Fifteen Cree Elders who have lived off the land and whose ancestors have lived off the land for thousands of years recently shared their knowledge of the woodland boreal caribou to researchers with Environment Canada and Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS).
April 29, 2010: Volume 37 #9, Page A1
In the early 2000s, CWS had placed the woodland caribou on the threatened species list.
The Government of Canada Species at Risk public registry website states there are 33 000 forest-dwelling caribou in the boreal population. From a scientific view, the caribou population is dwindling. However, the Cree Elders insist there are the same number of caribou that there has always been that sustain them.
Ed Metatawabin, of Fort Albany, was asked to facilitate the information session at the Days Inn in Timmins April 15. As the Elders were speaking in Cree, Metatawabin had a vital role of being the translator for the information session.
“The idea is not to force people what to say, but for the freedom of each person to express what she thinks without any offense, and it works well,” said Louis Bird, a Cree Elder from Peawanuk, who speaks both Cree and English.
He also did some translating on behalf of the Elders.
Liz Sauer is an A/Coordinator of Compliance Promotion and Permitting with CWS-Ontario. Sauer said Environment Canada and the CWS are currently developing a three-phased recovery strategy for the caribou.
“A recovery strategy represents the best available scientific knowledge on what is required to achieve recovery of a species or ecosystem,” according to CWS.
The first phase for the recover strategy involves consultations with the provinces and territories, Aboriginal communities and organizations, and other stakeholders. The second phase ensures that Aboriginal traditional knowledge is considered.
The third phase is a completion of some additional science studies that are ongoing.
The information session with the Elders was done as phase two of that strategy. When the Elders were asked what is causing the dwindling population of the caribou, they unanimously agreed scientific research itself was the cause. The Elders strongest concern was the continued use of radio collar transmitters on the caribou. In the scientific way of learning about the caribou, the use of collars upsets the Elders tremendously as it is not natural law for collars to be on the caribou.
“Agencies, Ministry of Natural Resources, anthropologists; they are trying to understand the animal. They have only been here for 500 years, and science has only been around for 200 years. It is like they are little children trying to understand the migrating patterns,” said Metatawabin.
In contrast, the Cree people have been here for thousands of years.
“They (the Elders) have an established relationship (with the caribou) from the tiniest part to the largest part,” said Metatawabin.
The Elders feel that it would be best for the scientists to approach the Elders to find out any information they need to know of the caribou. “Young scientists are going about it the wrong way—they are not asking the people that know the behavior, the trails, the needs (of the caribou)—the Elders have the knowledge. Their knowledge could be shared with everybody so the animals can have protection,” Metatawabin said.
The destruction the Elders from the James Bay Cree communities have witnessed includes at least 13 caribou which have been struck by lightning, as there is no way to ground the transmitters the caribou are subjected to wear.
“You fool around with the caribou too much. You put the neck thing on them, and the thunder bird comes around and strikes them down,” said Bird, who has been hunting the caribou since he was 17 years old. “Our people gave them that answer when they asked why are caribous dwindling.”
Metatawabin said that there are also other dangers the collars cause.
“Things get caught and that thing will wear the fur away leaving the skin exposed with the meat around their necks and then they suffer until they are shot down or die from the infection,” Metatawabin said.
These two causes, the Elders said, have led directly to the demise of the caribou population.
Bird has hunted caribou since 1952
Also mentioned was the building of hydro dams that resulted in thousands of caribou drowning at the river crossing that encompasses part of their migrating pattern.
Bird attended the session to provide his insight from the hunter perspective. Bird is 71, and has observed the caribou for six decades. At 11 years old, he first started observing the habits of the caribou in preparation for his first kill. Bird says he became a man when he got his first caribou.
“The actual killing of the caribou, I was just a young teenager. That was 1952 the first time I shot a caribou” Bird said.
There were two extraordinary caribou hunters who taught Bird what they knew.
“John Michael Hunter is the man who taught me many things. He is one of the best caribou hunters. His older brother, Toby Hunter, is the master of the caribou hunt. The man could shoot a caribou just like a duck.”
The Elders are hopeful by sharing the message of the bodily damage to the caribou, the scientists will discontinue the practice of collaring wildlife for research purposes. In contradiction, the Species at Risk website predicts that the caribou population will rise.
“This number is expected to rise further as more individuals are radio-collared and distributions are delineated,” according to the website.
Similar information sessions will be held across Canada to engage different parties in the recovery strategy. For the Cree Elders of James Bay, they had a day to share their thoughts, their wisdom, and their hope.
“It is very honest. It is the first time I see our people speaking with each other and working with each other. There was no anger in there at all. I like it. I think I praise that workshop.”
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