MONTREAL -- Labrador Innu say caribou meat seized this week by Quebec wildlife officials was a gift from Quebec Cree intended for ceremonial purposes.
A statement from the Innu Nation said members from the northern Labrador community of Natuashish, including Innu Nation Grand Chief Gregory Rich, were stopped in north-central Quebec Tuesday as they drove home from Chisasibi.
The group was fined but of greater frustration was the seizure of the caribou, which they said in a statement is important to "Innu cultural and spiritual survival."
They had a letter from the chief of the Chisasibi Cree declaring the caribou meat, packed into coolers, was a gift. They hoped the letter would allow them to transport the meat home.
Rich called the behaviour by wildlife officers colonial.
"The practice of historical sharing between the Cree and the Innu of what is now Labrador goes back to long before the assertion of sovereignty by the Crown," he said in the statement.
The Innu said the caribou came from the Leaf River herd. Quebec's Wildlife Department stated in February that the herd's numbers have dropped sharply since the early 2000s. Sport hunting was closed in February and Indigenous harvesting is subject to monitoring.
Chisasibi Chief Davey Bobbish said he extended the letter as a courtesy after Rich requested it Monday. He said he warned the Innu he could not guarantee the letter would work if they were stopped by authorities.
"The bottom line is other than the beneficiaries of the James Bay Agreement -- the Cree, the Inuit and the Naskapi -- no one other than those three nations is allowed to possess caribou according to interpretation of the Quebec legislation," Bobbish said in an interview.
He said the Cree have recently opened talks with Innu on Quebec's lower north shore about a possible protocol allowing the Cree to conduct a traditional harvest for the Innu, who are facing dwindling caribou populations in their region.
Rich noted in the statement that Innu and Cree have many blood relationships, and he said traditional law supports offering caribou as a gift between the groups.
He was not immediately available to comment Wednesday, but he told CBC's Labrador Morning he intends to consult lawyers about the legality of the seizure.
"It hurts to know that game wardens don't respect our ceremonial and spiritual purposes of the caribou," Rich told the show. "They told us it was illegal and that we were carrying an illegal meat."
Rich said the wildlife officers had a warrant to seize the meat, and they did not accept Bobbish's letter as a defence.
"The letter was done out of kindness because they were in the community already and they asked if they could use my letter as a shield to protect their meat," Bobbish said. "But without any agreement, Quebec doesn't recognize one chief's authority to another First Nation."
Quebec Wildlife Department officials said they are aware of the incident, but they declined comment.