The Cree experience with forestry: A short history

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By Paul Dixon

Broadback_3603I am the son of the late Isaac Dixon, one the greatest hunters who ever lived. My father and grandfather taught me everything there is to know about the Cree world, what it means to our being. Both were born in the wilderness and grew up there before a single road came around. Dad met mom on a portage and my siblings were born out there.

Even from the time of “beaver preserves,” trapline W-23-A of Waswanipi has been used year-round. There were times we let the land rest. But as we speak, smoke is rising from several chimneys of trappers’ cabins at Windy Lake, the true home of the Dixon family and of other members of the Waswanipi community.

A short Cree history: The wagon trails with horses came through before the railway and gravel roads. Nobody bothered to knock, they just walked in. Our ancestors were there from the beginning, ready to work in non-Aboriginal forestry and mining. It was a sad experience. Crees were seen as a threat, taking over jobs, and this didn’t sit well with the newcomers. Crees were living right at the job sites in clustered shacks and tents. Companies had whole families at their disposal.

We became Cree hunter-workers, trying to take advantage of both worlds. My late father and mother started logging with a buck-saw and piled logs during the night under a bright lantern. Some white officials did not like this, and neither did some Crees want to face this new reality, saying we were being used to further the ambitions of self-serving newcomers.

Slowly, but surely, the settler society started arriving with families and small machinery. Then gradually, the bigger and heavier machinery was needed. Suddenly, many Crees were out of a job; the natural resources on our homelands now belonged only to a few. The rest is history.

Around 1990-91, we were finally forced to leave the land. Income Security Program I became a part of our lives because non-Aboriginal forestry operations were moving in without prior notice, and they were here to stay. For most Cree trappers like myself, this was the beginning of the end of our life in the quiet woods.

Many moons ago, I helped launch a campaign to rally fellow Crees against forestry, because it threatened to destroy the Cree way of life. That campaign culminated in a $500 million lawsuit against the Quebec government and about two dozen forestry companies in 1998. The suit contended the province’s entire forestry regime was illegal and unconstitutional.

In 1999, Judge Jean-Jacques Croteau issued a preliminary ruling siding with the Crees. The stunning judgment spurred the provincial government into agreeing to negotiations with Crees that lead to the 2002 Paix des Braves agreement (PDB).

The PDB was an out-of-court settlement and Waswanipi trappers were not happy. We lost a very good chance to tell stories of the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) and non-Native forestry companies. We could have educated the public and forced governments and academia to research the environmental impacts of extractive industries on Cree lands and waters. We could have identified the best practices to avoid polluting watersheds or damaging landscapes and wildlife habitats.

Many problems with forestry companies remain. Cutting one tree in someone’s backyard makes a difference, but they scalp our hunting backyards. This has to change. We trappers never sold or gave away our rights to our ancestral lands and waters to anyone. We did not ask to be poor, get trampled on or to be displaced.

Since the signing of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement in 1975, two rivers are now gone, the dams with their roads and other extractive industries are real. But all Cree hunters are still living like beggars and squatters on their ancestral lands in the midst of so-called “sustainable development.”

Simply trying to gather firewood in logged-out areas cuts into our hunting time. We compete with non-Aboriginals for sandy firewood, what little is left. We also go further in search of traditional food. The beaver population is declining. Barely two beavers are now found in lodges that used to house up to nine. We’re forced to travel across barren lands, with much more wind and more difficult visibility. Before logging, trees sheltered our ancient hunting trails, making nighttime travel easier and safer. But no longer.

Clearcut logging

Thankfully, this photo wasn’t taken in Eeyou Istchee

Tallymen, trappers and their families are humble, quiet and sharing people. Foreign and disrespectful people can easily intimidate them. They do not know the outside, “dog-eat-dog” world as other Crees do. When we defend our way of life, it includes language, history, land, resources and survival. It would never occur to us to hold out our ancestral lands for ransom, but this is what non-Native extractive industries are doing very profitably – after trampling and displacing the Cree population of those lands.

Along with family members, I as a tallyman would like to test the JBNQA and the PDB, taking a single trapline to court. Trapline W-23-A has the most non-Aboriginal sport-hunting camps in Waswanipi or anywhere else in Cree territory. We’re just demanding a little more respect as Aboriginals with a land-based culture.

Crees have ancient knowledge of the land, water and all wildlife passed down through the generations, more than any non-Aboriginal encyclopedias can hold. This knowledge, taught to us by our Elders, belongs to all Crees, and we do not want this to be lost.

We have documented the winter destruction of wildlife, either hibernating or sheltering in dens or cavities in the snow. Winter forestry operations are going non-stop, 24 hours a day, with steel-tracked, oil-leaking machinery. Creeks and riverbeds are being destroyed during night operations because they are not noticeable in deep snow. Operations are rushed and log transport has to race against time to beat the spring thaw. Machinery parts and tires and waste wood are simply left behind.

Who then lives with this mess? Cree trappers of Waswanipi and other inland Cree communities.

Deep ruts made by heavy machinery make land travel harder. They are filled with polluted water and oil. Wildlife simply leaves the area. Trees and vegetation left standing either perishes or is blown over because all plant roots are interconnected. That leads to erosion. And the pollution eventually drains out to the main watersheds.

Trail-making and traveling by ATVs and snowmobiles is made difficult and dangerous, especially in winter under a light snow cover. Costs from damage to our equipment and vehicles come out of our pockets, not from the forestry companies that caused the damage. Snow melts faster in logged-out areas, stranding us at our hunting camps.

The MNR and companies must understand that there are different types of impacts in summer, fall, winter and spring operations. We hunt and gather year-round, and at the same time we monitor any wildlife activity and the lack of it. Winter is our peak-trapping season for furbearing animals and the wild meat is for human consumption.

Non-Native forestry companies have damaged or completely destroyed ancient Cree hunting tails, portages, traps, snares, camping areas and landings in a 1200-square-kilometre area (W23A of Waswanipi). We have to start all over again. Companies don’t necessarily follow cutting plans and a request by a Cree trapper – “I just want to survive in the quiet woods” – is met with a laugh.

The fisher, marten, lynx, fox, mink and weasel all depend for their diet on an abundance of small rodents or mice. But these humble animals are the last things on the minds of heavy-machine operators before cutting down forests in winter operations, when escape is impossible for small rodents.

Summer operations destroy bird nests and eggs and kill young hatchlings. Aside from many bird species, wildlife found in seclusion of mature wood stands or mixed stands of coniferous and deciduous trees include: moose, tundra/woodland caribou, black bear, timberwolf, coyote, Canada lynx, fox, fisher, pine-marten, beaver, river otter, mink, skunk, weasel, muskrat, flying squirrel, red squirrel, chipmunks, hare, porcupine, groundhog, raccoon and the rare wolverine.

Most animals are predators and any disturbance in the forests would have a chain reaction effect. Fish habitats and spawning areas are either disturbed or destroyed by logging operation and road crossings. Culverts are often installed on rivers at narrow passages where ancient spawning grounds are found. In crossovers, if a logging road with small culverts does not do any damage, the busy beavers will follow up with their dams. This prevents fish from swimming upstream. Culverts give support to beaver dams, causing stands of stagnant water in treed areas. And of course, every road means a new portage for those traveling the river by canoe.

In logged-out traplines, what little wildlife that is trapped is either smaller or unhealthy. Fur is sun- and wind-damaged and sells for less at fur market auctions. I’ve been a licensed fur buyer on behalf of our community for over 19 years. With detailed reports, we can easily prove forestry has a very negative impact on traplines and captures.

As more roads are built and trees are cut on our ancestral traplines, the more our way of life of subsistence hunting and gathering is affected. Cree hunters and trappers are losing their right to properly feed their large families on healthy, traditional food. Then we are manipulated into putting our destiny into the hands of self-serving non-Native “sustainable development.” This is the Cree reality.

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