Brandon Rice had gone hunting with a few others in the winter of 2021 to stock up on a couple more deer in the freezer – he hunts year-round, according to what’s in season. Mid-hunt on what is considered crown land, another hunter stopped them and told them to leave the area, claiming they shouldn’t be allowed to be there. But Rice was well within his rights.
“We had a non-Native hunter pulled over on the side of the highway watching us with binoculars. And he came over and blocked our vehicles from leaving the parking lot and then called the cops and told us we weren’t welcome because they don’t like strangers around there,” said Rice.
And this despite the fact that Rice and the group he’d gone with had waited for the non-Indigenous hunting season to be over as a courtesy, and had been following all the safety protocols. Before the situation escalated, Rice and his group left the premises.
And Rice isn’t the only one who’s experienced it.
In fact, these incidents have been on the rise, according to Dennis Diabo, project lead at the Office of the Council of Chiefs, a designate of the Iroquois Caucus, and a member of the Iroquois Caucus Harvesting Working Group (ICHWG).
“The number of cases or incidents that we’ve become aware of seems to be growing because our hunters are going out all over the place going hunting,” he said, noting the correlation between larger numbers of hunters covering wider areas to an increase in the number of incidents.
But these laws aren’t always well-known within the hunting and harvesting community or even among authorities, which then results in these altercations.
“Generally, we find that the game wardens are not knowledgeable about First Nations rights, collective rights, or that their provincial rules or regulations surrounding harvesting don’t apply to us. They’re not fully aware of that. Every so often, they continue to harass or charge our guys, and then we have to inform them about it.”
Although these cases don’t get very far, they contribute to the growing problem of wrongful accusations and are an infringement of Indigenous rights.
Indigenous people are allowed to hunt for specific animals, such as walleye, year-round for sustenance.
Rice has noticed the dissonance it causes within the hunting community on public forums – “That’s a topic that comes up. They find it not fair that Natives are allowed to fish whenever, especially during the spawn.” – which often leads to harassment toward Indigenous hunters on the field.
“Generally, what happens is the cases are either dropped, charges dismissed, or if they’re going to court, it’s thrown out, because there’s a large amount of jurisprudence in existence already,” said Diabo.
Game wardens sometimes lack knowledge about existing Indigenous rights that they cannot interfere with, he explained.
The ICHWG brings issues concerning the infringement of hunters’ rights by game wardens, provincial authorities, and provincial police to the attention of the Iroquois Caucus and offers recommendations where all seven member communities can decide on a unified approach to address them.
During the Iroquois Caucus General Assembly in April, certain key points pertaining to the ICHWG were advanced.
They reviewed the work plan that identifies the issues they’ll look into for the year ahead. In the works is a document outlining a set of criteria to determine in which instances and to what extent the Iroquois Caucus should get involved in legal cases on an individual basis in terms of hunting and harvesting rights, which can range from going to court as a witness to paying some or all legal costs, to preparing and equipping the hunter for their day in court.
They also discussed the possibility of developing cultural sensitivity training for the Ministry of Natural Resources – for whom the game wardens work – as a tool for wardens to become more informed of Indigenous rights.
On that of that, the working group is planning a hunters’ summit, an initiative brought forward by the Oneida Nation of the Thames that is set to include all the communities involved in the working group.
“Having a relationship with other Indigenous communities, especially other Iroquois communities, kind of strengthens our relationship with one another but also strengthens our assertion for our rights to harvest,” said MCK chief Jessica Lazare, noting that Kahnawa’kehró:non harvest outside of Kahnawake too.
For the upcoming months, Lazare, who recently took on the hunting and harvesting file and is hoping the working group, which she volunteered to chair, will develop proactive resources to respond to political agendas all while highlighting the larger issues on hand.
Although new in the role, her focus is clear: “I want to really try and steer the working group in the direction of progress, and then a direction of advocacy for our people,” she said. “It’s not just about the leadership that’s sitting at the table. It’s also about those that are boots on the ground and harvesting for their families that we want to speak for. We want to speak with them; we don’t want to just speak for them,” said Lazare, adding that community consultation and engagement are key.
For Rice, the problem goes beyond the attitude of non-Indigenous hunters and fishers; it falls on the shoulders of larger entities.
“It’s the corporations and industries that damage, block them, pollute all these waterways and all these lands and take up more hunting and fishing locations. Those are the real issues. You know, they decide to take it out on us.”
He emphasized the significance of advocating for collective rights for hunters, regardless of whether they are Indigenous. “It’s very important for all of us to work together and be on the same page and not point fingers at each other and take it out on the hunting and fishing communities, whether it’s Indigenous or non-Indigenous,” he said, citing hunters and fishers as leaders in wildlife conservation in North America.
The responsibility falls on all hunters and fishers, he said, and the answer lies in collective action to protect and eventually bolster those rights to gain access to larger hunting and fishing land. “And that ultimately leads to more wild places with wildlife and conservation and biodiversity around North America,” he said.