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Short Hills deer harvest in its eighth year

They arrived in the pre-dawn darkness last Thursday, and were ushered in beyond the gates on Pelham Road by Niagara Regional Police officers, clad in luminous safety vests.
Police and protestors mingle at the entrance to Short Hills Park on Pelham Road last Thursday morning, Dec. 10. DON RICKERS

They arrived in the pre-dawn darkness last Thursday, and were ushered in beyond the gates on Pelham Road by Niagara Regional Police officers, clad in luminous safety vests. COVID-19 has curtailed many activities in 2020, but the Indigenous Deer Harvest at Short Hills Park is not one of them.

Ironically, it was International Animal Rights Day.

Short Hills encompasses 735 hectares, making it the smallest provincial park in Ontario. Its unique features include part of the Niagara Escarpment, Carolinian forests, and the Fonthill Kame Moraine.

Ontario Parks Southwest Manager Greg Wilson said that Short Hills was selected for its first Indigenous deer hunt in 2013. This season’s remaining hunt dates December 17, and January 7 and 27, 2021. Ministry of Natural Resources staff are present during the hunt, along with Niagara Regional Police and their OPP counterparts. The hunt begins a half-hour before sunrise, and ends a half-hour after sunset. The park is closed to all but Indigenous archers—hunters use bows and arrows, not guns— while the hunt is in session.

Wilson said that Ontario respects Aboriginal and treaty rights as recognized and affirmed under Section 35 of the Constitution Act of 1982, and is committed to meeting the province's obligations regarding First Nation and Métis people. The Haudenosaunee (also known historically as the Iroquois) have special access to hunt in the park as a right provided to them under the Nanfan Treaty of 1701 (John Nanfan was the colonial governor of New York at the time, and drew up the treaty on behalf of the British government).

According to NRP officers on site, approximately 50 to 70 Indigenous hunters entered the park last Thursday. As light faded late in the afternoon and they exited the park, hunters were met by a small throng of fewer than a dozen well-behaved protesters, none waving placards. That no deer carcasses were observable speaks to the hunters’ discretion, and their awareness of the situation’s sensitivities.

All of the hunters were from the Six Nations on the Grand River reserve in Brantford.

Most of the protesters at the Pelham Road park entrance did not want to speak to the Voice, and the two who did offer comment did not wish to be named. They complained that the dozens of hunters’ trucks, SUVs, and all-terrain vehicles cause damage to the park roadways and fragile trails, and destroy vegetation and river banks. One man said he was not opposed to hunting per se, but did not want any hunting in the park, period. Another said that his home abuts Short Hills, and added, “We moved here to be close to the park and the wildlife. I don't want somebody coming into my backyard, finishing off a deer in front of my grandson.”

The same man opined that there are a lot fewer deer these days. “I'm in the park all the time, and I think the herd is shrinking considerably,” he said. He lamented that orphaned and wounded deer pursuant to the hunt likely die from predation or starvation.

Statistics from the Ministry of Natural Resources do not support the man’s contention. A 2016 MNR study determined that the park had a carry capacity of 50 deer, but that an aerial survey indicated at least 400 were present on site. The Ministry does not consider the deer population to be endangered. Typically, the Indigenous deer harvest removes upwards of 50 deer from the park annually. The cost to the Ontario taxpayer is something less than $50,000, given the expense of MNR staff who need to be present to supervise the hunt.

Anne Kubu is chair of the Friends of Short Hills Park, a community-based organization dedicated to conserving the cultural and natural integrity of the park through liaison with Ontario Parks, partnerships, volunteer work, public education, and fundraising activities. She said that the organization’s membership holds a spectrum of views related to the annual hunt, and that unfortunately they have seen littering and acts of vandalism by anti-hunt protesters in past years. She further noted that her group previously planted seedling trees in the park, but have discontinued the practise because the deer ate them not long after they were planted. She considers the deer population in the park to be robust.

A review of social media websites confirmed that some in Niagara are fervently opposed to the annual hunt, even resorting to name-calling and racial slurs online. In past years, the Niagara Action of Animals (a registered charity formed in 1989) has been called out for inappropriate comments on its website, with references to the “trauma, torture, and slaughter” of deer by “barbarians,” and much worse. The group encourages protest at the park during the hunt.

Supporters of the hunt, including the Six Nations Right to Hunt, reacted to the demeaning posts on their own websites.

“We honour the treaties, and support Indigenous food sovereignty and cultural food security through non-violence and support,” they wrote.

Karl Dockstader, executive director of the Niagara Regional Native Centre, told the Voice that “the opposition of Aboriginal rights is an expression of racism, and reinforcement of a white supremacist attitude,” a view shared by the Niagara Anti-Racism Coalition. Opponents of the hunt dismiss this accusation (although the Voice observed that all the protestors last Thursday were white).

The hunt is multi-generational for the First Nations, “a family event with great spiritual and cultural significance,” said Dockstader. The venison fills their freezers for the winter months, and the deer hide is also utilized by the Native community.

The MNR asserts that the hunt has always been conducted in such a way that public safety is not endangered. No accidents have ever been reported in the hunt’s history.

As far as limiting animal suffering is concerned, bow hunting is less humane than hunting with a high-powered rifle or shotgun, which usually kill quickly by means of the hydraulic shock of the projectile (a bullet or slug). Arrows dispatch wild game through hemorrhaging—blood loss. And a poorly placed arrow means that a deer could escape to die days later. Indeed, protesters shared stories of finding wounded or dead deer in the park in the days following the hunt.

Most of the indigenous hunters use modern archery equipment — usually crossbows — which are accurate and lethal over short distances. Dockstader assered that Indigenous hunters are ethical, and based on one study by Paul Williams, a member of the Haudenosaunee Wildlife and Habitat Authority, he cited a “wound rate” of only 10 percent, much lower than that of non-indigenous hunters, who recorded provincial deer wound rates of over 30 percent while bowhunting.

Animal rights activists, for the most part, are not impressed. To them, the bare bones of the issue is that a hunter picks up a weapon and kills a deer. End of story. Their fundamental sentiment is: “We advocate for defenseless animals, no matter the context.”

The Haudenosaunee respond that some well-meaning individuals fail to understand the relationship between Indigenous peoples and nature, a spiritual and cultural connection based not simply on sustenance and survival, or predator and prey, that has existed for millennia. Their message is also fundamental: “Allow us a path of natural balance, consistent with our sacred and ancestral beliefs.”


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Don Rickers

About the Author: Don Rickers

A life-long Niagara resident, Don Rickers worked for 35 years in university and private school education. He segued into journalism in his retirement with the Voice of Pelham, and now PelhamToday
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