Subsistence - Lessons from Canada
by Patrick ValkenburgTo Americans who travel abroad it is no surprise that our media coverage of issues in foreign countries is relatively poor. This is true even with major events occurring in Canada, our closest northern neighbor.
During the last two winters my wife and I have had the opportunity to live and work in northern Ontario, Manitoba, and Labrador and talk to many local residents, including wildlife biologists, teachers, RCMP and conservation officers, and Native (First Nations) elders. I was not surprised to find that many of the problems we face in Alaska are also quite prevalent in northern Canada, including problems with alcoholism, domestic violence, child abuse, drug addiction, rapid population growth, and declining interest in traditional activities like hunting and trapping among the younger generation, etc.
However, other issues like aboriginal rights, subsistence, racism, the
rural-urban divide, and wildlife management issues are also huge problems in
the Canadian north and these are issues that few outsiders hear anything
about. The history of Native rights in northern Canada is quite different
than it is in the US and Alaska, and the Canadian approach to solving the
problems that have arisen has also been quite different. Some of the
“solutions” that have been tried in Canada have also been proposed to
resolve problems in Alaska. However, before Alaskans go too far down that
road, a thorough and objective review of the Canadian aboriginal
rights/subsistence situation should be undertaken. It would be impossible
for me to cover all the issues in this short column, but I will try to
relate some of the situations I observed in Canada and how they might have
some bearing on the subsistence debate in Alaska.
One Conservation Officer in Labrador who is married to
a Ladrador Innuit related to me how his children have unfettered rights
because they are “classified” as Labrador Innuit even though they live in a
large town. When they are hunting or fishing with their non-Native friends
the group simply ignores any seasons and bag limits and takes all the game
and fish they want. As one might expect, these situations result in
considerable racial tension. Once special privileges are granted to the
Metis, a majority of the population of Labrador will have them while the
minority will not. Aside from the racial problems that arise, a very
practical problem is that wildlife managers have no way to control harvest,
except to classify species as threatened or endangered. In addition, to cope
with these situations, in many cases wildlife managers are extremely
conservative when allocating harvest to non-natives. Many non-native
northern Canadians are bitter and frustrated over these situations,
especially because their economic livelihood is often at stake.
Provincial wildlife agencies are woefully short of money and qualified biologists. Some biologists I talked with mentioned having to spend two-thirds of their time fund raising. Partly because the provincial wildlife agencies are so poorly funded and staffed, and because biologists often come from urban areas or are under the scrutiny and control of politicians from the urbanized south, Native people are not inclined to relinquish their treaty rights to professional wildlife management agencies. There is no short-term solution to these problems in Canada, but in the long-term it seems clear to me that people will need to agree to be Canadians first and eschew the racial and group rights that are so entrenched today.
By contrast, I think the subsistence issue in Alaska would be easier to resolve, partly because the idea of a racial preference has largely not taken hold (except for harvest of marine mammals). Anyone who suggests a racial preference as the solution to subsistence issue in Alaska would be well advised to visit the Canadian north and experience the racism and wildlife management problems that have resulted from its implementation there
Patrick Valkenburg retired from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game
after more than 25 years of service in research and management.
Valkenburg is a pilot, and a dedicated hunter with substantial experience
throughout northern Alaska. His wife is also a wildlife biologist.
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