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Quebec failed to consult Innu communities on strategy to protect caribou, judge rules

June 27, 2024

Government ordered to put in place consultation process by Sept. 30

A herd of caribou stand in a forest
The Quebec government ‘should have launched a consultation process a long time ago,’ wrote Judge Marie Cossette in her decision rendered on June 21.  (Submitted by Jean-Simon Bégin)

CBC Indigenous: Innu leaders are welcoming a court decision requiring the Quebec government to put in place a separate consultation process with them to protect woodland caribou by Sept. 30. 

The Quebec government “failed to fulfil its obligation” to consult with Indigenous communities regarding the strategy to protect caribou herds — “a failure that it still ongoing,” a Quebec Superior Court decision reads.

The decision constitutes the court’s response to an appeal initiated by the councils of Essipit and Mashteuiatsh, Innu communities located about 110 and 150 kilometres from the city of Saguenay, respectively.

In the appeal they initiated in February 2022, the councils argued Quebec had failed in its constitutional obligation to consult them in the development of a caribou protection strategy.

“There is an urgency to act” and the government “should have launched a consultation process a long time ago,” wrote Judge Marie Cossette in her decision rendered last Friday. 

Gilbert Dominique, head of the Innu Council of Mashteuiatsh, says the decision is a “big step forward in the recognition and protection of our ancestral rights.” 

“For us, it’s clear that this will change the way the Quebec government does things in terms of consulting with First Nations people,” he said. 

Dominique said his community is culturally tied to the caribou and seeing the decline of the population in Quebec is “totally unacceptable.”

The government has been promising caribou protection measures since at least 2016 in the Innu communities of Essipit and Mashteuiatsh, located in the Côte-Nord and Saguenay—Lac-Saint-Jean regions, Dominique said. 

In April, the Quebec government announced a $59.5-million plan to safeguard Charlevoix’s boreal caribou and the Gaspésie mountain caribou, including better protecting an area of ​​96 square kilometres in Mont-Vallières-de-Saint-Réal.

But earlier this month, Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault recommended the adoption of an emergency decree to protect the animal as some herds cross the “threshold of near-disappearance.” Guilbeault has long denounced what he’s described as a lack of commitment from Quebec to protect its dwindling caribou population.

Dominique said “certain large massifs which shelter the caribou must be protected” to avoid the disappearance of the species. He also emphasized the importance of halting the construction of new forest roads — which relies on the extraction of wood within the species’ habitat — and restoring certain wooden pathways.

‘More than stakeholders’ 

Quebec’s Environment Ministry said it would study the court’s decision before commenting.

But Ghislain Picard, regional chief of Quebec and Labrador for the Assembly of First Nations, doesn’t think it’s that complicated to understand. 

“They just have to read that one line. They failed on their obligation to consult Indigenous peoples and they have to act on it,” he said. 

“Our people have to be consulted because our people are more than stakeholders, they are rights holders, so that demands an approach by Quebec that in a way is non-existent.”

A man looks away from the camera.
Ghislain Picard, regional chief of Quebec and Labrador for the Assembly of First Nations, says time is of the essence when it comes to protecting Quebec’s caribou population. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Picard said with the herds dwindling, the Quebec government needs to get to work fast in collaboration with Innu communities to protect the caribou. 

“Time is of the essence,” he said.

Written by Sabrina Jonas, with files from Jennifer Yoon and La Presse Canadienne