Raid of Lutselk’e cultural camp a “sickening” example of Northwest Territories racism

Calls for apology and accountability are met with deafening silence by the Government of the Northwest Territories

By Chief James Marlowe, Lutselk’e Dene First Nation 

Lutselk’e Dene First Nation is a community in the Northwest Territories located on the “east arm” of the beautiful shores of Great Slave Lake. You may have become familiar with our traditional territory from Season 6 of the Netflix TV series “Alone.” Great Slave Lake is the 10th largest lake in the world and the deepest lake in North America at over 600 metres. 

The Lutselk’e traditional territory provides some of the cleanest freshwater in the world and is the habitat of moose, grizzly bears, wolves, muskox, wolverine and some of the last herds of barren-ground caribou. Caribou are considered sacred and cherished by our people and we have always been sustained by the land. We have lived on the land and co-existed with these animals for thousands of years.

Lutselk’e is a fly-in community only accessible by ice in the winter and by boat in the summer. Hunting and trapping is a vital part of our traditional way of life and our hunting and fishing rights are protected by Treaty 8 and Sections 25 and 35 of the Canadian Constitution. These rights allow our members to hunt and fish for food, tools, clothing, social and ceremonial purposes. 

Despite the formal recognition of our rights, the Canadian, provincial and territorial governments continue to violate Indigenous rights across Canada. Some of the most common violations include interference with access to traditional hunting grounds and limitations on the type and quantity of wildlife that can be harvested. 

The Government of the Northwest Territories has had a pattern of recklessly harassing treaty people for hunting. One case is worth mentioning and involves a former Chief of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, Ted Tsetta. Mr. Tsetta was charged in 2014 with hunting caribou without tags when such hunting rights are protected by treaty. 

The case was eventually stayed in 2017. Mr. Tsetta attended court more than 20 times to fight the bogus charge, costing him and his family lots of  money and lots of uncertainty and heartache. Mr. Tsetta filed a Constitutional notice and had the support of the Dene Nation over the course of the proceedings.  Tsetta said. “I had no choice, I wasn’t going to let my people down, I wasn’t going to let the future generation down.” The Dene Nation supported Tsetta and Dene National Chief and Former Assembly of First Nations Chief Bill Erasmus stated, “he was exercising his Aboriginal and treaty rights which are inherent. Those rights don’t come from Canada.” Erasmus called the stay of the charges a “victory” for Tsetta and the Dene Nation.  Erasmus added, “the people here are caribou people … they’ve been given the guarantee and the assurance through the treaty process forever.”

This takes me to yet another example of government encroaching on treaty and constitutional rights that occurred in my own traditional territory of Lutselk’e. Just over a year ago, on September 13, 2022, the government of the Northwest Territories decided to raid a Lutselk’e cultural camp in our territory. Our cultural camp had about 80 people there, including Elders and children and guests from around the world, some coming from as far away as New Zealand. Northwest Territories wildlife officers invaded our territory by helicopter and spent hours searching tents and teepees in the cultural camp. They were acting on an anonymous tip that there was supposedly illegal harvesting and wastage of caribou occurring although the cultural camp was approximately 150 kilometres away from the no-hunting caribou zone.

There have been no charges resulting from what has been described by Elders as an “invasive, aggressive and disrespectful” raid. Lutselk’e has demanded an apology and a meaningful investigation to no avail. The Elders and children were traumatized by the invasion. Acting Chief at the time, Charlie Catholique, described the raid as a “serious setback” in the relationship between Lutselke and GNWT and noted that “shock and outrage only begins to describe the depth of people’s reaction to this.” Ironically, this abusive behaviour by the Government of the Northwest Territories occurred during a time when Lutselk’e thought we were in a reconciliation phase with the GNWT and the Government of Canada.

Lutselk’e lawyer Larry Innes said that he was shocked by the raid due to the constitutional protections that exist to protect people against unreasonable search and seizures. Innes said it was quite unusual that the wildlife officers were able to obtain a search warrant on what amounts to an entire village on ill-founded claims of illegal harvesting based on an anonymous tip. The warrant was subsequently quashed by the Northwest Territories Supreme Court as unlawful. The application by Lutselk’e to quash the warrant was not contested by the GNWT lawyers and the GNWT agreed that the warrant was issued without authority. For all the harm caused by the GNWT, it only took 20 minutes for the judge to rule in favour of Lutselk’e.

MLA and former Chief of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, Rick Edjericon, has called for a formal investigation and apology and called the raid a “gross violation” of the rights of attendees at the cultural camp. Dene National Chief Gerald Antoine called the search “unacceptable” and has demanded to know “who gave the order” and the resignation of officials who authorized the search. The silence of the Government of the Northwest Territories has been deafening as there has been no apology and surely the investigation should be completed after over a year. For his part, Shane Thompson, the NWT Environment and Natural Resources Minister at the time, has largely been evasive and dismissive. Does this silence and lack of apology by the GNWT equate to indifference and perhaps even malice towards treaty people who have constitutionally protected rights? 

The next step for Lutselk’e to consider is possible civil litigation against the GNWT for violating the constitutional rights of the people attending the cultural camp and seeking damages for breach of individual privacy, sense of security and cultural dignity. It always angers me when I read that the NWT wildlife officers reported that there was great wastage of caribou meat at the cultural camp. We have been stewards of this land for millennia and know too well about conservation best practices. Lutselk’e has even gone as far as implementing a Caribou Stewardship Plan in 2020 and renewed it in 2023 that restricts caribou harvesting, provides a moratorium on harvesting the dwindling Bathurst caribou herd and includes provisions to enforce violations.  False claims of “conservation” and “wastage” have been used for generations by the government and the general public to control Indigenous people and create a dependency on the state. These colonial attitudes perpetuate a dependency relationship with the government and reinforces poverty, marginalization and further conflict and racist attitudes towards Indigenous people.

For its part, the GNWT said it would be seeking an external review of the wildlife officers’ actions. As National Dene Chief Gerald Antoine rightly points out, the GNWT and wildlife officials should have contacted Lutselk’e leadership with their concerns and informed that they needed to take samples rather than launching a militaristic raid on a cultural camp that included Elders and children. 

Arial view of the camp.

Sadly, the Tsetta and Lutselk’e situations are just a couple of the many across Canada where treaty and Constitutional rights of Indigenous people have been trampled upon.  Efforts have been made to address these violations across the country, including legal challenges, negotiations, and collaboration between Indigenous communities and governments and their agencies. The Crown’s duty to consult and accommodate Indigenous peoples, as established by the Supreme Court of Canada, is a key principle in addressing these issues. It is essential to recognize that Indigenous treaty rights and the violations thereof are complex and often rooted in historical injustices. Respecting and upholding these rights is a necessary requirement for improving Canada’s relationship with Indigenous nations.

Treaty violations in this context could refer to false or misguided concerns about the protection of these hunting rights, land use conflicts, or environmental issues related to hunting. It is important for the government and Indigenous nations to work together to ensure that treaty rights are respected and that all hunting practices are sustainable and in harmony with the environment. Violations of these treaties can lead to legal disputes and the need for resolution through the justice system or negotiation processes.

I wrote this piece to highlight the situation in the Northwest Territories and the parallels across Canada with other Treaty people and nations. The blatant and unapologetic trampling of Indigenous treaty rights has been occurring since the creation of Canada. It is an extension of the residential schools and Indian day schools. It is a policy of destruction of traditional knowledge so that we are not on the land and become dependent so we cannot earn a living and feed ourselves. 

The inevitable consequence of poverty is dependency. Government policy has discouraged self-reliance and promoted dependency on the state. The actions of the GNWT are reminiscent of the old Indian Agent model whereby the Indian Agent controlled every facet of Indigenous lives. First Nations must be permitted to create wealth and independence for themselves. What is happening now is a continuation of the old John A. MacDonald system of starving the Indian and beating the Indian out of the child to gain conformity. 

We must recognize these patterns across the country as they are ongoing. There is a total disregard for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that was adopted by Canada in 2021. UNDRIP provides a framework for reconciliation based on principles of justice, respect for human rights and non-discrimination. The GNWT followed Canada and British Columbia’s lead and passed a bill in 2023 to implement UNDRIP in the territory. A central theme for the GNWT implementation of UNDRIP is honouring existing treaties and treaty rights. I recently gave a presentation to the new Members of the Legislative Assembly of the NWT following the 2023 election. The cabinet and Premier of the new government will be chosen from the ranks of this group. In my presentation I raised the unlawful Lutselk’e raid and insisted that this government must settle and provide an apology to Lutselk’e and its members based on reconciliation and the principles of UNDRIP.

I write this article as a call to action for Indigenous people and First Nations. Let’s be vigilant in protecting our rights and share information and support each other to protect against these injustices.  We are stronger as a whole. We must always remain vigilant and work together.

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