Editor’s note: The column written by Jerry Daniels was first published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Nov. 26, 2020. We are reprinting it on this page together with a response to Chief Daniels’ column from the managing director of the Manitoba Wildlife Federation, Carly Deacon.
I am dismayed that we are still arguing about the inherent rights of First Nation people to harvest from our lands and waters. Let me be clear, we have never given up our inherent right to hunt and fish.
The treaties we signed and the rulings of the highest courts of the Canadian state affirm our autonomy and freedom to engage in sustainable harvesting without interference from colonial governments.
This battle is happening across the country. Our Mi’kmaq relatives are fighting to protect their rights and livelihood on the East Coast, and here in what is now known as Manitoba, we have to defend against a provincial government that, in the middle of a global pandemic, is attempting to intimidate our people on their own land using the recently passed Wildlife Amendment Act.
Since the Wildlife Amendment Act came into effect on Oct. 10, more than three dozen people have faced charges or been given warnings by the provincial government, which has trumpeted their actions as "continuing enforcement" against "illegal hunting" in several recent news releases. Let’s be clear that the province is taking legal action against our people for exercising their inherent right to harvest; this debate is not about sport hunting. This is about our right to harvest to be able to provide for our families — the way we always have since time immemorial.
One of our harvesters recently informed the Southern Chiefs’ Organization that year after year the provincial government, a treaty partner, makes it harder to provide food for his family. He also stated that many of his fellow First Nation hunters are targeted, and then are charged and have their guns and vehicles taken at a disproportionate rate, before having to waste time and money with court proceedings. All to feed their families.
The province has tried to blame First Nations for the low moose population. Make no mistake, the strains on the moose population can be directly attributed to mismanagement by the province. First Nations have been committed to sustainable practices since the first sunrise and that will never change.
Indigenous rights are enshrined in Section 35 of the Constitution Act. First Nations have already taken this issue to the Supreme Court of Canada on numerous occasions, and every time we have had our harvesting rights reaffirmed. This includes the 1999 ruling that First Nation people have an inherent right to harvest for ceremonial, cultural and basic needs, but also to earn a moderate livelihood.
Being able to harvest is critical when it comes to our food security. According to the National Household Survey, almost one-third of Indigenous people in Manitoba live in poverty, more than double the number in the non-Indigenous population, due to lack of opportunity and systemic racism. Drawing on data from the 2016 census, 65 per cent of First Nations children living on reserve in Manitoba live in poverty.
And these numbers are growing as First Nation people are hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic. This provincial government is trying to make it illegal for us to harvest from our own land to feed our families and communities at a time when our food insecurity is growing at an alarming rate.
The province cannot unilaterally decide when it can reopen at-risk moose hunting areas or who they will consult with beforehand. Southern First Nations have not been properly consulted by the provincial government on the Wildlife Management Act, which extends the 2011 moose hunting closure.
The province has, however, sought input from non-Indigenous Manitobans and hunters on what they believe the main threat is to Manitoba’s moose population through a public survey, conveniently leaving out provincial mismanagement as a threat. The province may use the results of this biased survey to legitimize their flawed hunting policies, but they have not shared this survey with First Nations despite it being their constitutional duty to consult with us and all treaty partners.
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The Southern Chiefs’ Organization is fighting to ensure that First Nation rights are respected, and we will also vehemently defend our citizens who are being harassed and charged by Manitoba conservation officers under the Wildlife Amendment Act.
I firmly believe the time has come to create an Indigenous Hunting, Fishing, and Conservation Authority here in Manitoba. That way we can ensure that we have a united front to address our issues and protect our rights.
First Nation people have waited a very long time to reclaim what was wrongfully taken from us. It is time for all governments to come to the table and acknowledge the indisputable rights of Indigenous peoples everywhere.
» Jerry Daniels is Grand Chief of the Southern Chiefs’ Organization, which represents 34 First Nations and more than 80,000 citizens in what is now called southern Manitoba.