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magazine / mj97

May/June 1997 issue


FEATURE

Track ’em down,
Round ’em up,
Herd ’em in,
Rawhide

After centuries as hunters and gatherers, a struggling Inuit community in northern Quebec tries its hand at herding caribou
Text and photos by Emanuel Lowi

THE LAST OF THE EARLY MORNING MOON glows above the vast horizon as a dozen young Inuit men gather on the river ice near Inukjuak in northern Quebec. Most in their early 20s, they gun their snowmobiles to life, head south across the frozen Innuksuac River and then east, deep inland. Over the next week, with supply sleds loaded, they will roam up to 250 kilometres a day in pursuit of caribou.

Each is clothed to survive temperatures below -35 °C. One wears a caribou skin parka, another polar bear pants, a third has mittens lined with wolf skin. They also don an odd leather belt high on their waists, a wide strap pierced with multi-coloured grommets housing three wooden-handled knives. The longest blade is hefty, about 30 centimetres of high-grade steel. These are largely ceremonial tools, the imported implements of Saami reindeer herdsmen, last of the European nomads who still roam Scandinavia. After several weeks of training under a Saami teacher, the Inuit wear their knives as a kind of badge, with pride.


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These Inuit are not heading out on this February day to hunt caribou the way their ancestors have for millennia. Instead, they are using all-terrain vehicles or snow machines, electronic navigation tools and newfound skills to locate migrating caribou and coax thousands of them across the wilderness to a new multi-million-dollar ranch and commercial slaughterhouse.

About three million caribou roam North America, more than one million of them in northern Quebec. Throughout history, their numbers have ebbed and flowed from near extinction to figures so high that disease and starvation have taken serious tolls. Quebec biologists and elders are warning that another crash is imminent because of overpopulation.

JOBIE EPOO began dreaming of making caribou herding part of a commercial harvest in 1990 after witnessing a successful Saami reindeer herding exercise while on a trade mission in Norway. Born into public life — his father negotiated Inuit rights in the James Bay and Northern Québec Agreement — Epoo knows how to get things done. He has served as treasurer of the Inuit development corporation, Makivik, as president of Air Inuit, and was elected mayor of Inukjuak several times. Now he heads the year-old, $2.5-million Ipushin Ranch.

Three years ago, the Naskapi, Cree and Inuit of northern Quebec succeeded in having the 1975 James Bay agreement amended to give them exclusive rights to harvest wild game commercially. The market for caribou is poised for a boom, say those involved in commercial operations. Already in some demand in North America, the lean, mild-tasting meat is considered the perfect substitute for reindeer (they are the same species) — popular on the international market and currently in short supply — and for antlers which, among other wild game by-products, are in demand in Asia.

Since 1994, three Quebec companies have been licensed to harvest caribou commercially. Nunavik Arctic Foods Inc. — a subsidiary of Makivik — follows basic Inuit hunting traditions — caribou are shot in the field, eviscerated on the snow and then bagged for transport. The animal must be shot in the head and the meat delivered within an hour to one of four processing facilities on the Ungava Bay or Hudson Bay coasts. Licensed to sell only in Quebec, Arctic Foods has never met its 7,200 quota and sales have been uneven. The Naskapi community in Schefferville — also provincially licensed — has a 3,000 quota but has yet to organize a hunt.

The Ipushin Ranch, with a quota of 5,000, is the first to combine herding with harvesting and is the only Quebec outfit federally regulated and inspected for meat quality. These features, says Epoo, will give his team the competitive edge because herding and corralling eliminate the unpredictability of traditional hunting. As well, an Agriculture Canada stamp allows meat sales to almost anywhere in the world. (The European Union — potentially the most lucrative destination — is currently closed due to strict importing rules.)

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