For years, two northern Ontario First Nations have fought for government help to save a declining caribou herd from extinction.
The herd is marooned on two islands in Lake Superior, where they are easy targets for wolves crossing the frozen lake in pursuit of moose and deer.
“Our big fear is that they're going to disappear altogether,” says Chief Duncan Michano of Biigtigong Nishnaabeg First Nation, who, along with Michipicoten First Nation, has pushed the Ontario government to help relocate the animals to a safer location.
"Over the course of the last several decades, the population of caribou around Lake Superior has dwindled to the point where the last 60 or so animals now only inhabit two offshore islands in Lake Superior," says Chris Wedeles, ArborVitae Environmental Services wildlife biologist, who works as a consultant to Biigtigong Nishnaabeg First Nation.
“Our big fear is that they're going to disappear altogether,” says Chief Duncan Michano of Biigtigong Nishnaabeg First Nation. #ONpoli #FirstNations #Caribou
The nations have attempted to collaborate with the Ontario Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP) over the past decade, with little success, Wedeles says. “Wolves decimated the islands’ caribou while government officials observed the ecological catastrophe and refused to act,” Wedeles said, referring to the situation in 2018 when intense public pressure forced the government to aid the First Nations, and some dedicated local conservationists moved some of the last surviving caribou to nearby wolf-free islands.
However, in a statement to Canada’s National Observer, MECP said the government led the initial relocation.
Then, earlier this month, Wedeles discovered that without telling the First Nations, the province had posted a request for an outside agency to develop a management plan that may oversee moving caribou. The ministry says the nations will be consulted in the future development of the management plan.
Many in the First Nations communities believe the call for bids is a stalling tactic. Others feel it’s a snub.
"This is insulting to our people," says Michano.
On Wednesday, the First Nations issued a press release demanding the province withdraw its request for outside help and work with them to relocate the caribou.
"At a time when recognition of First Nations' importance in ecological stewardship is being increasingly recognized around the world,” Wedeles says, “(the government of) Ontario is going in the opposite direction.”
A spokesperson from the MECP told Canada’s National Observer in an email that Indigenous communities were included in developing a joint federal-provincial management approach for this region that will begin in January 2023 and finalized in 2024.
The ministry said both First Nations have provided individualized community approaches, which it says “will be considered along with input from stakeholders and the public, as well as the best available science and social-economic information in the development of a final management plan for Caribou in the Range.”
First Nations chiefs remain unconvinced the provincial government intends to make good on their promises to include Indigenous communities. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” Michano says.
Although the ministry meets regularly with Indigenous communities in the Lake Superior Coast range, Michano says these Ministry-led community meetings haven’t been helpful because there never seems to be a representative with the authority to approve plans.
Wedeles believes the ministry’s consultations with the First Nations have been superficial in the past and isn’t convinced the current intentions are honest. “Had I not found the (request for proposals) on the internet, the First Nation would not even know that this effort by MECP was taking place,” Wedeles says.
Still, the Ontario government stands by its promise to include the Indigenous communities, saying it is "committed to continued involvement and collaboration with the First Nations."
Michano remains hopeful but skeptical. “We've seen over the years that, physically, the province doesn't do anything,” he says. “I've never seen a plan. Ever.”
Michano intends to continue his fight for the caribou. “I keep thinking, what would my grandfather do? What would my great-great-grandfather think if they knew we were allowing them to disappear — that we didn’t do anything?” After all, he says, it’s our responsibility to take care of them.