Winnipeg Free Press – PRINT EDITION
Two laws, but one resource to hunt
But such is the case with aboriginal harvest rights, where Canadian law has created two sets of rules, separating citizens into two camps based on blood.
It is an imperfect situation at best and a racial firestorm at worst, but it is the reality faced by all Manitoba hunters and anglers, including those whose rights are granted by provincial licence and those whose rights are granted by treaty.
Despite the corner into which these laws have backed all parties, it is not an insurmountable situation.
It is, however, one that requires quick and significant improvement before the lines drawn in the sand become too deep and fish and animal populations suffer as a result.
This concern is not unfounded. One of the province’s best-known wildlife biologists warned, in a Free Press story last week, that unsustainable hunting practices could threaten wildlife populations as soon as a decade from now.
That story was about aboriginal hunters taking 12 elk in western Manitoba — an act that was perceived as a routine, responsible harvest by some and a reckless, arrogant slaughter by others.
It brought to light two issues that are never far from the surface among Manitoba’s hunting and fishing community — aboriginal harvest rights and the way they are exercised.
As a representative of the province’s outfitters and lodge owners, I frequently hear from people who fear irresponsible practices are threatening the long-term stability of the fish and wildlife resources that form the basis of their livelihood.
They have every right to be concerned and, to their credit, they most often cite incidents and practices rather than the skin colour of the perpetrators. In fact, several of our members are First Nations or Métis themselves, and many more hire aboriginal hunting and fishing guides.
The larger debate often sees Manitobans question why there are two sets of rules, why aboriginal people are not licensed like everyone else, or at least why rights-holders are not subject to similar limits, seasons and fines for violations.
It’s not an unreasonable argument, but it is a legally and socially unrealistic one.
Aboriginal harvest rights are guaranteed in the Constitution and have already withstood challenges that rose to the Supreme Court.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper himself could not change that. Period.
The solution, then, lies not in questioning the rights themselves, but how they are exercised.
Many aboriginal people conduct their harvest safely, considerately and with a view toward conservation and sustainability. To suggest otherwise is blatantly racist.
On the flip side, I have personally witnessed resident poachers with skin as white as fresh snow shooting from roads, hunting private property without permission and performing other misdeeds.
It is not a question of whether your right to hunt was granted by treaty or licence. It’s how you exercise that right that matters.
Whether or not you’re bound by seasons and limits, it comes down to personal responsibility, consideration for your fellow hunters and anglers, and conservation of the resource.
I encourage aboriginal leaders and responsible aboriginal harvesters to relay this message to their fellow harvesters.
It should not politically, and cannot legally, come from government, so it must come from within.
This is why I consistently applaud the Manitoba Métis Federation, which has established, on its own, the Métis Laws of the Harvest and is currently working with the province on a regulation that would strip Métis harvesters of their rights should they violate that self-imposed code.
Some have criticized that code as being too liberal with its limits and restrictions, but the Constitution guarantees Métis harvest rights one way or another, and the alternative is no limits, seasons or ID cards at all.
The MMF deserves sincere commendation for its position, and I personally encourage all First Nations councils to consider their example and perhaps establish a similar system.
Ideally, before too long Métis, First Nation and licensed hunters and anglers can all sit down together and manage our shared resources jointly, with all sides contributing time, expertise, harvest data and money to the cause.
Because even though there are two sets of rules, there is only one natural resource that we all must share.
Paul Turenne is executive director of the Manitoba Lodges and Outfitters Association.