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When I talk with Abraham Metatawabin about his life in the bush, there is a communication problem. I do not speak Cree, and the 92-year-old Fort Albany, Ont., elder does not speak English. But even with his son Chris acting as translator, there is another, more basic impediment: The hunting, trapping and fishing methods he learned as a young child in the sprawling riverlands west of James Bay are so basic to his way of thinking that he doesn’t even think of them as activities requiring explanation, and so I have to keep interrupting him for more detail.
Commanding a team of sled dogs, building a shelter out of wood and cured animal hide, catching a pike dinner with nothing but a baitless hook: You either knew how to do these things in the bush, or you became a frozen, emaciated corpse.
I came to talk with Abraham at his home on the Fort Albany reserve not just because he is a link to a bygone era, but also because the Metatawabin family as a whole — of whom I met four generations, in three different communities, during my travels to James Bay this past week — constitutes a sort of living roadmap to the wrenching transformations that First Nations have endured over the last half-century.
Like most members of the Fort Albany First Nation, Abraham was brought up as a Catholic. But he still has strong memories of his grandfather, a traditional 19th-century medicine man whom the RCMP hunted as an outlaw. Abraham’s father was recruited out of the bush into the Canadian army, and fought the Germans in the First World War.
At the time, he tells me, Indian servicemen were promised all sorts of things upon their return — a plot of land for farming, a barn, and animals. The family even considered giving up the bush life. But when the war ended, Abraham’s father was put on a train, and deposited at the Pagwa trading post. He headed downriver to the bush, where he continued hunting and trapping until the end of his days.
Abraham remembers that life as tough but exhilarating: The hard work and natural diet made everyone strong, fit and wiry. He brought down wolf, deer, moose, caribou, beaver, muskrat, otter, mink and fox — even squirrels for his dogs to eat as snacks. At trading posts, he exchanged some of his furs and cured hides for the few things he couldn’t hunt or make, such as flour, sugar, lard, tea and coffee.
He had everything he needed. After the Second World War, the Canadian government even gave Abraham a gun and a steady supply of ammunition, as part of a Cold War-era military reconnaissance program. All Abraham had to do in return was share his knowledge of the land, and shoot any invading Russians.
But in the 1950s, he remembers, the old ways became more difficult. The fur trade dried up. And a rail line from Cochrane, Ont. to the James Bay town of Moosonee had vastly diminished the commercial importance of the Albany River, formerly the region’s lifeline. Natives started to migrate to Moosonee, which had a large residential school, a tuberculosis clinic, and a substantial government presence.
By the mid-1960s, the remaining Fort Albany band members were demanding their own modern houses and amenities. Abraham, now the community’s chief, started traveling to Timmins and other large towns to negotiate with federal officials. The old treaties, which formerly had been only a vague presence in his life during his early years, started to loom more important. For the Fort Albany Cree, it was the first stirrings of what we now recognize as modern First Nations political activism.
The wall on Abraham’s living room is full of happy photos. His 10 surviving children have produced about 35 grandchildren (he’s not sure of the exact number), including many who have gone on to post-secondary education, and a soldier who has done two tours in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, Abraham has misgivings about the way things have changed.
It was around 1965, when the federal and Ontario governments signed the Indian Welfare Agreement, that things really started getting fouled up, he tells me: For the first time, it became possible for large numbers of aboriginals to do nothing but “drink and watch television.”
“There are hardly any people who go to the bush now,” he complains. “Young people who work are looking for wage labour. The bush is too quiet for them. Everyone wants to drive a truck. And they want to be able to take a shower now and then.”
“Now I hear about people on disability,” he sniffs. “We didn’t have that in my day.”
He points to a black-and-white photo on the wall — a trapper whom his son identifies as one Xavier Koostachin.
“That fellow had one leg. But he went around the bush on crutches, providing for his family,” Abraham says. “No ‘disability’ for him.”
For the rest of this article, please go to the National Post website: http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/01/19/for-modern-reserves-success-is-in-balancing-tradition-and-capitalism/