Edmund Metatawabin and Alexandra Shimo, Special to National Post |September 15, 2014 7:21 AM ET
In early 2013, the National Post dispatched me to James Bay, to write a story about the challenges facing the area’s Cree communities, including Fort Albany, Kashechewan, Moose Factory and Attawpiskat. Out of sheer luck, as I was changing planes in Timmons, Ont., I happened to run into a man whose family would become the centerpiece of my story, former Fort Albany chief Edmund Metatawabin.
As I discovered over the next few days, the story of Mr. Metatawabin’s family is very much the story of James Bay. His father Abraham — whom I was able to interview, at the age of 92, in his Fort Albany home, was a rugged hunter, trapper and ranger — part of the last generation that could define their economic existence in these traditional ways. By talking to Abraham, Edmund and Edmund’s children, I was able to trace out some of the ways that Fort Albany, and communities like it, have dealt with the transitions of the last century. I heard the good and the bad, and did my best to get both into my story.
Edmund now has a new book, in which he writes not only of his childhood in the outdoors, but also of his troubling and scarring experiences at a residential school. In today’s National Post, I am delighted to present an excerpt from Up Ghost River.
— Jonathan Kay, managing editor, comment, National Post
“Can I come? Can I come trapping?” my younger brother Alex asked. Papa and I were standing by the door of our house. Alex was still sitting on his bed of moosehide and blankets.
“No,” Papa said.
“It’s not fair! Ed got to go last time.” “He’s bigger.”
“Well, you’re not old enough yet.” “Yes I am. I’m five.”
Papa shook his head. “This one,” he said, gesturing toward Alex. “What a handful. I don’t know where he gets it from.”
“Probably from you,” Mama said. “You used to be like that when you were younger.”
It was spring and Papa and I were going trapping. I was already seven, but Papa said I still wasn’t big enough, so I watched him as he opened the trap and fastened it to the log that went into the water.
I knew that Papa wanted to put his traps farther afield since the traps he’d set around here hadn’t yielded much. I’d tried to talk to him about it and he’d said that it was out of his hands, and when I’d pushed, he had become quiet.
Outside the morning sun bounced on the last ice covering the puddles. Shadows of cloud slithered across worn grass. The first patches of green were sprouting up in the muskeg. We walked silently, until we got to the edge of town.
“Which way is the wind blowing, Ed?” “West!” I said and pointed.
Then we came to a depression in the soil that looked like two giant teardrops.
“What do you think made that?” he said. “That’s easy. It’s a moose.”
“How old is it?” “I dunno.”
“Feel the soil. Is it fresh?” “Yeah, I guess.”
“Look at the grass around the footprint. Is it still flattened? Or has it started to bounce back up?”
“It’s already fully up.”
“That means the animal was here two or three days ago. If the grass has just started to rise, it’s less than a day, and we should follow them. And if the grass is dry, or the soil hard, they are long gone.”
“So are we going to follow it?”
“No,” he said. “It’s already too far away.” We walked out to the Albany River, to where Papa had found martens last year. As we got closer, I heard what sounded like a baby crying. Papa started to run, panicked. The trap was supposed to break the marten’s neck, but instead the animal was desperate, hissing, squirming, clawing. It smelled of sweat, piss and fear. A bad omen, signalling that Gitchi Manitou was unhappy.
“Shh,” he said to the marten, and he made tender sounds like the ones he used to make with his daughter, Rita. Then he reached into the trap with both hands, there was a snapping sound and the marten fell slack. A female, from the size. He freed her from the trap and brought her close to his face.
“Life is a gift,” he whispered. “Thank you.” “Papa, one day, can I be a hunter like you?”
He shook his head no. I waited for him to explain, but he stayed quiet as he put a piece of meat on the bait pan. Martens don’t recognize human scent as easily as animals like foxes and wolves do, but Papa was always extra careful, especially when he had something on his mind. This time he reset the trap with such focus, it was like he was handling a robin’s egg. For extra measure, he wiped everything down with a rag.
Alex greeted us at the door. “What you get? What you get?” he said. “A couple of martens,” Papa said.
“Anything else?” Mama asked, looking up from her sewing. “No, I didn’t set any more traps.”
“Why not?” she said.
“Well for starters, there aren’t many animals around here. But I’ve also noticed the martens and beavers are pretty thin right now. Let’s let them recover.”
“What about your debt at the store?” “I’ll have to speak to the manager.”
“What about the extension to our house you were going to build?”
“I can still do that.” “Keshayno, we’re in debt.”
“We’ll be fine, Netchi. I heard that fur prices are up again.”
Over the next few days, Papa scraped the hides and stretched them on a circular frame. He showed me how to scrape the hide with a sharp knife so it could dry better. We hung the frame from a high branch, safe from the dogs.
The day the furs were ready, Papa and I got up before the rest were awake. He helped me button my coat and pants, cooked bannock and tea, and we walked over to the Hudson’s Bay store. We climbed the steps and opened the wooden door. A tall man about the same age as Papa was standing at the counter holding what looked like a bulky gun, which he was using to put sticky labels on some bread loaves. Papa had already told me that the manager was also called The Boss and that we all had to be nice to him. Ignoring Papa, the man straightened a price tag on a bag of flour. Above him were shelves stacked with supplies — sugar, Klik canned meat, tomato soup, lard, tea — and on the wall to his right, the more costly goods — ammunition and a number of rifles including a new one just arrived called The Savage 45. Furs were draped from the ceiling and counters, with the most valuable — otter, black fox and wolverine — sheathed in cotton to keep out the dust.
Papa shifted his weight and cleared his throat, and still the man continued pricing. After what seemed like a long while, he turned and slowly began to wipe his hands on his apron.
“Good morning, Abraham,” The Boss said in Cree. “What do you think of our weather? Jesus, it’s cold.”
“It’s not so bad. Just the wind.”
“It’s always so goddamned windy.” He looked at my dad. “I had it better in Timmins, you know. Little house in South End, right near the water.”
“You have good fortune here.”
“I do? S’pose you’re right. So what have you got for me?” he said. Papa pulled out the marten furs. They were the size of lean cats. “They’re beauties, these ones,” the man said.
“No sir,” Papa replied.
“Do you know the size of your debt?” “Yessir.”
“What is it?”
“Four hundred and twenty dollars and fifteen cents. That’s without the roofing tile.”
“And how much you think you’ll get for a marten?”
“I dunno. I heard prices were up.”
“You heard wrong, Abraham.”
“Well, how much then?”
“I can give you $30 each.”
“Thirty dollars! That’s $8 less than last week. Why the sudden drop?”
“Toronto isn’t buying right now.”
“All right, then,” Papa said. “Can you give me some sugar and lard?”
“No. There are new rules. The company is asking everyone to pay off their existing debts before getting new supplies.”
“I have children,” Papa said.
“Yes, I know.”
“We are hungry.”
“You and everyone else in this town. What am I supposed to do?”
“You are supposed to help us.”
“I am just doing my job, Mr. Metatawabin. Company’s orders.”
“How’d it go?” Mama asked as soon as we opened the door.
“Not bad,” Papa replied.
“Did you get the lard?”
“Uh … no.”
Excerpted from Up Ghost River: A Chief’s Journey Through the Turbulent Waters of Native History by Edmund Metatawabin with Alexandra Shimo. © 2014 Edmund Metatawabin. Published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited, a Penguin Random House Company. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher.