It’s a classic give-with-one-hand-take-with-the-other situation. Encouraged by their chief, tallymen in Waswanipi agreed to take money from forestry companies that were cutting their land.

The money offered was no great sum, a pittance compared to the profits earned by the companies. But 20 years of clearcutting has left the land so devastated it can’t sustain the hunting way of life of the Crees. Many tallymen felt they might as well get some benefit from the destruction.

What they weren’t told is that the money could be considered as income under the rules of the Income Security Program. The ISP provides full-time trappers with a guaranteed income so they can stay in the bush.

Under the ISP’s rules, trappers can hold a job when they’re not in the bush, but 40 per cent of any outside earnings are deducted from their Income Security cheques.

The Income Security Board is now looking into whether this applies to the money the tallymen got from forestry companies. The amounts may be peanuts in the larger scheme of things, but to the tallymen these are not small amounts.

Most of the tallymen who signed deals —and not all did—are getting payments of $10,000 to $15,000. Forty per cent of that comes to $4,000 to $6,000. To the average tallyman who lives on $12,000 a year from Income Security, that means four to six months of lost income.

Meanwhile, what about the tallymen who refused to sign a deal or weren’t offered one? Many saw traplines destroyed too. Now, they must bite their tongues as summer earnings get deducted from their Income Security.

When the agreements were first offered to the tallymen, no one bothered to tell them they risked losing nearly half the money. Maybe they didn’t want to know.

“I think that was probably the last thing on the minds of everybody when that was negotiated,” said Monique Carron, secretary-general of the Income Security Board. “I don’t think anyone thought twice before taking the money,” said Paul Dixon, Local CTA Officer. “They weren’t warned. It was money coming. Just take it; don’t think of the consequences. Like winning the 6/49.”

The issue is a hot potato no one wants to want to touch. The Income Security Board hasn’t exactly hurried to wade into the issue. Same for the Forestry Working Group, which coordinates the Cree anti-forestry campaign.

Carron claimed she only learned of the agreements a few months ago, more than a year after the money first started flowing into tallymen’s pockets. She is now trying to find out more about the agreements, but said she hasn’t gotten very far because of the secrecy that surrounds them.

The final decision is up to the Income Security Board, which has three Cree and three Quebec reps. For them, it all comes down to one question. If a trapper gets compensation for damages suffered, this is not considered income. Therefore, probably no deductions. But if it’s something else, like say a user’s fee, it would probably count as income. Which would mean deductions.

So which is it? Carron isn’t sure. “It seems to be a combination of both,” she said. “Everybody’s got a different story about why the money is being paid.”