Cree hunters subject to a ‘high-risk take down’ outside of Ottawa

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police-take-down-2015When Wayne Rabbitskin headed south from his home in Chibougamou, he figured that he was going to have some adventures on his trip to Las Vegas. He didn’t expect that the real adventure was going to take place on the road outside of Ottawa.

But around 10 am on Saturday, May 2, Rabbitskin – along with his friend John-Henry Wapachee, his two cousins Samuel and Smalley Rabbitskin, and Smalley’s two sons – were pulled over by the Ottawa Police in their trucks and arrested at gunpoint in what the Ottawa Sun called a “high-risk takedown.”

Rabbitskin and his group had been hunting on private property outside of Ottawa. They had a letter from the Algonquins of Pikwàkanagàn First Nation welcoming them onto Algonquin land, and had obtained a farmer’s permission to hunt in his fields.

“He gave us permission before, but we told him that we’d be coming around just to confirm with him that everything was okay,” Rabbitskin explained. “He said the geese were a nuisance. When they put the seeds down, the geese eat them – you can see patches where corn isn’t growing. They told us we could hunt in the area where they hadn’t already put the seeds down. He said he was sure the neighbours would be ok with it – he talked with another farmer, and that guy said it was okay too.”

It had been a pretty good week so far. Rabbitskin, who’s originally from Chisasibi but lives in Chibougamou and works in Oujé-Bougoumou, headed south on April 23. He got two days of hunting in before flying to Las Vegas for five days’ vacation. After returning April 30, he decided to get in another two days on the land. They were out before 6 am, and by 10 am they’d shot 18 geese.

“We were going to clean the geese and come back,” said Rabbitskin. “As we were going out of the field, that’s when we saw the police vehicle. I’ve gone hunting for four years there, and we’d never seen them around. I had a feeling it was for us. He waved at us, at first. We were scouting an area and we stopped. We parked by the side of the road, and that’s when he came again. This time he stopped and asked us some questions: ‘How’s the hunting?’ It’s pretty good, we told him. ‘Where are you guys from?’ We told him we were James Bay Crees. He asked us if we had permission to hunt, and we told him yeah, we did.”

While they were stopped, the police officer ran the plates and discovered that Rabbitskin’s cousin’s truck was reported stolen. According to Rabbitskin, this dated back a year to when the truck had actually been stolen, and was later recovered – but the EEPF had never updated it to show that it was no longer a wanted vehicle.

“They followed us, and he called backup, because there were six of us, and we had guns. So this was Grand Theft Auto, from their perspective! Indians with guns and a stolen vehicle!” Rabbitskin laughs. But what happened next was serious: as the group drove home they noticed more and more police cars nearby, and suddenly each truck was pulled over. Heavily armed police ordered all occupants out of their vehicles.

“There were five or six cars,” Rabbitskin said. “They came running out with fully automatic weapons and body armour. They did the whole procedure: ‘Put your hands on the wheel, put your hands in the air, get down on your knees and put your hands behind your head.’ They handcuffed all six of us.”

An officer explained that they had received a complaint that someone was shooting on private property. Over the radio he heard the police calling the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, who told them they had his group had right to be hunting geese.

“It sounded like they didn’t have that information, that’s what I was sensing,” he said. “They didn’t know that Crees were allowed to hunt. And when they realized the owner of the truck was actually the driver, they knew they’d made a mistake. Plus they’d blocked up the highway too – with a whole bunch of vehicles.”

The Ottawa Police apologized to Rabbitskin and his party, and he said he understood they were just doing their jobs. However, he worried that the experience of having automatic rifles pointed at them would be traumatizing for the youths in his group.

“I talked to them after but they said everything was fine,” he reported. “They were almost getting a kick out of it.” The group was even able to get back in time to clean their geese before the heat ruined the meat.

Rabbitskin laughed about the day’s events after the fact. However, he said he had a long time to reflect during his drive home on the tragic end that came to the five hunters who perished in the Lake Bussy fire in early April.

“We could have been another tragic story,” he said, “And I’m just glad it didn’t escalate into something worse. I’m thankful.”

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