Caribou, Climate Change, Treaty Rights, and “Canadian,” in 1,000 words

The impacts of climate change on caribou are devastating.

The impacts of climate change on caribou are devastating.

by Daniel T’seleie

On Monday, the temperature in Fort Liard, NWT was 30 degrees higher than normal. At 13 degrees Celsius It was hotter than Phoenix, Arizona, and was the hottest place in Canada (tied with Fredericton).
This is not normal. This weather kills caribou.
In the past our land would get cold in the fall and stay cold all winter. When the first snow fell it would not melt, and there would be snow until the spring time.
Now we are seeing warmer temperatures that cause snow to melt after it falls. We are seeing warm patches in winter that melt the snow. We are even seeing rain in the winter time.
This type of weather creates layers of ice on the ground and in the snow pack, and this is what kills caribou.
Caribou need to dig down through the snow throughout the winter to reach the lichen they feed on. When winter snow-melts and rain-on-snow events create ice layers it makes it harder for caribou to reach their food source, and causes them to starve and lose vital energy they need to survive their long migrations and outrun predators.
This is Dene knowledge, but science is catching up. There is now a wealth of scientific research on the many impacts climate change is having on the health of caribou.
Harassment by mosquitoes is another key effect of climate change on the health of caribou herds.
I know from experience that Canada’s north has some of the most intense concentrations of mosquitoes on the planet; this is true of both the forest and the tundra (two key caribou habitats). I’ve heard that the only place on earth that rivals the mosquito population of Canada’s north is the rainforests of South America (but I’ve been to both places, and I still think the north takes the cake).
Our people know that caribou, and other animals, are plagued by mosquitoes in the summer. This is an especial problem for young calves whose fur is not very thick, and who have less blood to lose than adult caribou.
Mosquitoes will cause caribou to run around like crazy in an effort to lose the pests. Mosquitoes impede the ability of caribou to sleep and eat without interruption.
Warmer temperatures mean that we are seeing an earlier spring and a later fall; we now have a longer mosquito season. This means caribou have less time throughout the summer to rest and eat, and store up vital energy reserves they need on their long migrations.
The impacts of climate change on caribou will only grow worse. The Arctic is warming two to three times faster than the global average.
Climate change, and a rapidly warming Arctic, is not the only impact on caribou populations. The direct impact of fossil fuel extraction also has a detrimental effect.
Woodland caribou in northern Alberta are in decline. Despite the dire state of these majestic and spiritual animals, it took court action by First Nations to force Canada’s Environment Minister to issue a recovery strategy for caribou.
So what does the Environment Minister propose to help the dwindling caribou populations? Killing thousands of wolves each year.
It’s no joke. One hundred wolves would have to die each year to save four caribou calves.
It doesn’t take a genius, or even a scientist, to know that this is an idiotic proposal. The real culprit responsible for the decline in Alberta’s woodland caribou is the rapid expansion of the tar sands. It is human activity, not wolves, that is killing the caribou.
Caribou are a private animal, they don’t like people. So when you build a vast network of roads, open pit mines, upgraders, and other industrial facilities, then of course it is going to impact their ability to live. Killing wolves might actually further the decline of caribou in the region. The wolf population feeds primarily on deer. So fewer wolves mean more deer to encroach on the small and fractured bits of remaining caribou habitat.
I’d like to end this blog on a personal note, but first let me recap. Caribou are being impacted by climate change and extractive fossil fuel developments. If these issues are not addressed then caribou may go extinct. The links between all these facts are easy to understand, and Canada’s federal government knows them all, yet chooses to do nothing for the caribou.
Caribou are an example of the myriad impacts First Nations and other Arctic Indigenous Peoples are seeing because of climate change and the destructive fossil fuel industry.
In 1921 my great grandfather, T’Selehye (documented as “Simeon X” in the treaty report), signed Treaty 11 in Fort Good Hope on behalf of the K’asho Got’ine. His signature, along with the signatures of the other Dene chiefs, made Denendeh a part of Canada. This is a legally binding agreement between our people and the British Crown.
The Treaty was only brought to our people because geologists discovered oil at Norman Wells a few years earlier, and Ottawa thought they needed a valid claim to exploit the resource. It is critical to note that in the Treaty His Majesty the King agreed with “said Indians that they shall have the right to pursue their usual vocations of hunting, trapping and fishing throughout the tract surrendered as heretofore described.”
This is one of the most crucial aspects of the treaty in my opinion; climate change and the fossil fuel regime, through their impacts on caribou and other factors, are infringing on our Treaty-protected rights to hunt, fish and trap on our land.
In short, government’s willful inaction on climate change, and their active support of the tar sands, is effectively a violation of my Treaty rights. They are violating the Treaty. This calls into question the validity of Denendeh remaining within the confines of Canada.
This may sound over-simplified, but it’s important to me. So the next time the term “Canadian youth” is thrown around, and I mutter under my breath something about not being “Canadian,” please try to understand where I’m coming from.

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  1. […] and will continue to suffer from climate impacts. Some of those people live right in our backyards, in Canada’s north. Temperatures there are almost consistently higher than the average, caribou populations are […]



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