Log Cabin Chronicles

Red Man, Red Meat, Old Rights



[AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is a story about how age-old methods can be applied to modern problems. It's also a story about history, native rights, hunting and fishing, so if none of these subjects interests you, log off right now.]

Since man first came to this continent, the rugged mountains and rivers of northern Appalachia have been the hunting and fishing grounds of the Abenaki nation.

Together with their cousins the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy ,and others of New Hampshire and Maine, for at least 4000 years the Abenaki were uncontested champions of the huge forest we now call northern New England and Southern Quebec. Then along came the "white" men from Europe, who were actually more pink and beige than white, and began their rule of glistening steel.

The French colonists quickly "pacified" the Abenaki --ramming the Christian religion down their throats, enticing them with guns and trinkets, intoxicating them with cheap brandy, and "settling" them around an early mission where the St. Francis River enters the St. Lawrence.

Soon the St. Francis Indians were drafted into the European wars. Starting in the 1600s they became the terror of New England. They were the guerrilla branch, the stealthy commandos of the French colonial army, and they were sent south to raid the Massachusetts colonies and keep New England away from New France.

When the British finally won the French and Indian wars in 1763, they made the Indians some pretty heavy promises. Natives would be allowed to live their lives as they always had, the treaties said, "For as long as the trees grow and the rivers run," or words to that effect. As North American civilization evolved over the next couple of centuries, native rights were all but forgotten. But there's been a resurge of nationalism around the world in the last few years, and Canada's original communities aren't going to be ignored this time around.

And despite the best efforts of white society, we haven't managed to stop the growth of trees or the flow of rivers -- so the dusty old treaties still stand. As the courts have confirmed, this means among other things that Canada's natives have never lost the right to hunt and fish -- when, where, why and how they want to.

In Micmac country this newly restored right has led to conflict, even violence in the lucrative lobster industry. Traps have been smashed, insults exchanged, noses have been punched, even a church was burned as natives exercised their right while whites feared that their livelihood was ruined.

The Abenaki, too, could have chosen to hunt the woods and fish the rivers the way their forefathers had, without regard for the white man's law. But they chose a wiser way. Soon after the Quebec Court of Appeal upheld their right a few years ago, the Grand Council of the Waban-aki Nation offered to make a deal with Quebec.

In return for being left alone, the Abenaki offered to avoid a violent free-for-all, by defining what their people would and wouldn't do.

This June chiefs Gilles O'Bomsawin of Odanak and Raymond Bernard of Wolinak signed "an Agreement concerning the practice of hunting and trapping for food, ritual or social purposes". Cabinet Minister Guy Chevrette signed for Quebec.

Basically, the two-year trial agreement specifies that it is not a treaty, and covers the South Shore of the St. Lawrence and the Eastern Townships. The Abenaki promise to obtain permission from the owners before setting foot on private land, and to follow all provincial regulations during the official hunting and trapping seasons.

Outside the legal season different rules will apply, with Abenaki hunters allowed to hunt until January 31. They may also kill a second deer in certain circumstances, which will require a case-by-case okay from Quebec Conservation officials.

As well, the Woban-aki Grand Council may name hunters to bring in up to 10 more moose and 20 deer per year for "ritual and social" purposes. Grand Council general manager Daniel Nolett says some of the venison will be used for community celebrations but that most of it will go to needy families on the two reserves.

When news of the agreement reached the Townships last week, many local hunters feared that "their" woods would be invaded and "their" deer slaughtered by hordes of Indians, in something along the lines of the current lobster wars. A couple of flaming headlines didn't help, but Nolett's visit to Sherbrooke quickly calmed things down.

To put things in perspective, Nolett explained, the entire Abenaki nation comprises fewer than 2000 souls. Only about 125 Abenaki hunt, and virtually all of them already have a place to do so.

"Maybe 10 or 15" hunters might be interested in coming to the Townships, he said, and they certainly aren't looking for a fight. "We don't want to hassle anyone, to spoil anyone else's hunting, or go on any land where we aren't welcome," Nolett said at a news conference. "You won't find any Abenaki looking for a confrontation. We're not interested in anything like that. We just want people to know we have our rights."

Message delivered, Mr. Nolett. I just wish us white folks would behave as well as you.

[Confession, conflict-of-interest declaration and disclaimer: In a weak moment this spring I became president of the Eastern Townships Fish & Game Alliance, the association which represents landowners' clubs in Estrie and Montérégie. This puts me in a conflict of interest when it comes to the politics of hunting and fishing in the Townships -- which is not however to say that I won't write about the subject when I feel so inclined. Just so you know...]

Charlie Bury is a freelance writer based in Birchton, Quebec.

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Copyright © 1999 Charles Bury/Log Cabin Chronicles/11.99