Across the land, most Native trappers have heard the news. Canada has agreed to ban the leghold trap and is trying to get trappers to switch over to quick-kill traps because of pressure from Europe.
But can the new traps do the job? Will they have a big impact on the Cree way of life? And does Canada or Europe have the right to force Native people to change their way of life in the first place?
These questions are worrying many trappers in Cree traplines and across Canada. The Assembly of First Nations and Métis National Council are both up in arms about the changes (see sidebar).
They say Canada never consulted Native people about the negotiations conducted in Europe, and never asked trappers if they’d agree to change their traps.
The government says it didn’t have a choice; there was a gun pointed at its head. Canada said if it didn’t agree to the changes, European animal-rights activists were pushing for a complete ban on all fur imports from Canada, which would have hurt trappers even more.
Meanwhile, far away from Ottawa, many trappers in the bush are filled with uncertainty. The average full-time trapper with anywhere from 50 to 100 traps might be stuck with a bill in the thousands of dollars to replace them. That’s because the quick-kill traps cost $25 to $30. (Leghold traps cost $8 or $9.)
So far, the government hasn’t put aside any money to help with trap replacement. The Cree Trappers’ Association is now negotiating for some government funds, but most of the other trappers in Canada don’t have
an association to represent them. They may not be as lucky.
Trappers also say the new traps have numerous problems, so many that some trappers believe they might have a big impact on the Cree way of life.
The quick-kill traps deliver a crushing blow to the animal, designed to kill in as little as 45 seconds. The Europeans agreed to drop plans for a ban on Canadian fur if such “humane” traps are adopted.
But many trappers say the blow is far too strong, so crushing it damages the meat. They also say the stronger mechanism makes it dangerous and hard to open, especially for Elders, women and kids.
One CTA local fur officer said the new traps are for “profit-hunters.” “The quick-kill means you sledgehammer the meat. I kill beaver to eat. The skin is secondary.”
He said the Coni bear, the most common make of quick-kill traps, was “designed for the fur industry. They haven’t thought of the meat. Would they use a Conibear to kill a cow? It would break the back. The beef industry would never go for it.
“With the leghold trap, you can set it with one hand. It’s very simple. Even a 10-year-old can go trapping,” he said.
“For the quick-kill traps, we would need an exercise program to strengthen the trappers and maybe give them energy drinks. You’re going to need some muscular trappers out there. All the trappers who are pot-bellies will have to quit trapping. And the retirement age will be 35,” he laughed.
Alison Beal is one of the people who are educating Canada’s estimated 80,000 trappers about the changes (half of them are Native). Beal is the executive director of the Fur Institute of Canada, which is getting several million of dollars (she wouldn’t say exactly how much) from the federal government to educate trappers and develop new “humane” traps.
Beal isn’t too worried about the ban on leghold traps. “It’s not much of a hardship for us,” she said.
But many trappers don’t seem to agree. One CTA officer said almost everyone in his community is still using leghold traps, including him. “I guess I’m used to using them.”
He said the quick-kill traps are dangerous and “very heavy.” Another problem is that the new traps have to be set in a different way for each animal. “If you set it for an otter, what if a small weasel goes in there? You’ll break it in half.”
He also said trappers need better information about the changes. “I don’t know much about it. We’re in the dark, as usual.”
Another CTA fur officer said younger trappers are switching over in his community because “they don’t have a choice,” but Elders are sticking with their leghold traps. “A lot of older people can’t open it (the new trap) because it’s too strong for them.”
He said the new traps’ heavier weight means a trapper may be able to carry only two or three at a time, instead of five or six leghold traps.
Another complaint is that the quick-kill
trap leaves the animal dead until the trapper returns to check on it. By that time, the animal could be eaten by birds or other animals, a tremendous waste in the eyes of most trappers bordering on sacrilege. With leghold traps, the animal can defend itself until the trapper comes.
Still another problem is that the quick-kill trap catches the animal around its whole body, not just the leg. If it’s cold, the trap will freeze around the animal and can’t be freed, which means both trap and animal have to be carried all the way back to camp to be separated. If the trapper has set many traps, this could mean a big load.
Many trappers leave dozens of traps hung in trees all across their traplines ready for use. The traps are usually not brought back to the camp, let alone into town to be turned over to the authorities.
One of the CTA officers predicted that many trappers will never turn in their leghold traps, even if it means breaking the law. That’s because the older traps have a great sentimental value and were passed down through the generations.
He said animal-rights activists won’t be happy until Crees are eating only “potatoes and carrots.”
He said animal-rights activists have a “Bambi syndrome” and don’t understand the Native way of life. “Us Natives are the only people who have respect for wildlife. If you take us out of the bush, you’re giving the world to the plunderers,” he said.
“The animal-rights activists think animals have no responsibility. But to me, the animals are my friends. The greatest thing a friend can do for me is die for me. They have a big responsibility in this world. So we can survive.”