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Alberta Online Encyclopedia

Encroaching Industries

Abandoned CabinFor much of the history of northwest Canada, the boreal forest was left alone because it was seen as too forbidding an environment to permit the wheels of industrial progress to turn freely. The same could be said of the various Aboriginal Peoples who lived in the boreal forest. For much of their history they were left to pursue their lives as they always had. They were protected by the boreal forest itself that seemed to hold outsiders at bay.

But even the challenging environment of the boreal forest was not enough to keep those who could see economic potential in the region from pursuing their goals. First came the European fur trade in the 1700s, which introduced to the existing Aboriginal trade network a market driven system of acquiring goods. This was a shift from Aboriginal thinking on trade that was based on strengthening social bonds and cementing alliances. Driven by profit, European fur traders did not consider the natural cycles of the fur-bearing animals they were killing. This placed pressures on not only the animal populations of the boreal forest, but also on the human populations who depended on such animals for survival. Aboriginal populations in the northwest suddenly found themselves having to compete with the European newcomers for the land and resources that had been in Aboriginal hands for thousands of years. As traditional life for northwest Aboriginal Peoples continued to be disrupted by the fur trade, such peoples found themselves falling into increasing dependence on the European system in order to survive. The age of cultural compromise had begun. Subsistence living became supplemented by market driven trade. This way of life would persist in the north right up to the present day.

For a time, the traditional hunting and trapping lifestyle that allowed Aboriginal Peoples of the northwest to continue transmitting the ancient values and customs continued with little interference. The fur market would remain strong enough until after the Second World War to make traditional wild fur trapping a viable industry for northern Aboriginal Peoples. Still, there were other market value interests in the boreal forest as well, and these were soon to introduce a new set of challenges to the peoples of the boreal forest.

At the end of the Second World War, a booming post-war economy led to increased demand for timber which, in turn, led to an upsurge in the forestry industry. Tree harvesting increased dramatically, and with lumber companies came the development of northern settlements. At the same time, the potential for petroleum exploration and development in the north was being explored, and new technologies were developed to make the boreal forest more accessible to those who wished to harvest petroleum resources. Aside from the natural disruptions and damage that such industries caused in the forest environment, forestry and petroleum developers introduced alternatives to the traditional fur trade economy of the north. Traditional life on remote traplines was being replaced by work for forestry and oil companies, which centred on a town based lifestyle. Once again, Aboriginal Peoples of the north were seeing their traditions slowly pushed aside by new ways of thinking that did not necessarily move in time with their customs. Environmentally, the land itself was changing, as old ecosystems were destroyed in favour of industrial infrastructure. Traditional life in the north was set to change, one way or another.

Recent times have seen active efforts on the parts of Aboriginal Peoples and heavy industries in the north to come up with ways to restore balance to the northwest woodlands, while at the same time meeting the needs of those who seek access to the resources that can be found there. For the Aboriginal Peoples of the north, it is yet another time of change, one that may require compromise of some of the older ways of doing things in order to ensure cultural survival.

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