As spring brings geese back to northern skies, the Cree Trappers’ Association (CTA) is encouraging hunters to remain in Eeyou Istchee to avoid the risk of Covid-19 variants. For the second year in a row, the CTA is administering an emergency fund to help Cree families access their bush camps for Goose Break.
Local CTA committees will apply almost $1.8 million provided by the Niskamoon Corporation to existing air and ground transportation programs along with food and gas subsidies. Besides complementing physical distancing measures, the fund is also intended to support safer alternatives to travelling over melting ice.
“The best place to be at this time is in the bush,” said recently elected CTA president Thomas Jolly. “The change in the weather was quite quick this year – in some places travelling by skidoo was not safe. Most communities are now in the process of using various subsidies, primarily for gas, transportation and food. A lot of people are using helicopters, and some are travelling by open water.”
With everyone in a “mad rush” to get out to the bush, Jolly hasn’t had much opportunity yet to discuss organizational matters with the CTA’s board but there are plans to meet following Goose Break. He is staying closer to home this year to assist his wife’s recovery from recent surgery.
As a former Chief of Nemaska, Jolly has witnessed the evolution of many Cree entities over the years, but the CTA has always held a special place in his heart. From its formation three years after the signing of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA), the CTA has focused on preserving the traditional activities and values of Eeyou and Eenou trappers.
“CTA has always been the key entity from the beginning and will be to the end,” Jolly told the Nation. “Without trappers, we wouldn’t be who we are. If it hadn’t been for the trappers out on the land, it would have been a tough argument on the JBNQA that we had our own culture and way of life.”
Growing up in the bush, Jolly remembers a time when almost everybody survived off the land. Before the JBNQA was signed, he recalls showing his late parents Quebec’s hydroelectric development plans, which would have submerged his family’s trapline near the Rupert River completely under water.
“They said they can do what they want – we’re not moving,” Jolly shared. “I felt the impact before the project started that would change their way of life. Today our family trapline is the only one untouched by development in the Nemaska territory. It’s been planned as [part of] a potential park and protected area.”
While Jolly estimates that close to 90% of Crees lived off the land in the early stages of the JBNQA, he concedes the CTA doesn’t have the same level of relevance as it did 40 years ago. Cree society has changed rapidly in this short time, and the land and wildlife are not what they once were.
“The impacts of development and industry have changed our harvesting,” explained Jolly. “The trapper today faces challenges of living off the land while maintaining his obligations at home. A lot of trappers have to rely on other forms of income or subsidies to continue. What he relied on in some cases is now watched for over-harvesting.”
Last fall, the CTA introduced a phone app to encourage better reporting of what is harvested and observed on the land. By making it quicker and easier to share this information, the CTA can communicate important safety conditions, monitor the effects of climate change and collect more accurate data about wildlife populations.
“People have to be a little more vigilant in recording what they have harvested,” Jolly asserted. “If you do harvest, let people know, particularly the people monitoring the harvest within our territory. By using modern technology, we’ll know the true numbers.”
In addition to an aerial survey of the moose population conducted by the Cree Nation in February, the CTA has been working on a management plan to help prevent the kind of drastic declines seen with the region’s caribou. Last year, the CTA asked hunters to avoid killing female moose during the calving season to allow numbers to recover.
“I’m certainly concerned about any species being over-harvested,” said Jolly. “We all like moose, but we must be reasonable about what we get out of the land. For every moose harvested that’s not recorded, we’ll assume it’s out there for the people who wish to go out sports hunting.”
In assuming his new leadership role, Jolly intends to expand upon the CTA’s existing vision and programs. For instance, he suggested leveraging resources about traditional hunting practices produced over the years to better communicate the necessary respect for the land and animals.
“Those will help to understand the significance of how we respectfully harvest the animals that we catch,” Jolly explained. “That way, people will understand why and how we do things. We have our vision as to where we want to go, it’s just a matter of coming up with new ideas and funding to grow these ideas.”
While the CTA no longer struggles for funding from different levels of government, its mandate of protecting and promoting traditional Cree culture is now shared with various other entities. One of Jolly’s goals is to ensure the CTA continues to have sufficient resources to pursue its unique priorities.
“We still continue to fight, but now we’re fighting within our own territory to exist,” asserted Jolly. “The CTA has limited resources – we can’t have the same kind of program funding that others enjoy. We have to look back and see what the CTA has done and take it from there as to what the CTA should do. As an entity they have their own voice, and their own voice should be heard.”
With economic development threatening the traditional role of the tallyman, Jolly insists that the environment must be prioritized in any conversation about Eeyou Istchee’s future. He recalled watching a video of former Nemaska Chief Matthew Wapachee lamenting his last winter on one site before it was flooded.
“It hit me,” said Jolly. “How do we help our trappers and tallymen who are clinging for the protection of their livelihood and the land they depend on? More and more trappers are leaving us, so time is of the essence to capture this (knowledge) to get to where we want to go.”