The Fur Harvesters Auction Inc.’s 11th annual convention, held February 28 to March 2 at their fur barn warehouse in North Bay, Ontario, attracted an unprecedented number of Aboriginal trappers and representatives of Aboriginal trapping organizations.
Ironically, although trapping in many northern areas of Canada is still the traditional occupation for many Aboriginal people, and particularly so in Ontario, there is poor to no representation of Native trappers at fur conventions across North America. Non-Native trappers have several national and provincial organizations representing their interests. Unfortunately, Aboriginal trappers do not have a national organization to date that represents their interests, although many First Nation communities do have their own trappers’ cooperatives and organizations.
The Cree of James Bay have been very successful with their Cree Trappers Association, which handles the raw fur trapped in the James Bay region and deals directly with the fur buyers instead of going through an auction house. They also have a program in place that pays a set price per pelt to the trapper so that the trapper does not have to wait for a fur auction in order to collect payment. The people of the North West Territories have their own fur management department handled by Guy Erasmus who is the Resource Development Officer with the Wildlife and Fisheries Division of the Resources, Wildlife & Economic Development department of the NWT Government. Aboriginal trappers of both the NWT and northern Manitoba deal with their own raw fur production programs.
The Fur Harvesters Auction Inc. (FHA) in North Bay is the largest fur management company in Canada and is solely trapper-owned and -operated. It is also unique in that the management board of the FHA is a 50/50 split between a Native and non-Native Board of Directors. However, in past years turnout of Native trappers for the annual convention has been poor. The FHA hoped that this year’s participation and involvement of Aboriginal trappers and their families would be better than in the past. The Fur Institute of Canada met with representatives of Aboriginal trapping organizations from all over Canada in North Bay a day prior to the start of the convention. The purpose of this meeting was to hold trapping standards workshops and seminars and the participants stayed in town to attend the convention.
Some of the Aboriginal delegates at the convention discussed the possibility of developing their own raw fur management programs like that of the Cree Trappers Association. Other delegates discussed the possibility or working with the FHA to establish raw fur management and better payment programs for Aboriginal trappers.
“Our political strategy has to be to unit and protect our land base,” said Roy Poison, President of the Algonquin Trappers Association. “We have to know our traditional lands and who is trapping where. We have to get our kids back out on the land. Trapping is our history. We have to work together as Aboriginal people, with non-Native trappers and with the various ministries.”
Nancy Polson added that the loss of land is devastating to those who rely on trapping. “We’re not able to exercise a lot of our traditional ways,” she said. “Our land is important. A lot of people down south or near large city centres are unable to trap and use their lands in traditional ways so we need to unite and work together to harvest our resources. Our teachings are based on respect, if people know the basic principle of respect then they will learn to respect the land, they will learn to respect the animals that are on the land and they’ll learn to respect the people who use the land. We need to bring the people together and inform them. If we are informed then we are no longer ignorant.
“I’m glad that we came here, it’s good for the kids, it’s good for the family to see all that is involved in trapping,” she continued. “We want our kids to carry on our traditions and be able to utilize our land base properly. Our kids are part of a long line of traditional people who have always lived off the land, our family has always trapped, hunted and fished.”
Roy Poison chimed in that, “some people are well informed, they know a lot of things but even in their own communities there may be different reasons why they don’t speak out and they say ‘why speak?’ It’s a long process but it only takes one person maybe to turn around and say ‘let’s listen to these people’. By listening to each other we can gain understanding and then we can begin to work together. I see a lot of people really trying.”
Roy Poison’s aunt is Dorothy Poison, a 70 years-young traditional Muskeego grandmother from Waskaganish in James Bay. From 1980 to 1993 Dorothy Poison won the Women’s Canadian Championship for beaver skinning and handling at the Annual Meeting of the Ontario Trapper’s Association 10 times, seven times consecutively (1980 – 86, ’88, ’92 and ’93). The last time that Dorothy Poison attended the convention was in 2000. At that convention Dorothy had not planned on entering the beaver skinning contest and had not brought her skinning tools, but she was talked into entering and took third place using some else’s tools. Prior to that she had not attended the convention for seven years.
Dorothy had planned to attend the convention this year but unfortunately at the last minute was unable to come.
The FHA convention annually attracts large public crowds as well as drawing trappers from all over Ontario, other provinces and the United States. It is a great opportunity for trappers of all ages to test their skills against one another. There are pelt handing contests for children, youth, women and men as well as fur handling (skinning) demonstrations, trap setting contests, seminars, a pancake breakfast, a fashion show, venders representing all areas of trapping, hunting and fishing, numerous draws of which top prizes are fur coats, a dance, a banquet, award presentations and speeches. The conference offers workshops for school kids on the Friday and this year as always several schools sent busloads of kids. This event is also a gre^c opportunity to better educate the general public on thi nistory and current need for humane trapping. North Bay and the surrounding area was largely dependent on the fur trade and is rich in the history and development of the industry. All the area around the city of North Bay is still trapped.
Overall, Aboriginal input and participation at this year’s FHA convention was higher than ever. The highlight of the award presentation evening was a emotional, passionate and eloquent speech given by Thomas Coon of the Cree Trappers Association. Coon started out speaking about children and the important and primary role that parents have as teachers of their children. He then went on to speak about the need for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people to work together. Coon spoke for about 20 minutes, during which time his words received several rounds of applause and when he was finished the room filled with some 200-300 people, mostly non-Native, gave him a thunderous round of applause.
“It is good to be back here. I’ve been away for a while,” said Coon. “The last time I was here I brought some young kids with me because we had had some problems with suicides in our communities. I brought these kids here to show them that there are people who care. I tried to show these kids that they could have fun. I couldn’t bring those little girls and little boys this time. We have some good teachers but the best teachers are mum and dad. Children learn from home, by watching and caring. It is from home that they start to see their future and their rights. Let’s all be careful what we say and do at home.” Coon then went on to outline the recent history of protest against the fur industry and the importance of maintaining the tradition of trapping and fur harvesting for both Native and non-Native people.
“There are certain people, people who sacrifice quite a bit of time for us, in our communities and here at the Fur Harvesters,” he said. “There are people who work long hours for us, people who help us market and sell our furs.
“All the years of protests against fur trapping, 17 years of protests and we are still here trapping. We were targets, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal trappers were told that ‘trapping must be stopped.’ That was 1985. Today we are still trapping. We demonstrated what we can do if we work together. You people here have demonstrated something important, you have demonstrated that Native and non-Native people can work together. The FHA’s board of directors is 50 per cent Native and 50 per cent non-Native and succeeds. If this partnership can work here, surely it will work elsewhere.
“Yes, some things have to change, sometimes we have to change and sometimes the truth hurts. We have to change the way we think about each other. We have to change the way we talk about each other. We have to change the way we have treated each other. It is time we set aside our political differences, the differences that divided you and I. You need me as much as I need you. We have a common interest and that interest is to ensure that the fur market that has put the bread and butter on the table for our children continues to exist.
“We must try walk this world side by side, we live side by side, and work side by side – together. No one will ever take away our livelihood, take our trapping and hunting heritage away from us. My last point – we each have a little bit of time in this world and we have things to do. We are so fortunate to live in Canada with all the war and fighting between nations elsewhere. We are so privileged to live in Canada, a country that has peace and freedom. A land and country that is rich in natural resources. My dear friends, let us not forget, let us be thankful that we are richly blessed to be able to live in a country called Canada, a land, a country that we can truly call our own. Our home and Native land.” After Coon’s speech the evening broke up and everyone stated to mingle. People, primarily non-Natives, repeatedly thanked Coon for his speech.
“I can’t believe how many people have thanked me for my words tonight,” he said later. “I only said what had to be said. I hoped to get the message out and it seems that I did. I guess people were ready to hear what I had to say. But this is a humbling experience – having all these people keep telling me that my speech was good. I only said what I feel in my heart, now lets see if people act on what I said.” The 2001-2002 trapping season in Ontario was one of the best weather-wise in recent years, the long fall and late appearance of snow and cold temperatures allowed many trappers to reach their quotas well before Christmas. Fur prices have fluctuated over the past few years but the past three years have seen the prices for various types of fur steadily rise. Although beaver prices have dropped slightly from last year, marten, mink and fisher have continued to increase. Joanne Noseworthy of the Ontario Fur Managers Federation claims that prices for red fox are higher than they’ve been since 1985.
For the Aboriginal delegates at this year’s convention, the consensus was that the trapping season had been a good one. Current fur prices holding steady or rising slightly is also a good sign. The Native delegates did a lot of networking amongst themselves, agreeing that Native trappers needed a national organization and a system that would enable them to work together. This years’ convention saw the Aboriginal trappers and their representatives treated with a great deal of respect and appreciation and the Native delegates realized in turn that they need to attend more conventions like this one.
“We were invited to come to North Bay by the Fur Institute of Canada for workshops and updates on humane trapping standards and to see which traps have been improved,” stated Paul Coon Come of the Cree Trappers Association. “We then in turn, pass this information on to our trappers so that they follow the trapping standards. Humane trapping has always been important to us as it follows our own traditional teachings about the proper way to care for the animals that we trap. We came down for the workshops on humane trapping standards and we stayed over for the convention. We came away with a good feeling about the networking that went on this weekend. Thomas Coon said a lot of good words that we all need to act on.”
– Abby Cote, North Bay Correspondent