We’ve snowmobiled 300 kilometres north from Cochrane, Ontario, into the James Bay Lowlands wilderness to meet up with my old friend, William Tozer. William is a Moose Cree legend: hunter, trapper, guide and former bush pilot. It was an all day journey, and night comes quick in late February, the temperature dropping. We greet one another, William’s gait and grin a welcome sight as we take in the new building he’s built far, far away from civilization.
Most every board of this gorgeous 600-square-metre camp sitting atop the frozen bank of the wide Abitibi River has been cut by William’s own hands and with his sawmill from the surrounding poplar and spruce. It’s outstanding, a big kitchen and living room warmly glowing in the darkness of the frozen night, a wing of bedrooms on either side that can sleep two dozen or more.
The work to make this dream to bring aboriginal and non-aboriginal youth together in a very special part of northern Canada was a massive undertaking by a number of families, my own included, and will no doubt continue to be. And this is why we’re here. In the last year alone, William and his wife have brought more than 250 children to Camp Onakawana from as far north as the reserve of Peawanuck on Hudson Bay, and from as far south as Toronto in order to introduce them to the land, and to try to give back to many of them something that for generations was forcefully taken from their elders.
A few frozen marten lay on the steps, Conibear traps still snug around the animals’ midsections. “I want to think that each of them,” William says, pointing his lips, “is one kid’s ticket to the camp.” William’s son, Ben, a tall and handsome young man I’ve known since he was a baby, now his father’s lean protégé, shows the friends who’ve joined me on this trip how the traps operate, squeezing them open with his hands, none of us able to accomplish the same deed when we, too, try to free the long furry creatures from the iron and springs that make these simple but deadly square traps.
I’ve known William for coming on 20 years and can sense the slightest of mood changes as only close friends can. After all, William’s a muse and a mentor to me. He’s the inspiration for my protagonist, Will Bird, in the novel Through Black Spruce. I met William so long ago while teaching on the west coast of James Bay for Northern College. It was my former student, Pamela, who introduced us — and who just so happens to be William’s wife and anchor — and if it weren’t for this introduction, I would not have written the novel that won me a Giller prize. I’ve always considered myself lucky through those I hang with.
With William, as with so many Moose Cree I’ve come to know over the years, stoicism doesn’t come close to describing their sheer ability to not let their moods, unless it’s boisterous laughter, affect the group. But something’s a bit off with him tonight. He’s worried, I soon find out, about tomorrow’s fur auction down on the outskirts of Toronto, in Rexdale near the horse track.
Here’s an example of the contemporary fur trade in practice: Tomorrow, 700 buyers, the majority representing interests from China and to a lesser degree Russia, will congregate to purchase Canadian and American marten hides, among other furs, in a volatile market trying to satiate growing middle-class hungers in that part of the world. To wear fur in China, whether it be in the form of a hat, coat or stole, is a sign, much like in our own bygone era, of a certain standard and bearing. And as anyone in the fur business knows, how cold last year’s winter was will largely dictate how much the marten will sell for this year. If warehouses are lean from last year’s cold, demand will be high this year for new furs. It’s apparently the simplest of supply-and-demand mathematics, but William’s been hearing grumblings and rumours of overstocking and of this year’s mild winter in China being a bad sign.
I’ve been out with William and family the last couple of winters to trap marten, a season that stretches from early December till well into February, and they are some of my fondest memories. Forget the old tropes of grizzled, solitary men in battles of quiet desperation against their sly and furry opponents. These are family outings in true Moose Cree tradition; snowmobile adventures hundreds of kilometres into the wilderness, thermoses of hot tea and roaring fires when the wind chill often drops temperatures so low your spit freezes as soon as it leaves your mouth.
The last few years, the prices per marten hide have ranged anywhere from $100 to $200 per pelt, depending on size, thickness of fur, coloration (anywhere from light or orange-hued at the low end to dark brown or black at the high end), and so each of the dozens of traps that William and family set, ranging over hundreds of kilometres of their traditional territory, promises to be its own small payday. My first time out with him, William explained that during a good year, the first few marten he gets on any particular trip will pay for that trip’s gas and supplies, and the rest are the profit of hard work and stamina, skill and some luck. Last year, William responsibly harvested about 200 marten. I’ll let you do the math, but when you subtract gas and food, add months of physical expenditure on some of Canada’s toughest and remote terrain, and multiply that by an outside world that despises the contemporary fur trade, it all divides up into subsistence living.
And so why does he do it? The most important reasons go straight back to the youth and introducing them to the place that is his family’s camp on the Onakawana River where it meets the Abitibi, less than 100 kilometres south of his home in Moosonee. William and Pam have raised their four children in a truly successful way, so much of it on the land. Chris is an OPP officer, Nolan has begun his own popular and award-winning outfitting operation, and Ben has grown into a young William. Their daughter, Rhayne, is a living and breathing 12-year-old Katniss from The Hunger Games, with all of the beauty and skill of that fictional protagonist.
William and Pamela understand the importance of traditional practices found only on the land in a part of our country that’s been deeply misunderstood. Attawapiskat, a recent lightning rod for the angry debate over struggles of isolated reserves in our country and the issues these communities face, is not so far north of their camp. But what William’s family never lost that so many others did to the century-long pestilence of residential schools is their knowledge of the land. William and family trap, in large part, in order to be able to afford to bring youth from both James Bay as well as the south together at their Camp Onakawana to reintroduce young people to the power and magic of the natural world. William and Pam inherently understand their people’s connection to this place, and rather than keep it to themselves, they generously share it with the youth who are most in need, teaching them to fish, build shelters and fire, paddle canoes and connect with their landscape.
But William’s not one to pout. There’re still two more auctions this year, in April and June. History says they won’t go any better than this one, though. “Hopefully next year will be better,” he says. He lights a cigarette. “You know, Joe, I’m not just doing this for the money.” He looks around at his camp on the gorgeous and frozen Abitibi River, kids playing by the bank, a couple of snowmobiles idling and puffing out white exhaust as a small group gets ready to go ice fishing. “It’s important to me to teach my children our traditional practices. It’s important to Pam and me to get youth out on the land.”
I’ve witnessed the difference with my own eyes over the years, so many of the young people of James Bay who come out here returning home with a bounce in their step, a smile on their face, having connected to something ancient inside them.
“Yeah,” William says. “Next year will be better.” He pauses and looks toward the river. I nod. I want to offer a few words of encouragement but realize it isn’t the time.
“I know it’s going to be OK, me,” he says. The ones going ice-fishing pull away on their snowmobiles, a few of the kids chasing them. William watches, then smiles. “Me, I know it’s all worth it in the end,” he says.
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