Permit me to disagree

The origins of permits and licenses from one culture doesn’t always transfer to another easily. Nor does it reflect the real reason for the permits in the first place – protecting the resource.

Hearkening back to an older time, when there were small bands of nomadic hunters and gatherers, or little enclaves of agrarian peoples, humans never had much need to regulate how resources should, would and could be allocated.  The vast (and gloriously empty of people) forests of the planet were essentially ripe for the picking for however much you could take.

When all the river valleys, plains, bays and forests of all the continents started filling up with people you also saw increased levels of competition for resources. Where there’s increased levels of competition, there are increased forms of governance. I mean it makes sense right? You have to preserve some kind of (possibly equitable) access to the resources, and somebody or some body has to have the authority to enforce that access. Otherwise you get a kind of Animal Farm situation, or one like in the movie Blindness.


Since the dawn of “civilisation(s)” we have been trying different ways to govern our interactions amongst our “tribe” mates, other “tribes”, and the interaction with the resources our society is built upon. We don’t govern these things out of our natural human altruistic nature that recognizes the intrinsic value of the tree or the fish.


We govern so that we’ll have resources in the future (although you could argue I’m way off if you look at the unsustainable way we live). I always thought it was silly that we had a department of fisheries/wildlife/forests, we don’t manage the fish/animals/trees. We manage people’s impact and usage of the resources – it should be department of fisher/forester/etc management.

Enforcement isn’t free

Since the dawn of civilisation(s), we had to enforce our claim to the resources. That used to mean appointing “Grog the bone eater” to guard the berry patch or fishing spot. You also needed some kind of system of verification to determine which tribe members could use certain areas. Since this enforcement business gets to be a full-time deal, Grog needed his survival needs taken care of by others. Meat, loincloths, ironwood clubs and so on.

As societies get more populated and complex, so does the enforcement and judgement of squabbles over resources. This is where (I hope) the concept of permits or licenses, the “who gets to use what resource and when” came from. Probably where the idea of fees/tariffs/tolls/etc came from too. People aren’t going to enforce or guard the resources for free; they’ll end up just creating a whole little fiefdom of their own. The fees (in theory) pay for the wildlife guy, or the traffic cop, or the hazardous materials inspector and so on.

Since no society stands in solitude (yet) it gets even more complex when sharing resources amongst different people. And sorry, if you can’t enforce your laws over a resource then someone else will gladly do it for you.

Same is true today

Sure we can claim sovereignty over Canada’s Arctic resources. But we can barely police the laws of southern regions, let alone the 40% of our country that is the North. Same goes for our own corner of the world – we can barely enforce the laws in Newfoundland, let alone the other three quarters of the province. So our laws have little value if they are unenforceable.

I’m talking about the clash of Aboriginal rights to resources versus the general population’s right to resources. Generally speaking, there haven’t been that many clashes, in any legal sense at least. Our population has been smallish (on both sides) and resources (I’m sticking to renewable ones for now) have been plentiful.

I’ll admit it’s a pain in the rear for both sides

On one hand, you have an outside government that theoretically wants to do the right-ish, equitable-ish thing and govern as if we’re all the same. But nobody truly knows the enforceability of provincial/federal hunting/fishing/etc laws over Aboriginal rights to the same. Every time Aboriginal hunters/fishers are picked up or charged, there tends to be some kind of stay or dropping of the charges.

Maybe it comes down to not really politically wanting to know the extent of the Aboriginal law making power. It’s easier to govern as if it doesn’t exist rather than negotiating a power sharing agreement over enforcement/law making jurisdiction/resource sharing, etc. Either way, it is a pain, and it’s hard to reconcile politically in the public. People want to feel equal in a society (yeah, that goes for both sides) and governments (Aboriginal or otherwise) tend to NEVER want to give up power. It’s human nature.

I don’t disagree with the idea of permits for resources

Someone’s gotta enforce those laws and protect the land. But the incremental imposition of one system of governance over another is what starts wars. It’s unhealthy. Maybe Aboriginal governments don’t mind other jurisdictions enforcing the laws. Maybe they do. But you have to ask them; negotiate it. It works for Nunatsiavut (I think). Because sometimes it’s just the feeling of having one system imposed on them that causes people to react negatively.

Other times it’s because of a real cultural clash.

Case study 1

My father is Aboriginal: Inuk if you follow Nunatsiavut regulations. He grew up knowing he has an inherent right to hunt and fish and trap and hew trees and so on. Lived in a mixed subsistence/trading economy in Cartwright, NunatuKavut, Labrador, Newfoundland, Canada. Never really had any permits to hunt or fish or whatever. Started catching and selling fish with his father, then branched out with his own nets before he started junior high.

After a year or so, there was this government feller told him he now has a license to fish. He didn’t apply for it. He got it because he sold fish the year before. As time went on, the fees got higher and the number of licenses available shrank. If you didn’t have one, you couldn’t sell the fish. Makes sense, but it also started to mean that you didn’t have a right to catch some to eat either.

Case study 2

Getting wood for your fire. I mean you can’t get any more ‘human rights’ kinda thing than that, right? Let’s say I go and collect some firewood. I got lots for me and my household. But the poor elder down the path a ways can’t get around much, especially not up in the woods. But did you know it’s ILLEGAL for me to GIVE that elder some of my wood? I can get another permit and SELL it to them, but that’s just silly. I ‘llow I wouldn’t mind gettin’ a permit, I guess, for wood since it’s not THAT expensive today. But when will that change?

I can see restrictions around the Avalon but it gets sort of silly when there are more trees and fewer people around Makkovik. People – in Labrador at least – feel they have a system of governance over wood harvesting: whose wood path is whose and what to cut and so on. I don’t ‘spec it’s THAT much different on the island either.

Splitting timber on the halves with the mill,  rabbit licenses, craft marketing licenses.  What’s next? Berry picking licenses? I could give examples for the rest of your day, but I think you get the point. There are permits that are clearly nothing more than the government imposing control where local systems simply work better – systems of barter and trade that form a strong informal economy that supplements our cash economy.

I support governing human behaviour

But I do take issue with the way in which Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal governments have handled themselves in a massive patchwork of challeng/ed/able/ing laws, and formal and informal systems of local, regional, and national governance that really doesn’t serve to protect the sustainable use of resources. The lack of harmoniousness of our systems of governance allows less scrupulous people (i.e. anyone with an opportunity – sorry, I’m cynical) to take advantage.

Long story short: when Aboriginal or local governments have a system that works – and works well – why not negotiate a deal with them? It’s cheaper than the courts, which you will likely end up in eventually (after one or both cross the line) and it’s easier. Plus, sometimes you get the Feds to pay for it, reducing provincial enforcement and adjudication costs. 😉

How to make it work better

NunatuKavut and Nunatsiavut both imposed a Caribou hunting ban that took the province MONTHS longer to impose. And oddly, I would hazard that the Aboriginal ban on hunting is the only one that could allow charges to opportunists – because it removes “the Aboriginal right” protection and allows other Laws to prevail.

Sadly, a deal was not reached to stop hunting (obviously not the biggest problem for the herd, but doesn’t help) at an Aboriginal summit in Kuujjuaq. And sadly, there are people that use issues like this to score political points over the Labrador/Quebec border (which just about everyone except the courts disagrees as to where it is), and many hunts take place.

Got nothing against the Innu, Inuit, non-Aboriginal, and everything-in-between people or government’s right to exist or to exercise its jurisdiction. But working together instead of having pissing matches is the only way we are going to live more sustainably. We learned that with the fisheries. We’re learning that with Caribou. We’ll learn that with everything else too. (P.S.: Islanders still demand their feed of moratorium cod through the food fishery, so don’t be bashing the Aboriginal caribou hunt too quickly!)

There’s still plenty to go around, and if we care enough about our kids we’ll do whatever it takes to save what’s left. That includes understanding that local people know more about the resources than the bureaucrats and lab techs.

Our provincial government is (or was) in a position to broker a deal with Quebec and Aboriginal governments, but instead it wants to pretend it can strong-arm its laws. I believe it has neither the ability to enforce nor adjudicate those laws over so many borders. Nor do any of the other governments by themselves.

I just hope everyone learns before it’s too late that, with rights, come responsibilities.

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