“Let’s go back a little ways,” Johnnie Sam says when talking about his trapline. “It’s about the people themselves.”
The 73-year-old grew up on the land, tending his family’s traplines.
He learned the trails’ curves and cuts and where the animals rest and eat from his father – just like his father learned from his own father, and his father before that.
“They picked the area where only the family would trap and try to survive,” he continued. “The area they pick is about the only one they know about, and it’s pretty hard for a person to go to another place and start trapping. You can’t do that.
“That’s the only area he knows already – under his father’s belt, so to speak. He knows the area so good.”
But Sam hasn’t set traps this season.
There has been too much commotion for the animals to come around.
There are mineral stakers, who have no concern about what land they are on, he said.
Hikers, who leave traces of their camps wherever they like, he added.
And hunters. Lots of hunters.
“It’s an influx of people hunting this every year now,” he said. “Not like it used to be.”
And while Sam probably isn’t alone in his concern, there is one complaint the territory’s Department of Environment hears from trappers more than anything else: that they can’t get a trapline.
“I get several calls monthly,” said Helen Slama, the department’s point person for trapping.
After the annual trapper’s course finishes, her phone rings off the hook, she added.
“It’s unfortunate, but a lot of the elders are unable to continue trapping; they don’t have anyone in their family that wants to continue to trap, so sometimes they get unassigned or they lapse,” said Slama.
Most of the unassigned concessions are First Nation-held, she added.
If a trapline goes vacant or unassigned, it’s up to the community’s Renewable Resource Councils to reassign it, but they also favour keeping them within the First Nations’ families, said Slama.
“Often what happens is the Renewable Resource Council will only advertise in the communities,” she said.
There are 345 registered traplines in the Yukon. Currently, 81 are unassigned.
The First Nations’ final agreements say at least 70 per cent of all traplines within a First Nation’s traditional territory must belong to its members.
“I’ve been told trapping was the eleventh-hour item in land claim negotiations,” said Slama. “They are clearly important to First Nation people.”
Now, almost all Yukon First Nations have accomplished or surpassed that 70 per cent requirement, she said.
And that’s the problem, according to frustrated, nonaboriginal trappers who cannot acquire a trapping concession.
Alan Macdonald, a seasoned trapper from Alberta, has been trying to get a concession in the Yukon since 1987.
The regulation keeping him out says no trapper can hold a concession unless they have lived in the Yukon for at least a year.
It was established after a 2001 public consultation, meaning it was a policy the territory’s public felt strongly about, said Slama.
Macdonald thinks it’s nonsense.
It’s OK to move to the territory as a teacher or a lawyer from a different region – but not a trapper, he said.
“Everywhere else in Canada, the Canadian Charter guarantees your right to mobility,” he said. “Somebody, not me, is going to take them to court on that. And to me, it would be a slam-dunk case. Whoever does it will win that case and the Yukon government will look totally stupid.”
As more years pass by, Macdonald’s will to come up to the Yukon to trap is becoming less and less, he said.
The biggest problem is that there are two different groups, with two different perceptions, said Slama.
First Nation people and their governments understand a trapline as a place to live on the land and uphold their culture.
Commercial trappers and the government regard trapping as an industry.
And to complicate things even more, the government’s Wildlife Act and the First Nations’ final agreements are not really consistent with one another, she said.
“The Wildlife Act needs to be amended,” she added. “That’s on the books, that we need to change the Wildlife Act to make it consistent with the final agreements. We’re committed to doing that.”
And while the final agreements outline the difference between commercial and subsistence trapping, the public’s interpretation doesn’t, she said, noting many First Nation trappers still think their trapping concessions give them title or ownership to that area, despite the fine print on the bottom of their trapline registration.
“Also, people don’t understand that they don’t need to hold a trapline to do subsistence trapping,” she said, noting many people think their rights are connected to their concession.
“But by hanging on to it, they create a barrier for somebody that doesn’t inherit an area through family, or gain access to a trapline through family connections.”
Sam knows he doesn’t have title to his trapline – that was clarified in 2004 when the Yukon government granted a portion of it to farmer Larry Paulsen.
The Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation took the territory to court.
By the time the Supreme Court of Canada decided the case in November 2010, Paulsen had moved on. But that land is designated for agricultural use.
But even without title, Sam knows his trapline is one of the only things he has to pass on to his grandchildren.
“It’s something to fall back on,” he said. “It’s there and it always has been there.
“The future holds mining, development and disturbance. If that crashes, for some reason, where would I go? Where would my grandchildren go? That’s why I was so concerned about that trapline in that area. I know where to go. I know where to look.”
But trappers are responsible for maintaining their lines for the future, even when they aren’t using it, he said – which is something they don’t teach in the trappers’ course, he added.
And Sam is optimistic the next generation of Yukon First Nations is returning to trapping, like they have started with fish camps, he said.
“Once they go out there, they know what the older people are talking about,” he said. “It’s your own world out there.”
Sam has taught his grandchildren how to hunt and trap.
“Now they’re good hunters,” he said.
Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at firstname.lastname@example.org