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Alberta Online Encyclopedia

Trapping For a Living

Fred MacDonald on trapline

A trapline is to get fur for sale. The trapper had the best of all worlds if the trapline area inhabited by fur-bearing animals was also the habitat of animals, fish and birds for his/her own food supply.

- Terry Garvin, Bush Land People

When European fur traders pushed into northwest Canada starting in the late 1700s, they not only introduced to the Aboriginal Peoples living in the region the concept of pre-manufactured goods, but they also brought with them a cultural regard for the land as something to be conquered and exploited, rather than lived in harmony with. This new paradigm led to an important shift in the way Aboriginal Peoples would have to think in order to cope with the changes brought on by the new arrivals. It was not the idea of trade itself that the Europeans introduced, for the Aboriginal Peoples of the northwest had established trade routes and goods, including animal pelts, long before Europeans began to settle in the area. The real change was in the underlying motive for trade, one based on economic profit rather than forging social bonds and alliances.

What emerged from the interaction between the traditional Aboriginal and new European ways of thinking was a lifestyle that drew sustenance from the land, while also supplying a commodity for large scale economic trade. Traditional traplines were the core of this new way of thinking for they evolved into a function of providing fur for sale to non-Aboriginal traders, but they were also avenues upon which northwest Aboriginal Peoples could continue living off the land as they always had. The fur trade economy continued to develop in the northwest boreal forest region right up until the late 1800s, and trapping pelts for trade became part of the traditional lifestyle of many northern peoples. Though the fur industry would see a gradual decline starting after 1900, it still played an important role in the lives of the northwest Aboriginal Peoples who had come to rely on the trade to supplement their sustenance lifestyles. In 2004, the Fur Institute of Canada reported that of the $800 million dollars that the fur trade contributes to the gross national product of Canada, only $25 million of that comes from the sale of wild fur, the commodity traded by traditional hunters and trappers.

Katy Sanderson with pelts

Life on the trapline for traditional hunters and trappers was, and still is, one that moved by the seasons. Once a base camp had been established on a route that was close to feeding and breeding grounds for those animals hunted for fur and for food, baited trap sets would be set up in enclosures all along the route. For overland routes, travel was either on foot, or in the winter months, by dog sleds, or more recently, snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles. Line cabins would be established along overland travel routes every twenty or so kilometres, or the distance that could be traveled in one day. With swifter transportation methods available, the need to maintain a large set of line cabins has decreased. Trap sets would have to be checked on a regular basis, and the captured animals would have to be prepared by removing their pelts and curing them with smoke from a wood fire, and by roasting the meat. Winter was the best time for trapping, as the furs of desired animals are longer and thicker during the colder seasons.

With the early spring, fish and muskrats could be captured for use. The return of migratory bird species was also watched with anticipation, as the spring and summer months would bring a supply of bird hides, meat, and eggs. Summer was the time to prepare and sell furs gathered during the winter months. Summer hunting for certain animals would continue at this time. Summer was also the time when hunting and trapping families would return either to their home base camp, or in more recent times, to their service communities. Repairs of equipment and tools, and weatherproofing of shelters would all take place in the warmer season. Money earned with the sales of furs and crafts would go towards the purchase of staples like sugar, salt, and rice, as well as new equipment and supplies. With the autumn, the families would return to the traplines, and prepare for a new year of hunting, gathering, and trapping. Certain plants could be harvested for fruit and for other uses.

Veronique Janvier cleaning hide

With the growth of industries like forestry and petroleum in the north, it is more difficult to convince new generations of Aboriginal People to continue the lean tradition of hunting and trapping, when more lucrative employment opportunities exist. Elders in many Aboriginal communities have tried to stress that traditional life on the trapline echoes closer to the relationship of humans and the forest than other sectors of the economy, that have a more difficult time balancing the needs of the forest with corporate mandates.

Featured Video: The Trapline

The Heritage Community Foundation, with the kind permission of Terry Garvin, is pleased to present this feature excerpt from the Bush Land People video.

The trapline is the foundation of traditional trapping practices.

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