Last Thanksgiving Monday, Willie Ottereyes of Waswanipi enjoyed a feast at camp with his family before heading back to the community. Less than a week later, he wasn’t feeling so thankful – when he returned on the weekend he discovered burglars had looted his camp.
“Somebody pried all my locks open from the hinges,” he told the Nation. “I even had two storage bins – they pried them open with a hammer and stole my generator – a 2000 Honda – 15 gallons of gas, my chainsaw, and my three guns: my 12-gauge, a .22, and a .30-30.”
Though he was taking the loss in stride, he couldn’t help but admit what damage it was going to do to his hunting season.
“I don’t mind the generator and the chainsaw, but taking the guns away, that’s like cutting somebody’s hands and legs off.”
When the Nation spoke with him, Ottereyes was still in the bush, but he had already sent a letter to the Cree Trappers’ Association asking if they could help him out. Burglaries are an unfortunately common occurrence in the area.
“It happens sometimes,” he said. “People lose paddles or a motor, something like that. I don’t think the police are doing much good, even when they go around asking questions.”
A friend of his – also near Waswanipi – suffered a similar burglary, and the CTA compensated him for roughly half of what he’d lost.
“Hopefully they can help me so I can buy my guns at least,” he said.
Paul Dixon, Coordinator of the Waswanipi Local Fur Office of the CTA, isn’t ready to make any guarantees.
“I don’t know if we can compensate him,” he said, underlining that there are greater systemic problems at play that contribute to burglaries – the installation of roads, and the difficulty of getting proper insurance. “We were there first. Then the roads came to us, and that’s how we got ripped off. First the roads came, then the vandalism [and robberies] came.”
At the same time, he noted that prejudice might stand in the way of trappers getting fair treatment from police when they report such crimes.
“When we call about the vandalism [and burglaries] and the SQ guys come, do you think they’re going to look for our things? We don’t know the serial numbers, and we don’t pay taxes. They just brush us off. They come by to enjoy the road. They’re not going to bother with us.”
A compounding problem, he noted, is that non-Cree insurance is unlikely to cover belongings that spend most of their time on the land. He told a story of a Cree hunter trying to insure his boat with a southern insurance firm.
“They said to him, ‘OK, we’ll insure your boat, and work out all the expenses. So you’ll be leaving this most of the time at your house in your community, right?’ [The hunter] said, ‘My boat’s going to be in the bush 90% of the time! That’s where I am!’ And the guy took the boat right off the insurance. He told him, ‘You might as well give this to the robber.’”
Still, Dixon bemoaned the sorry state of Cree insurance. With southern firms, you can get insured to close to 100% the cost of replacing your lost belongings.
By contrast, he said, “Here the insurance is only 40%, and that’s not including depreciation. So you’ll never get the full cabin insured if it burns. Never. But we were there before the white man ever came, before Christopher Columbus tried to sell us some insurance. Because we are a hunting society people, no insurance company will cover us.”
For the meantime, however, Dixon suggests the only thing to do is to lock down belongings more tightly.
“There are some dos and don’ts,” he said. “I told my brothers, build a shed and lock it so you wouldn’t have to complain. I’ve got a steel shed outside, because I know over the years that trappers had wood sheds. I don’t live that far from Chibougaumou. If I don’t have steel, I’d use one-inch thick boards. We used to use half an inch, but somebody would use a chainsaw and cut right through it to steal things.”
Proximity of non-Native communities, said Dixon, encourages the problem.
“It’s non-Natives, I’ll tell you that – and the non-Natives will tell you it’s the Crees. Chapais used to be a booming town, but the mine closed about 15 years ago. What do you think these guys are going to do?”
Whatever the reasons for the problem, he admitted, understanding it doesn’t make it any easier to endure.
“Willie lost a generator, a chainsaw, guns – holy smokes. He really needs help. He’s got a point there, it’s like chopping the arms and legs off a hunter.”
Ottereyes remained hopeful that the CTA would be able to bail him out, and he planned to meet with them as soon as he returned from his trapline. Until then, though, he was left without much of what he needed to hunt through the winter.
“Right now I’m driving around with a slingshot, hoping to kill a moose with that,” he laughed sadly.