On Remembrance Day, the man in charge of animal control for Sturgeon Lake First Nation stopped at a house known to be crowded with dogs and was greeted outside by an eager but ragged-looking dog named Fluffy. While Jeff McLeod kneeled down and petted Fluffy, half a dozen puppies quietly whined from the house's deck.
McLeod had been driving me around the Saskatchewan reserve for a few hours. Sturgeon Lake is about 50 kilometres northwest of Prince Albert, Sask., and consists of two main villages with a lot of houses spread out on the reserve. McLeod's truck was at the head of one of two small convoys driving door to door on the vast reserve to rescue any strays or pets that families can't afford to care for. The drivers of each vehicle are volunteers who had already saved 163 of Sturgeon Lake's dogs and cats before returning to the area so that the Canine Action Project (CAP) could wrap up its rescue efforts with this final sweep.
By the time McLeod's convoy made its way to Fluffy's home, we already had one cat and two dogs in kennels, for which the owners signed a consent forms agreeing to surrender their pets (CAP the takes the pets to an animal rescue and be adopted into a new home). One of the dogs was a skinny male stray with a missing tail. A rural homeowner had been feeding the pup moose meat, so the dog kept returning.
If CAP wasn't here, that dog would likely have been shot to death in the near future—during what is called a cull. Dog overpopulation is a major issue on Canada's reserves because the dogs get aggressive when they pack up. Mauling deaths are a real fear. In 2010, a boy on Canoe Lake First Nation in northern Saskatchewan was killed by a wild dog. Within the past few years, CAP has offered a humane way to help communities manage their animals. This November visit to Sturgeon Lake marks the conclusion of its biggest undertaking yet.
One of the hundred or so strays that roam around Sturgeon Lake knocked up Fluffy, according to her owner, Gary Turner.
"There's so many stray dogs in the reserve here and kids are getting bit, and especially in the village. Kids are getting bit and dogs are getting run over here and there and they're not really looking after their dogs either," he told VICE.
When McLeod asked if Turner had any dogs he wanted to surrender, Turner was immediately willing to part ways with Fluffy, saying he has too many dogs.
"There's no place I can really put her either, I don't want to put her down," Turner explained.
While he spoke, the CAP crew—all women—grabbed a bag of dog food to leave behind and placed Fluffy into a crate. At first, Turner told CAP volunteer Cori Dillman he wouldn't surrender the dogs, saying most of the puppies were already spoken for. I stood back during this conversation because CAP's founders, Kelly Phipps and Monique Schultz, had previously warned me that only certain people do the talking when CAP goes onto reserves.
On this day, Cori Dillman was the voice of CAP, informing Turner of the safe homes the puppies would be going to. Turner's edges softened and eventually he agreed to surrender all but two of the puppies. Volunteer Wendy Fyrk explained to me, in whispers, that the dogs had signs of mange and lice. It was a chilly day, so Fyrk and Dillman tucked the puppies into their jackets. Fyrk pointed out the rattling in their lungs—yet another sign of the poor shape the pups were in.
Phipps and Schultz both have deep fears of people misinterpreting what they do. In fact, the night before I joined the Sturgeon Lake crew, Schultz rescinded the invitation. It took a half hour of last-minute convincing to make sure I was welcome. If you wonder why, check out the comment sections from any media coverage about on-reserve dog culls. Shit's ugly.
When those stories come out almost every year, the often-racist responses perpetuate the centuries-old rift between non-Aboriginal people and Canada's First Nations.
It's a cycle: a story comes out about how stray reserve dogs will be shot to deal with overpopulation; that story sparks outrage with animal rights activists and the general non-reserve living population; people start petitions calling for an end to dog culls; and those from the outside looking in cast shame on those who allow it.
And sometimes that call is answered, as was the case in 2013 in Deschambault Lake when a cull was temporarily held off.
The underlying assumption of many naysayers is that people on reserves don't care about their pets. But the perception is "absolutely not true," Phipps told VICE. For about three and a half years, her volunteer-run non-profit has been committed to helping First Nations and remote communities in Saskatchewan find lasting solutions to dog overpopulation.
She says CAP does not judge those who host culls. When it comes to protecting residents from packs of stray dogs, Phipps argues that communities do the best with the resources they have. In the case of Sturgeon Lake, you need to consider that McLeod is not only in charge of animal control, he's also a water quality monitor, emergency planning coordinator, and first responder. He simply doesn't have the means to manage the hundreds of dogs. So, for the past few years, Sturgeon Lake residents got out their shotguns and dealt with their fear for the safety of their families and kids the only way they knew how. Up until this year, he had no idea that CAP existed.
The reality is, culls haven't sat well with many of Sturgeon Lake's residents, including Turner.
"I didn't really like that, because dog is a man's best friend and you want to keep it that way," he said.
Jonas Frenchman is in the same boat, saying, "I didn't like that at all, not one bit." He feels a deep kinship with dogs: "I love them and whatnot, and they take care of the house and they sense people and how they feel." Frenchman even explained how a dog once saved his life.
According to Frenchman, years ago, he was attacked by a disgruntled partygoer at his aunt's place who was moaning, "where's my wine?" A white German shepherd had followed Frenchman on his trek to his aunt's and had been staying outside until he sensed Frenchman's distress.
The drunk man "grabbed me by the throat and he was choking me. He was choking me, and he lifted me right off my legs," Frenchman recalled, saying that the dog dug into that man's ankle, allowing him the chance to get away.
"I always think about that, like, if it wasn't for him I would have been six deep or whatever."
The last time CAP visited Sturgeon Lake, Frenchman's wife surrendered their dog Nicky.
They still have another dog, named Brutus, whose ribs show through his fur—but he's gained weight since Nicky's been gone.
"Sometimes I'll either get fish or something, or wild meat and whatnot, and I'll just look around for it," Frenchman said. "If I have dog food, it'd be good but it's not all the time we an afford dog food but whenever we can we'll do it."
He's had to explain to his son what a dog cull is, "Well, they had to kill them because they can't afford to keep them," Frenchman said, speculating "Yeah, it probably does bug 'em. It probably affects them in a way where like, they don't care about it, you know, what they see mom and dad doing, or uncle, or whatever, shooting dogs. They probably think it's OK."
Phipps told VICE the mental health of a community suffers from culls, especially for those tasked with destroying the dogs as they often experience emotional and mental distress.
Bailey Nikolaisen is a University of Saskatchewan community nursing student who lives in Prince Albert, and is taking her placement at Sturgeon Lake.
Nikolaisen's first trip to the reserve was like nothing she'd ever seen. As a self-professed dog lover, Nikolaisen immediately noticed the packs of strays roaming around and following kids on their way to school. It didn't take long before she saw there's not just a safety issue, but a health issue.
"Within the first few weeks that I was out here, we got called out to a house here in the community where the kids had worms. And it was likely a contraction from their dog that was suspected of having worms," Nikolaisen said. "It's believed that the kids in the household got the worms from possibly playing in the dirt that dogs had had bowel movements in, or just anything could have happened, just not washing their hands and going to eat something."
She uncovered some absolutely shocking local statistics. Over the past two years, at least 15 people have been bitten by dogs on Sturgeon Lake. Ten of those bites—from rabid dogs that could carry rabies—were to the face or neck, and seven of the victims were children.
Nikolaisen was the one to get the ball rolling, and introduced Sturgeon Lake's band to CAP.
Now that he's aware of CAP's services, McLeod plans to form a long-term relationship between the band and CAP. This could include mobile pet clinics where veterinarians spay, neuter, treat, vaccinate and microchip pets.
It might seem like a big undertaking, but for a group like CAP it's nothing new. CAP's already partnered with five First Nations that used to host culls and will keep on working together to deal with the root issues of animal overpopulation.
In only a month's time, there's been a drastic change. McLeod tells VICE how Halloween this year compared to the past.
"Halloween, it just went awesome, like the kids weren't afraid to go from house to house, they weren't afraid of being chased by dogs, they weren't afraid of being bitten by dogs and they weren't afraid of their candies being stolen by dogs," he said.