The abundance of dogs in both non-Indigenous and Indigenous communities in northern Canada is an escalating animal welfare issue. This article takes a look at the initiatives of the Ontario SPCA to work with Indigenous communities to provide animal welfare services and programs to facilitate a solution. The Ontario SPCA and partners have just launched “The Year of the Northern Dog” campaign to bring awareness, attention, and action to the overpopulation of dogs in the north
The sheer remoteness of some Indigenous communities, especially those that have fly-in access only, is a significant barrier to accessing care for pets. For others, it can be a 22-hour drive to the nearest centre with a veterinarian. The cost of living is much higher in a remote community than it is in the south so pet care supplies can be an expense that simply cannot be met. For communities that struggle with ongoing or intermittent drinking water advisories, the cost of a case of water for a fly-in community is $70, and that water is needed for drinking, cooking, and bathing.
We spoke with Daryl Vaillancourt, Senior Director, Humane Programs & Community Outreach Ontario SPCA and Humane Society about the work they, and their partners, are doing to support Indigenous communities in their efforts to manage the dog population.
What is your primary goal with the Year of the Northern Dog campaign?
To create awareness about northern communities that lack basic animal welfare necessities. We want to work with communities and our partners to deliver sustainable animal welfare education, services, and resources to communities that do not readily otherwise have access to these programs and services. It is our ultimate goal to help eliminate dog overpopulation and create healthier communities for people and pets.
When did you begin working with northern communities?
Several years ago now. We collaborated with an organization called Beat the Heat Kenora and they were instrumental in introducing us to the communities they were working with.
Are there misconceptions about the conditions of the dog population?
There are a lot of misconceptions about the conditions of dogs in remote communities. Yes, they may be roaming and may not necessarily have a home but they are well cared for, are very social, and have healthy body conditions. We see very few dogs with body conditions that are low which means they are finding the resources they need to remain healthy. And yes, there are some instances in which the dogs are packing and do show some aggression but these are natural responses due to the fact they are competing for resources.
We are working with some communities to provide food for the dogs. A small bag of dog food can cost as much as $90 in a fly-in community.
Are you working with every community in northern Ontario?
No, we are only working with communities that have requested some assistance. If there’s no desire to have us visit the community then we don’t go.
We tailor the services to the particular community. It’s what they want - we don’t go in and tell them what to do. If they ask for a spay/neuter clinic, or a wellness clinic, or if they ask for dogs to be re-homed, or if there’s a gap in providing food for roaming dogs, we will do what we can to help them. The support of our partners, such as Welland & District SPCA, is invaluable. One fly-in community asked for help to re-home some dogs and we arranged for a DC3 to fly out about 58 dogs - which were all adopted out to forever homes in the Peterborough area.
Flying dogs out and flying in clinics are costly. How do you manage that?
Yes, these are costly ventures and the more support we get the better able we are to assist communities meet their needs. There are many groups contributing to the work. The idea is get as many partners on board as possible and coordinate the services so that we have a network of support throughout the north.
What suggestions do you have for other animal welfare groups that want to work with Indigenous communities?
- First thing is make sure everyone has some Indigenous awareness training. The training we had from Bob was invaluable. He helped us understand the cultural sensitivities that need to be recognized and respected, to understand the history; and how to engage with a community in order to build trust.
- Don’t enter a community in full enforcement uniform. Authority figures can invoke negative responses.
- Don’t tell them what they need; don’t project what you think they should be doing. Ask them what their priorities are and what services they need.
If you are new to working with Indigenous communities, here's a free, handy little ebook that gives you some tips on what not to say or do. Click the image to grab your copy.