To kill a polar bear

To kill a polar bear

To kill a polar bear

The fate and ferocity of the North’s greatest predator has pitted the Inuit against southern scientists, leading to an extraordinary moment in a Nunavut court

There are no roads in or out of Naujaat. Some residents drive trucks around the Nunavut hamlet, located precisely on the Arctic Circle, but many prefer snowmobiles or ATVs and plenty more get around on foot. Pretty much everything in the town is within walking distance.

Look out toward the horizon from the edge of Naujaat, however, and it’s difficult on a cloudy day to tell where the land ends and the sky begins. It’s a breathtaking landscape of endless ice, water and wilderness. Also danger.

It was about one hour before sunset on Sept. 8 when one local looked out toward the waters of Repulse Bay, at the northwestern edge of Hudson Bay. Almost immediately, anyone within earshot of a CB radio—most hunters keep theirs on all the time—heard the one word spoken aloud far too often as of late: Nanuk. Polar bear.

The animal was just a couple of hundred metres from town when another voice came over the airwaves, that of respected elder and once-active hunter Charlie Tinashlu: “Kill that polar bear before it gets too close,” he broadcast. “Kill it before it kills one of us—again.”

It had been only 10 days since Naujaat buried one of its own, Darryl Kaunak, a father in his early 30s who was mauled by a polar bear while out on a hunting trip. It had been two months since the people of Arviat, down the western shore of Hudson Bay, had to do the same for 31-year-old Aaron Gibbons.

There are several ways to try to chase off polar bears, rifle shots in the air and devices known as “bear bangers” among them. But over the years, residents say, these scare tactics have become less effective; the bears often return within a couple of hours, or a few days.

So the people of Naujaat were scared and angry. There was no guarantee that when this bear returned it wouldn’t come at night—a prospect all the more dangerous in a town of about 1,100 people, where 40 per cent are under the age of 15 and it’s not unusual to see kids playing street hockey at 2 a.m. There is one wildlife conservation officer in Naujaat, Peterloosie Papatsie, whose job is to protect the town but also safeguard the bears by enforcing the Wildlife Act, which ideally means scaring bears away and not killing them. It doesn’t make him the most popular figure in the community.

Now, whether Papatsie approved or not, the town’s hunters were headed for the shoreline of Repulse Bay with an elder’s authorization to kill. It was approaching 7 p.m. when a gunshot went off. The bear collapsed, shot dead. The town was safe—for now. But the heart of the problem was still very much unresolved.

Over the next few months, the demise of one polar bear in Naujaat would create a tangled web the people of Nunavut know all too well: where scientific studies on polar bears don’t align with Inuit traditional knowledge; where polar bear lives are protected while human lives are increasingly at risk; where traditions run up against territorial law. The application of that law is problematic at the best of times. But on this occasion it would give rise to what was surely one of the most unconventional court hearings in modern Canadian history—one whose issues ranged from prosecutorial independence to the meaning of reconciliation as it applies to killing bears without Her Majesty’s approval.

It was all set in motion when, three months after the bear was killed, Papatsie handed the respected local hunter and guide Laurent Kringayark a ticket for allegedly breaking Section 68 of the Wildlife Act on that day. It’s illegal to kill a polar bear without a hunting tag if it’s not a so-called “defence kill,” and this wasn’t self-defence. At least, not exactly.

The punishment was a $230 fine, but Kringayark refused to pay. He took a picture of the ticket and posted it on his Facebook page. “This was given to me (all in English) probably about a dead polar bear,” he wrote. “It says I can pay some money and I’m off the hook . . . but I feel so sorry for the Inuit and the original Naujaatmiut that I’ll go to court instead.”

He told his friends they are welcome to share his post. He wanted this case heard. And, in March, he got his wish.

“Somebody has to do something. Something has to change. Not next year. Now,” Kringayark tells Maclean’s, as he sips coffee beside his living room window with an unobstructed view of the frozen shores of Repulse Bay. “We’re captives in our own town now—because of bears.”

Darryl Kaunak's grave

Darryl Kaunak's grave Photograph by Aaron Hutchins

The Inuit will speak, sometimes dismissively, of “southern scientists”—researchers from prominent Canadian universities with decades of experience studying polar bears. The Indigenous peoples of the North speak from generations of knowledge and the experience of living year-round with the animals, acknowledges Douglas Clark, a polar bear-human conflict expert with the University of Saskatchewan. If he’s learned one thing about the whole debate, he adds, it’s this: “Facts are a little more complicated in the real world.”

First, the science. There are around 25,000 polar bears in the world, according to an estimate from the International Union for Conservation of Nature. They span 19 subpopulations worldwide, the majority of which live in Canada. The species is currently listed as “vulnerable” by the World Wildlife Fund—one step above “endangered”—due primarily to the loss of its sea-ice habitat.

If any species can be the emblem of climate change, it should indeed be Ursus maritimus, says Ian Stirling, a University of Alberta biologist. “Polar bears need ice to walk on to hunt seals,” he explains. “They need to be able to catch seals to live. If the climate is warming and there’s less ice, the bears will have less time to hunt seals on the habitat they need. They’ll lose weight over time.”

This year saw the seventh-lowest Arctic sea ice levels since the National Snow and Ice Data Center first started gathering satellite data 40 years ago, with the long-term trend clearly downwards. And the negative effects on polar bears can be clearly seen in the science, says Stirling, pointing to the closely studied subpopulation along western Hudson Bay: “They’re losing body condition. Reproductive rates have dropped. Survival rates of young have plummeted. Every indication you would expect from a declining population is there.”

Darryl Kaunak's grave

Photograph by Paul Souders/Alamy

Of Nunavut’s 13 subpopulations, researchers say only one is growing and four are projected to decline, according to a draft plan on polar bear management from the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board (NWMB), a federally funded public body created under the Nunavut Agreement, though a separate entity from the federal and territorial governments.

However, according to the same NWMB document released last fall, Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (IQ), or Inuit traditional knowledge, says nine of the polar bear subpopulations in Nunavut are increasing and not a single one is in decline.

The conflicting information underpins a major irritant for the Inuit regarding how the Nunavut territorial government and NWMB set quotas for the number of polar bears each community can harvest—for food, for the sale of processed hides or for the more lucrative business of guiding deep-pocketed non-residents on hunting trips. The quota formula, after all, takes into consideration both scientific and traditional knowledge. “If a community does not believe the scientific results that quota recommendations are being made from, they’re not too accepting of that quota,” Clark says.

Laimmiki Malliki, a hunter and culture teacher at Naujaat’s Tuugaalik High School, takes out his iPad and opens Google Maps. He zooms in on the western shorelines of Foxe Basin and points out details Google doesn’t capture—villages where Inuit once lived before they congregated in larger communities like Naujaat and Igloolik. “They were all hunters,” says Malliki. “You can’t grow anything for food. They hunted polar bears in the spring, summer, fall, winter. Any kind of polar bear they saw—male, female, cub—just to survive.”

Now that communities are farther apart, and people are restricted to hunting within their own regions, polar bears roam undisturbed by humans across hundreds of kilometres of shoreline, Malliki says. “They’re increasing in numbers,” he says, but the biologists, he adds ruefully, aren’t around to see them: “Scientists live down south. They come here a week or two and are back down again. They don’t know anything about the North.”

This sentiment is not exclusive to those living above the Arctic Circle. The Inuit along western Hudson Bay say the polar bear population is increasing there, too. In Arviat—the southernmost mainland community of Nunavut, located north of the self-described Polar Bear Capital of the World in Churchill, Man.—it’s gotten to the point where bears walk right through town or up to campsites without fear. “It’s scary,” says local hunter Brian Aglukark. “It’s no longer a safe environment.”

Aglukark was among the first who rushed to the scene in July after a polar bear snuck up on 31-year-old Aaron Gibbons and his three daughters as they gathered eggs on nearby Sentry Island. Gibbons put himself between his children and the polar bear, ordering his girls back to the boat—where they radioed for help. Their dad didn’t survive.

It was a reminder that in the conversation about polar bears, it is the Inuit who are most vulnerable. “The local Inuit have been saying for years and years that the polar bear population is too big,” says Paul Irngaut, director of wildlife and environment for Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., an organization that speaks for the territory’s Inuit. “We can’t deal with them, especially the ones close to communities that put human life in danger.”

Chesterfield Inlet, a Nunavut community on western Hudson Bay, has hired two people to carry rifles and watch over kids’ outdoor camps during the summer. “It’s getting worse every year,” says Mayor Simionie Sammurtok. “People don’t go for a walk anymore because there are too many polar bears. You have to carry a rifle all the time.”

“Some scientists identify that they believe polar bears are declining because of the impacts of climate change,” says Drikus Gissing, director of wildlife management for Nunavut’s Department of Environment. “Fortunately for polar bears, and unfortunately for some scientists, we have not observed those steep declines.”

The Inuit say they aren’t oblivious to changes in sea ice; many can see it from their kitchen windows each year. And they’re not denying climate change, says Irngaut: “It’s happening. But we’re saying the impact on polar bears is not that great.” If anything, he argues, the bears have revealed their adaptability. They can swim to catch their prey; they can eat berries and hunt caribou, among other species that come their way. They remain the Kings of the North.

Those who live around the bears also raise questions of values and respect, rooted in long-held Inuit beliefs that polar bears are “listening,” and respond in kind to their treatment by humans. Some voice exasperation with non-Inuit biologists who pursue polar bears in a helicopter, shoot them with tranquilizer guns, take teeth and blood samples, tag their ears and tattoo numbers to the inside of their bottom lip.

“If you put a hole in my ear or tattoo my lip, that’d be so painful,” Malliki says. “The scientists have to feel that themselves before they do it to other animals. Maybe that will slow down the tagging and tattooing.”

With values-based judgments coming into play, the basic disagreement over numbers is widening into a full-on schism. Stirling stresses that the quality and extent of the data—not where its gatherer lives—should be the focus: “That gives you a great deal more reliability and predictability of your results than simply what you might see when you’re out hunting or around the garbage dump in the fall.”

And scientists aren’t denying that Inuit observe more bears in town. They believe a warming climate has forced the bears to spend more time on land because they wait longer for the ice to freeze to hunt. Some wonder whether perceptions of growing bear populations arise from the fact that more people are visiting areas where bears are found. “If you see more bears, you get the sense there are more bears in your neighbourhood,” says Andrew Derocher, a polar bear biologist at the University of Alberta.

As for the criticism of their methods, most scientists accept it, even if they feel it’s unjustified. Nick Lunn, a polar bear biologist with Environment Canada, notes that his practices are screened by an animal-care committee to ensure they’re minimally invasive. Still, he says, “There’s an element of people who think what I do is disrespectful to Inuit cultures. I know that’s hard to tell people with their cultural beliefs, but there’s nothing we can detect suggesting what we do is in any way harmful.”

Laurent Kringayark

Laurent Kringayark Photograph by Aaron Hutchins

Laurent Kringayark, the hunter ready to go to court, learned to use a gun when he was about six or seven. Back in the 1960s and ’70s, his family would venture onto the land in the spring and summer, sometimes travelling for two weeks at a time by boat or dogsled to hunt caribou or seal. “I would go walking alone from the tent camp with a small rifle every day,” he says. “I’d look for birds, rabbits. Anything small. My father didn’t worry about me. I was out for five or six hours walking around and I never saw a bear.” Kringayark was a teenager when, during the same hunt, he and his younger brother both finally killed their first polar bears.

Now in his early 60s, wearing a T-shirt that says “Healthy Nunavumiut,” Kringayark says he doesn’t have to travel far to see a polar bear. “Right there. Two years ago.” He points to a spot in his backyard in Naujaat next to his dog, Gaga, chained up and chewing on caribou ribs left over from yesterday’s hunt. The polar bear was a stone’s throw from where he lives with his grandkids, who sit quietly watching Peppa Pig on TV as he speaks.

There are no trophies in the Kringayark home. No photos of him standing over a dead bear. No taxidermy hanging on the wall. His only polar bear memento hangs by his fridge, a single claw attached by a piece of string to a wedding ring. The ring belongs to his son; the claw came from a polar bear they killed together. His son committed suicide years ago. “I want to go out camping more. With my family. In tents,” Kringayark adds. “How can I do that when there are so many bears?”

It’s a sentiment echoed around Naujaat by hunters, teachers and elders. David Nuluk shot his first polar bear when he was 12. A lifelong hunter, born in an igloo 67 years ago, he can’t count how many he’s killed since. He has a couple of full skins in his shed, ready to be mounted, that he’s willing to part with for $900 each.

Nuluk learned to hunt travelling by dog team. Nowadays, most hunters ride snowmobiles. “The first time I killed a bear using a snow machine, I just drove right beside it and shot it,” Nuluk says. “It felt like I was just cheating, not hunting.” And yet, Nuluk says he’s scared nowadays to be out on the land too long. “These bears are mad.”

In late August, Darryl Kaunak went on a caribou hunting trip in nearby Lyon Inlet with two other hunters, Leo Ijjangiaq and Laurent Junior Uttak, but they were marooned when their boat motor broke down. Kaunak was asleep on the second morning after their departure when, as the others made tea, a female polar bear and her cub snuck up on their tent. Kaunak woke to the sound of screaming. As Ijjangiaq tried desperately to steady his rifle, Kaunak ran, only for the mother bear to turn her attention on him. Ijjangiaq got one shot off at the bear before his gun jammed. One shot wasn’t enough; Kaunak was being mauled.

Ijjangiaq rushed to grab another rifle and pulled the trigger several times more until both mother bear and cub were dead—too late to save his friend. Kaunak’s body now lies next to his father’s in a cemetery that overlooks Naujaat.

David Nuluk

David Nuluk Photograph by Aaron Hutchins

“If I kill a polar bear, and there’s no tags, I get punished. If the polar bear kills me, who’s going to punish them?” asks Laimmiki Malliki, Naujaat’s high school culture teacher. “The owner has to be punished. Because it’s murder.” By “owner,” he says, he means the territorial government. “If you own something, you can tell somebody what to do or not to do. That’s what the government is saying: ‘Don’t kill my polar bear.’ ”

The government seems to be more interested in protecting the bears—and not mindful of the people who are in need of protection, says Naujaat elder Donat Milortok, speaking in Inuktitut through a translator. The people of Nunavut often will avoid killing a bear because they’re afraid of the law, Milortok adds, concluding: “Once, the bears were our food. Now we’ve become the food.”

Kringayark, for his part, won’t say whether he killed the polar bear on the September evening when a Naujaat elder sounded the alarm. Instead, the day before his trial, he coyly wonders whether any local would come forward in court and point the finger at him as the culprit. Yet he also avoids multiple opportunities to say he didn’t kill the bear. Instead, he offers this hypothetical: “Would it make a difference if I said I did or not?”

Kringayark enters the town’s community centre wearing patched-up blue snow pants, a black parka and a baseball cap. The temperature outside, with wind chill, has dipped below –40° C on a morning in early March. On most days, this building serves primarily as a recreation hall for the town’s many youth, with a couple of pool tables where young adults congregate and space for elementary school kids to sprint around, wearing off energy. Today, it’s a courtroom for a travelling judge, lawyers, clerks and interpreters.

Kringayark’s case is an anomaly on the court’s agenda, not only because it doesn’t involve some sort of assault charge, but because, as he soon learns, it isn’t on the docket. He could probably just leave, his fine unpaid and the ticket lost to a black hole of bureaucracy. Some local people summoned on this day to face far more serious charges haven’t shown up. “If you don’t want to go to court,” he says, “it’s very easy not to.”

Still, he wants to be seen. He wants people to ask why he’s in court. He sits in the front row of the gallery. During a break, Kringayark shows an RCMP officer the ticket summoning him to appear at 9:30 a.m. before the Nunavut Court of Justice. The officer passes him along to the lawyers and clerks before the case is finally added to the docket, and the judge, Nancy Mossip, agrees to hear it. But he’ll have to wait until after lunch.

At 2:30 p.m., a defence lawyer who hadn’t heard of the case until this morning asks Kringayark and one of his relatives, who is accused of killing another polar bear, to come forward. Gary Wool, the Crown prosecutor for every case today to this point, informs the judge he isn’t the prosecutor for cases involving the Wildlife Act. That responsibility—in addition to his enforcement duties as a conservation officer—falls on Peterloosie Papatsie, who is standing next to him. But Wool says he’d like to say a few words first as a “friend of the court.” And he reassures the judge that the case will resolve itself, right now, in front of her.

The accused take their seats. Wool stands. For a moment, there is silence.

“This is a matter about a polar bear,” he begins, “which is not something that is going to happen anywhere other than Nunavut or the Northwest Territories.”

He explains that Papatsie wrote each of these men tickets for killing polar bears.

“Prosecutors fill an important role. Enforcement officers fill an important role, but they are not the same thing,” Wool says. “Mr. Papatsie is asked to wear both hats. That is a very difficult thing to do.

“It has been in the news lately,” Wool continues. “Everybody has seen testimony that Ms. Wilson-Raybould gave and she talked about the independence of the attorney general, the independence of prosecutors.”

Judge Mossip shifts her posture. “Oh my,” she says, loud enough for everyone to hear.

“That is important,” Wool says. “It is very important that when a person appears to fill that role, to be a prosecutor, that they are a prosecutor. They decide how that matter goes forward. Nobody tells them how that matter goes forward. They make those decisions. That is the cornerstone of being a prosecutor, that independence, and if that is impinged on in any way, that strikes very deeply at the heart of how this system of justice works.”

Papatsie, an Inuk, the local wildlife conservation officer and this case’s prosecutor— who took three months from the bear’s death to issue the ticket—remains silent and still.

“When I talked to [Papatsie], he told me about growing up learning about hunting, learning about the land in a traditional way from his elders,” Wool continues. “I have experienced some of that too. When an elder tells you something, there is a reason for it. There is a reason they are an elder. They are in that position by virtue of experience and by their own learning.”

Wool explains that when he first started learning from elders in the Northwest Territories, he would often ask “why”—a common trait for a qallunaat like him, a white person. But he has since learned that in the North, you don’t question an elder’s decision in the moment, he says. “You might want to know more about it later, and it is good to ask elders about things. They have got a lot to teach us. But there is a very strong cultural imperative that I have seen across the North: when an elder tells you something, there is a reason and you should listen. Sometimes that can run you up against territorial and other legislation. And that is a very difficult line to walk.

“There are two worlds and it’s very difficult sometimes, but it is never boring trying to reconcile them, and that’s the age we are in. We’re in the age of reconciliation. We are trying to figure it out,” Wool finishes. “We are lucky here because we get to sometimes find a middle way, figure out how those two worlds fit together.”

Wool thanks the court for listening, and says Papatsie will take over now as prosecutor.

Papatsie stands and informs the judge that rather than prosecuting the men, he will instead issue the accused only verbal warnings. The tickets will be stayed, or effectively withdrawn.

Kringayark, through the defence lawyer, accepts the outcome of today’s proceedings, but wants to make one thing clear, and on the record for the court: he did nothing wrong.

Judge Mossip ventures that someday, in another forum, the men may wish to make a constitutional argument over whether or not they can be restricted in the number of polar bears they can harvest. But “it is not happening in Naujaat at 3 o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon by a judge from the south,” she says.

Kringayark returns to his seat in the gallery. Court adjourns for a recess.

“Is it over?” Kringayark asks. Yes, he’s told.

“All right,” he replies, standing once again. “I’m going fishing.”

Laurent Kringayark

Gary Wool Photograph by Aaron Hutchins

Wool is back at the lone hotel in Naujaat, court adjourned for the day. His briefcase is full of files requiring his attention, but he sits to talk about the case of the polar bear, Kringayark and Peterloosie Papatsie. (Papatsie declined an interview with Maclean’s, saying he was instructed to pass on interview requests to Nunavut’s Department of Environment. Gissing, the department’s director of wildlife, said Papatsie acted within his discretion after consulting with the lawyers present, and that the department supports his decision.) “There’s a difference between enforcing the law,” Wool observes, “and keeping the peace.”

Then he tells a story about his father. His dad was once an RCMP officer in Sachs Harbour, N.W.T., the northernmost community in the territory, with a current population just above 100. About 50 years ago, his dad got an order to start enforcing the Migratory Birds Act: Nobody could shoot birds.

Everyone in town knew he got this order, yet they traditionally hunted ducks and geese in the spring. It’s not like there was a grocery store around the corner, and the people had to eat. So what kind of law was this?

That spring, as the birds came through, the locals packed their gear to go hunting. “George, are you going to come with us?” someone asked Wool’s father. And so the RCMP officer, who painted as a hobby, packed up his oil paints and came along for the trip.

When they got to the hunting ground, George sat down, pulled out his canvas, turned his back to everyone and started to paint.

He heard gun shots. Someone fired up the portable stove. The pot filled up with broth, duck and goose. The smell was irresistible. Before too long, someone walked up to George and handed him a bowl. Everything looked cooked to perfection.

The RCMP officer turned around to see half the town looking straight at him. He reached into his bowl, took a big bite and started to smack his lips.

Then he looked up, and said: “That’s the best caribou I ever had.”

As Wool laughs about his dad’s story, the conversation turns back to Kringayark, who stood up for the rights of the Inuit, and Papatsie, an Inuk with one of the rare decent-paying jobs in Naujaat, who ultimately wouldn’t prosecute his fellow Inuit hunters.

What Papatsie did in court was “incredibly brave,” Wool says. “I don’t know if he’ll get grief from someone. But heroes come in all shapes and sizes. And that guy is a hero.”