A spokesperson for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources says there will be a review of the “enforcement action” taken at a culture camp hosted by Łútsël K’é Dene First Nation — but not an investigation.
LKDFN has described the event as a “raid”.
“We are planning to engage outside enforcement specialists to complete a review of this enforcement action,” said Mike Westwick, ENR’S manager of communications, in an email.
On Sept. 13, two ENR officers arrived at the camp by helicopter and began searching the grounds, including freezers, tents and teepees, for evidence of caribou harvested illegally. They also took several samples of meat from the camp.
LKDFN says the officers’ actions were “aggressive and disrespectful.”
The department says the officers were following through on a search warrant obtained after receiving two reports of caribou hunted within the Mobile Core Bathurst Caribou Management Zone.
There are two ongoing investigations into illegal harvesting, which have turned up a combined 18 carcasses found within the mobile core zone.
The number of Bathurst caribou has plummeted since the 1980s, going from 470,000 to 6,200.
Warrant not part of review
Westwick added the proposed review would not cover the validity of the search warrant obtained by the department.
“The validity of any search warrant issued is appropriately decided by courts,” he said.
Larry Innes is the lawyer representing LKDFN. He said the scope of the warrant, which “on its face purported to authorize a search of every tent and dwelling at that location, and the seizure of any thing related to caribou harvesting,” was “unprecedented” in his experience.
“The community reaction to this was much deeper,” he said. “Many people were triggered and traumatized by this event. It was a reenactment of the bad ol’ days when people on the land would have their camps overturned by game officers carrying out the laws of the day without regard to the rights of the people to do those things.”
Innes said there is ongoing talks whether to have the warrant reviewed at a judicial level prior to any charges being laid or only once there are charges. He added, so far no one has been charged to his knowledge.
Broadly, Innes said the details of the review will be important.
“If it’s simply another law enforcement entity reviewing the conduct of the officers involved in this search, from their perspective, well, that may be fine from a supervisory perspective… but certainly doesn’t reflect on the experience of Łútsël K’é.”
Additional calls for conduct investigation
Richard Edjericon, MLA for Tu Nehdé-Wiilideh, has called for an investigation into the officers’ conduct and a formal apology.
“I was really shocked and taken aback that a government department would act on this type of raid,” he said.
“It really hits home,” he added, likening the incident to when children were taken away from communities to go to residential school and day schools.
“That’s why I’m saying we really need to get the government to apologize to the community and to everybody that was at the camp.”
Dene Nation issued a statement echoing the call by LKDFN and Edjericon for an investigation into the incident.
It also went further, saying, “The Dene Nation calls for the immediate resignation of officials that directed and supported the raid.”
The statement also asked whether Minister Shane Thompson knew of the enforcement.
Westwick said the minister does not direct investigations and was not aware of the search prior to it happening.
Both Edjericon and Dene Nation said the minister or the department should have contacted the community prior to carrying out the search.
“It would’ve been just as easy for the minister to call the chief of Łútsël K’é and say, ‘We heard this, we want to come down… Let’s go work together and see what we can do to resolve this’,” said Edjericon. “That type of relationship goes a long way, but because they didn’t do that it really hurts our relationship.”
Asked if there was any attempt to contact LKDFN, Westwick said, “It would be unusual for investigators to provide advanced notice of a search. This is to ensure the integrity of evidence.”
Ali Kincaid is the manager of cabinet communications.
She said Minister Thompson would not commit to an investigation into the officers’ conduct, nor an apology until the end of the investigation into illegal caribou harvesting and the review were complete.