Nation has said it plans to contest the warrant officers used to search the camp in court, and has questioned the scope of the warrant, since there are constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures in people’s homes.
After this story was published, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources said it would be seeking an external review of officers’ actions.
Antoine said this time of year is “a really spiritual time” for families to gather and reconnect with the land, and questioned whether this search would set a precedent for similar searches in the future.
“It puts our people at risk because now, you could get one search warrant and you can go to any cultural camp.”
Before the raid, officers had found the carcasses of 10 protected caribou with significant amounts of meat still on them within a no-hunting zone about 150 kilometers away from the camp.
For several hours, officers went through tents, caches, children’s tents and belongings and places where meat was stored at the camp to take samples of meat, hair, and bone.
Antoine said the NWT government should have contacted community leadership to inform them they needed to take samples.
He said Environment Minister Shane Thompson should say whether he knew the raid was happening, and should order an independent investigation.
Shortly after news of the raid became public, Thompson issued a statement defending the actions of wildlife officers. He said many wildlife officers with his department have lived in the North for a long time.
“Caribou are important to them, the communities they live and work in and to elders,” he stated at the time.
“Investigations like this are challenging. Enforcement of the mobile zone is an important part of the collaborative conservation measures we are taking to conserve the Bathurst herd.”
‘Gross violation’ of rights, says MLA
Edjericon said community members are still shaken, and are holding workshops to debrief about what they experienced.
“Our people and our community in Łutselk’e are hurting right now. You know, we’re still traumatized,” he said.
Edjericon issued a statement arguing that the raid was a “gross violation” of the rights of camp members.
“Based on what we know, I find it hard to believe that such an extensive and invasive search could have been justified. I find it equally hard to believe that no one in government considered the impacts that it would have on the people of Łutsel K ‘eh,” he stated.
He warned that a lack of apology or investigation could set the relationship between Indigenous people and the government back “another 150 years.”
“The eyes of all nations are now on the Northwest Territories. Our reputation as a progressive jurisdiction that respects Indigenous peoples and all their rights is at risk,” he stated.