THOSE FINEST HOURS
"Oh yes, those were the days..."
By Pat Dunford
Many years ago in Alberta's northern districts, Fish and Wildlife officers were relied upon to perform duties that would be highly unusual today. I have a great respect for the honest and hard-working people I met during the years I lived in these isolated communities. Their attitudes and ways of living are major factors in the realities of managing of natural resources in the area. This is something that should be recognized and respected by provincial wildlife managers.
Annual renewal of trapline licences in northern hamlets was the order of the day, years ago. The original decision to do this was attributed to the whim of a local politician and it was presumed he had gained himself a few votes for the arrangement. Local trapline renewals each summer were valuable and much appreciated by those residents of isolated hamlets who didn't get to town much. But this administrative duty was not exactly sought after by Fish and Wildlife officers.
The junior officer in the following story had a different view. He felt this way of meeting local residents was something quite unique and his experiences on these annual jaunts proved him right.
The junior officer heading out on one annual trapline renewal job, had been advised of some peculiar issues at this hamlet during the previous year.
Officers had determined that some local trappers, who seemed suspicious of government ways, had taken to switching their names from year to year when they came to renew their licences. There is nothing like dealing with a lot of people while having a major language difficulty (the local people spoke mainly Cree, while most officers spoke only English). This was compounded by people switching their names. The officers were suspicious of their motives, assuming some acts of an illegal nature were behind the practice.
The local priest was brought in to explain the nature of the problem. It seems that in this community (where the average person did not hold a driver's licence nor any form of identification beyond a firefighter's identification card), people were nonetheless quite religious. It was believed by some that they could extend their good graces during confession if their identity changed from time to time. The priest had finally resolved the dilemma of identification by producing a huge book that contained the baptismal registry of the church, going back possibly 100 years or more. Based on this record and the recollections of those present, each person had his or her name clarified. Those who had no birth date recorded had one assigned by the priest and the officers, based on recollections of the estimated age of the person at the time of baptism, plus factoring in the time of the year when it was recalled they were born. All those in the community who did not have a birth date recorded were assigned permanent birth dates in this fashion and these were duly recorded on their trapping licences from that day forward.
The process of renewing traplines in the northern hamlets was pre-advertised in each community in order to communicate in the best manner possible. First the officer ensured all licence materials and brochures were available for the trip. Then he contacted the local advisory committee member, who was a local official acting as a government contact person. This person was advised of the date of the officer's arrival. The date was also advertised by sending the community a poster which would be tacked up at a prime location.
On one occasion, a mix-up occurred. The date for licence sales in one community was confused by the advisory official before the poster arrived. The official had already informed many people of the wrong date for the officer's arrival. This might not have been so much of a problem except that two officers had planned on visiting two other hamlets on this incorrect date.
In order to resolve the confusion, the two drew straws. One would fly in to one hamlet, which was accessible only by air or by winter road. The other would drive 150 miles of rough road and attend to the others. The junior officer drew the rough road trip.
He was to arrive at the first of the two hamlets at noon. He would have plenty of time to complete all the trapline renewals, domestic net licence renewals, hunting licence sales (mostly moose and game bird licences) and handle any other inquiries. Then he would arrive at the second hamlet about 30 kilometres down the road at 3 pm.
His advice from other officers who had attended these communities the prior year was that sales would likely be light, as firefighting responsibilities often removed many trapline holders from the communities around this time, during late summer. So last year had been a snap, eh? He should then have time for a leisurely return trip back, or so he thought. He couldn't have been more wrong.
Arriving at the first community almost right on time, he searched for the community hall. Rounding a corner, his face dropped. A fairly large crowd had gathered outside. No problem. He would just have to be industrious to get them all done up in time. Once inside the hall however, he found himself positioned at a table while a group of adult males arranged chairs to position themselves in circle in front of him. According to one of the community elders, they wanted to negotiate a multi-year lease on a lot down by the lake. They had been told the department was interested in locating some kind of a trailer there.
The officer knew nothing of these matters so instead attempted to make a few mild inquiries to humor these serious-minded men. His lack of knowledge didn't matter to them, however, and it soon became apparent that they were going to negotiate the lease with him whether he liked the idea or not. Finally out of frustration, he pulled out a pad of paper, tore a piece of carbon paper from another form, put it between two sheets of foolscap and began drafting the lease contract.
Each of the community leaders spoke in turn, providing limits to the contract. Each term was written as a condition of the lease agreement.
After each of them had their say, the officer, feeling quite proud of this accomplishment, read back the terms of the agreement to them. Heads nodded all around. Each of those present then stepped up to the front and placed his mark at the bottom of the contract. When this was eventually concluded, the officer began renewing the licences, for an even larger crowd of people that had now gathered (the lease contract was quietly put in a drawer by one of the officer's superiors and the actual lease on the property in question was arranged some time later).
It was very hectic, but he finally completed the renewals for all those who attended from this first community. The officer then jammed all the licence materials into his briefcase, said some hasty goodbyes to the community leaders, jumped in his truck and raced to community number two. He arrived nearly one hour later than planned; it was nearly 4 p.m. He prayed there would be a light turnout at this hamlet. No such luck. Likely a hundred people were there patiently awaiting his arrival - men, women, children and old folks, along with many dogs and horses. He set up at a table and chair in a building that had no electricity. Someone was good enough to provide a long extension cord and trouble light so that he could then see fairly well in the dark interior. A huge lineup of people then began, starting from the table and extending across the interior of the building, out the door and somewhere beyond his vision. It would be a long night.
There were many intricacies in renewing traplines and most of these continue today with some variations, although this story is from many years ago. The affidavits of fur taken the previous year, partnership agreements and issuing of licences, all required much detail recorded on paper. And this year, some administrative bureaucrat had chosen to have each trapper identify the land location of each of his trapline cabins. This caused no end of difficulty.
The officer had nailed a large map on the wall to assist the trappers in locating their cabins for him. Sometimes, several smaller cabins were used and each had to be located on the map. A good percentage of the trappers indicated they could not read the map at all. Most began by referring to local landmarks such as, "...a ways down the cutline by the old sawdust pile where the old sawmill used to be," or, "...by the lake where all the Morias (burbot) live."
A major language barrier was also evident but the officer did his best to secure anyone who could obviously speak both Cree and English to interpret for him as long as they could. Although he never had anyone turn down his request to interpret, he lost one or another interpreter several times that evening. Once he looked over and saw a small boy run out the door wearing his uniform forage hat. He sent a couple of older kids after him, much to the amusement of several old trappers who were standing around. His hands began to blacken from handling so many carbon copies. His small cash box was filling up and overflowing.
Nonetheless, he kept doggedly on until at last, at 10 p.m., the last licence was renewed. He then merely had to negotiate the return trip of 150 miles of rough road. He slept for a while in the truck along the side the road on the way back.
Later, an auditor arrived to audit the licence sales back at the office. After a day of rummaging through paperwork, most of which involved licence sales at the office, the auditor discovered that some licences had been issued out of town, at the northern hamlets. The man quickly announced this discovery and demanded an explanation. The reasons behind these sales were quickly explained to him. Certainly not satisfied, he then proclaimed that this activity of issuing licences outside the office amounted to major cash handling violations of an unprecedented and intolerable variety, and this was as gross a series of violations as he had ever encountered. It goes without saying that the officers had to be practically restrained from mounting more than a serious verbal attack on this man's accusations. They sent him packing with some choice advice about what he could do with his accusations and worthless garbage audit. He was never heard from again.
As you may have guessed, I am the junior officer in these stories. It was with no little regret that I left the far north after working with people I will never forget. I found many of the people there had attitudes far less cluttered by politics than those elsewhere. They were an open people, understanding the difference between right and wrong and knowing it. Also, at the time of our story, nobody needed to ask a local northern resident whether he knew what the game warden did. The game warden held more sway than almost anybody.
Pat Dunford is a member of the
Alberta Fish and Wildlife Officers
Association in Edmonton, AB.