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NWT’s environment department to seek review of officer conduct during search of culture camp

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The NWT’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources says it plans to seek an external review of how wildlife officers conducted themselves when they searched a culture camp for signs of illegal caribou harvesting.

In an unsigned email from the department’s communications team, the department stated there is a process in place for independent reviews of officer conduct, which happens when people make complaints.

“We are planning to engage outside enforcement specialists to complete a review of this enforcement action,” they wrote.

“This review will respect the confidentiality of ongoing investigations.”

The review will not look at whether the search itself was valid — that’s a matter that is decided by the courts, the department said.

The review comes after the Łutsel K’e Dene First Nation publicly decried what it called a “forceful invasion” of a cultural camp at Artillery Lake and promised to go to court if need be to contest the validity of the search warrant that led to the raids. The First Nation, along with the Dene Nation and Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Richard Edjericon have all called for a formal apology and investigation into what happened.

Wildlife officers searched tents, freezers and belongings at the camp for several hours on Sept. 13 after finding the carcasses of 10 protected Bathurst caribou with significant amounts of meat still on them within a no-hunting zone about 150 kilometers away from the camp.

The First Nation has said officers threatened to charge anyone who interfered with their investigation, or bring in more officers to execute the warrant by force if necessary.

It said the event left children in tears and elders traumatized.

Officers have ‘responsibility’ to investigate

The department said all investigations are different, and officers have to make decisions “on a case-by-case basis.”

The department said its renewable resource officers report to regional superintendents, but it’s ultimately the responsibility of the officers to investigate possible violations of the Wildlife Act.

Those investigations can involve patrolling areas, doing searches and inspections, getting warrants, interviewing suspects and witnesses, collecting evidence, seizing equipment they believe was used during an offense, and pressing charges.

“Officers have discretion to use whatever means are allowed under the Wildlife Act to investigate alleged offenses,” the department stated.

Officers are also the ones who decide whether to lay charges, after which prosecutors will determine whether to proceed.

The Wildlife Act gives officers authority to inspect flight records, stop and search vehicles, and “enter and inspect a place where there might be something that relates to [the] Act.”

“An officer can only enter a place where someone lives if the person says it is okay or the officer has a warrant,” the Act states.

There are various reasons why a court justice could issue a warrant, including if they think there’s evidence of an offense there.

The Wildlife Act states officers may use “as much force as necessary” during a search and seizure, unless it is a place where someone lives. Then, they can only use force if the warrant specifically allows it.

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