Living on the land

Fred Hasselburg's weathered hands are steady as he pours a cup of tea. His 82-year-old eyes - still bright with the spark of a much younger man - gaze out the window of his cabin at the Liard River's snow-covered banks.


Fred Hasselburg’s weathered hands are steady as he pours a cup of tea. His 82-year-old eyes – still bright with the spark of a much younger man – gaze out the window of his cabin at the Liard River’s snow-covered banks, just as they have done for his entire life.

Hasselburg’s hands built this cabin, and it cost him nothing but sweat and blisters. The logs were donated by the Liard First Nation. Its rough-hewn timbers are chinked with old linens and its roof is insulated with moss that he and his daughter Freda Campbell gathered themselves from the surrounding forest. Even the windows are salvaged.

Outside, a light snow falls silently on the frozen river – or would, were it not for the tractor-trailers that rumble incessantly across the nearby bridge. The land that Hasselburg grew up on, land that supported his family for a generation and his ancestors for many more, is slowly vanishing.

It’s being swallowed by the steady march of “progress” and its attendant armory of bureaucracy. There is a quiet sadness in the Kaska elder’s old eyes.

“I was born up the river here about 70 miles. That was the highway in them days. We used to come down here, the whole family in a boat. But now they are ruining the land on us with all the oil and gas that’s coming in,” Hasselburg says as he lifts a flank of roast moose meat from a pot on the big-bellied woodstove. Carefully he carves off portions of the tender meat with a razor-sharp Bowie knife.

He shot this moose himself. Even at 82, Hasselburg still does everything for himself, the way he was taught.

“He’s totally self-sufficient. He lives off the land. He knows which roots you can eat, where to set traps, how to navigate the river,” Campbell says with admiration.

Despite his age, Fred Hasselburg is decidedly not dying, but his breed – a generation of elders who know the Yukon wilderness like the creases in their aging hands – may be the last of their kind.

His father was a Norwegian adventurer who came to the Yukon in the 1930s. Like many before him, Hasselburg senior was a consummate woodsman, trapping and hunting on the Cassiar Mountains.

He met a Kaska woman and they settled on the Liard River. They supported themselves, growing vegetables in a garden and travelling up river to hunt and trap. Hasselburg and his four siblings learned early on how to take care of themselves on the land, and he’s been doing so ever since.

He built his cabin out of necessity. His previous home, which he had lived in since he was a child, burned down last spring. So he built a new one. It was a straightforward matter to him.

He never imagined that being so self-reliant would put his claim to his cherished land in jeopardy.

Hasselburg’s home is on proposed settlement land. The parcel was selected by the Liard First Nation in the 1990s, but because the First Nation never signed a final agreement, the land remains essentially in legal limbo.

Campbell and her father had been in negotiations to buy the land outright, but when his house burned down, so did their chances.

“They can’t sell us lands … if it doesn’t have a building on it,” Campbell explained.

The new cabin doesn’t count, because it’s not up to territorial building codes, Campbell said. She said the government’s lands branch has given her and her father a year to get the land surveyed properly and construct a new, up-to-code building, otherwise they will lose the land for good.

“It’s stupid. You shouldn’t need it to be up to code if you build it yourself. Dad should have some say over the land that he’s been on forever,” Campbell said.

The land is bordered by the river and fenced in on three sides by other undesignated plots that are tempting for a number of other groups, including the owner of the local hotel just down the road.

“They’re chipping away at our land,” Campbell says. She and her father are committed to defending their land, but she wonders about how many other First Nation families don’t have the resources to fight the same battles.

And as the land is lost, so too are the traditions. You can’t have one without the other, Hasselburg says.

“This is happening every day because of the legalities around land use and the miles of government red tape,” Campbell says.

Campbell wasn’t always close with her father. She and her mother left when she was four, and it was 18 years before she got back in touch with her dad.

A few years ago she took a six-month leave from her work as an AltaGas community outreach officer in Dease Lake and spent the time up the Liard River living on the land with her father. She said the experience changed her life, and showed her the wisdom in the traditional way her father lives.

“There is a lot of dependency in First Nations communities, but really, this is the definition of independence,” she says of her dad’s way of life.

Hasselburg agrees. Nearby Watson Lake is a troubled town, with far more than its share of drugs, alcohol and domestic violence. Residents refer to the day when social assistance cheques are cut at the start of each month as “Mardi Gras.”

The support work that is done in town is often hamstrung by political infighting, and Chief Liard McMillan has faced a number of attempts to have him kicked out of office.

“The kids in town, a lot of them just play video games and do drugs. They should be out on the land, not fighting with each other and trying to remove the chief,” Hasselburg said.

He said the residential school at Lower Post began the ruination of his people. It took children off the land and tried to teach them that their traditions were heathen and evil. Many were beaten and sexually abused. The violence suffered across the country at schools like Lower Post still reverberates in the Watson Lake’s empty mickeys and pill bottles.

After the schools came the compensation money, but Hasselburg can’t see how the cash has done any good. Most of it gets spent on booze and drugs, he said, while his way of life costs almost nothing and keeps him healthy.

He and Campbell are both convinced that reconnecting with the land and traditional ways of life can be a solution for those problems, and others.

Their land isn’t an abstraction to be argued over in boardrooms and at press conferences. It’s real, and Hasselburg needs it to survive, Campbell said.

Her dad is the embodiment of what many First Nation people feel they have lost, and what many white Canadians argue they should simply let go, Campbell said.

“It’s what Idle No More is fighting for. He’s actually living aboriginal rights and title, and he doesn’t need anyone’s permission to do it,” she said.

When the ground thaws in the spring, Campbell said they will hold a family reunion on her dad’s land and try to get the new house framed in. She hopes they’ll have all the right permits done in time, and that they can afford to pay for the surveyor and inspectors to come and put an official stamp on land that has supported her family for almost a century.

Campbell’s worries are etched across her brow, but her dad’s eyes are calm as he pours another cup of tea and settles back into his chair beside the window. He’s been on this land his entire life, and he has no intention of leaving.

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