First Nation trapper in court with Red Lake MNR over Trout Lake traditional territory

From the Straight Goods ...

Treaties are just the starting point - Indigenous people work hard to recover their connection with their ancestors and with the land.
by Kate Harries - June 18, 2007

[Editor's Note: Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice says he's going to expedite specific claims, numbering around 800, as they arise from the government's failure to live up to legal obligations entered into by treaty. But specific claims are just the tip of the iceberg. Comprehensive claims arise where aboriginal lands were taken without treaties or other legal processes. And then there are a myriad of other disputes in which aboriginal rights run up against federal or provincial government regulation — such as the one involving the people who once lived on Trout Lake in northwestern Ontario. In the nearby gold-mining town of Red Lake, trapper Kaaren Dannenman and the Ontario government faced off in court recently over a community's attempts to recover lost skills and traditions. ]

In May 2006, the Ministry of Natural Resources office on Red Lake's main street was struck by lightning. Nature scoring a direct hit on the people who manage Ontario's wilderness.

"Maybe Creator was giving them a warning," my friend Kaaren Olsen Dannenmann laughed as we drove past the still vacant MNR building in early June this year. Her trial on charges laid by the ministry had just concluded, with judgment reserved until October, and after three days of handling her own defence, her relief was palpable.

The Ministry has thwarted the Trout Lake community's efforts to find healing and recover lost skills and memories, says aboriginal activist.

Trapper, teacher, activist, Kaaren's a force of nature herself. You might not give her a second look if you met her in the grocery store, a middle-aged Anishinaape woman wearing glasses, long black hair shot with grey cascading down her back. In fact, she says, it's a not uncommon experience for a cashier to look right through her at the check-up counter and prepare to ring in the next customer's purchases. "It's not on purpose," she says. "They apologize when they realize — but they just don't see us." That's how racism works, she says. The other — in this case, the aboriginal — is invisible. "It's as if we aren't there."

But she was a powerful presence in the Red Lake courtroom. She and her husband Phil are charged with building a cabin on public lands without a permit, and ignoring a verbal stop-work order. His case has been deferred. Robert Ponton, a justice of the peace from London, Ontario, heard Kaaren's case and he gave her considerable leeway in presenting the aboriginal perspective on the charges. Like the aboriginal worldview in which all elements of creation are interconnected, and community is a concept that includes people, trees, birds, rocks and visitors, her perspective was all-encompassing.

She quoted Judge Sidney Linden's report of his inquiry into the police shooting of Dudley George, at which the MNR acknowledged that "the historic policies and practices of provincial and federal governments have resulted in ongoing disenfranchisement and displacement of aboriginal people from their land and traditional practices in Canada."

She noted that the Ipperwash report refers to MNR's "high-handed and adversarial stance" in dealing with aboriginal people, using prosecution and other court actions rather than engaging them in determining the extent of their rights.

Evidence put forward by the Crown included a series of photos taken by James Guise, an MNR conservation office. One picture showed a motor boat. "Do you know what the significance of that boat is to us?" asked Kaaren, who cross-examined the MNR witnesses. "No, I don't," Guise replied. Kaaren explained that the boat was given to the Trout Lake people by the family of Dudley George and represents the strong connection the community feels to the inquiry. "I'm just surprised how little you know about the things you are photographing," she told him.

Kaaren also pointed out that none of the photographs submitted to the court — taken by Guise at different times — showed posters on the wall of the cabin advertising upcoming gatherings. At her request, those photos were found and filed as evidence of the communal nature of the cabin. She told Ponton that she built the cabin as a gathering place for the NamekosipiiwAnishinaapek, who once lived along the waterways and forests of Trout Lake, Red Lake and Lac Seul. She recounted the sad history of her people following the 1925 discovery of gold in the Trout Lake area and the construction of two residential schools in Northwestern Ontario. "I don't think it was a coincidence that those two events occurred in the same year," she said.

Born in 1950 to an Anishinaape mother and a Norwegian father who obtained a commercial fishing licence and lived on Trout Lake, Kaaren remembers a community of some 100 people, still pursuing a traditional lifestyle — although the migratory patterns followed by their forebears were constrained by the flooding for a hydro-electric dam of seasonal harvesting places, and their subsistence lifestyle was running up against competition for resources from mining, forestry and tourism interests.

As the residential school children returned to their community, they turned out to have been poorly educated and lacking the skills to survive on the land. They had lost their language and they had been taught to despise who they were. "In the 1960s was when people really started drinking." she testified. "Within a 10-year span we lost a whole generation of kids to Children's Aid."

At some stage, she noted, perhaps in the 1970s, MNR decided that the Trout Lake Anishnaape had lost their right to live in their homeland and build residential shelters for their families. Their descendants number over 1,300, including adoptees who were dispersed across North America, some of whom are coming back.

Local community members, living in Red Lake, Kenora and Winnipeg, started holding regular meetings in 1998, first at the cabin on Olsen Island where Kaaren was born and grew up. There wasn't enough room there, and so construction began of the 24 by 24 foot structure on a beach on the north shore of the lake, where Kaaren has her trapline (an area along the north shore of Trout Lake where she holds a license to trap). This is where community members learn trapping and traditional skills, gatherings are held, and camps are organized for aboriginal and non-aboriginal children to gain an understanding of the ancient ways of living in the forest.

"I made every effort to have the lines of authority that I believed were applicable to us in doing this," she said. She met with MNR district manager Graeme Swanwick and told him what she was planning. She filled out an application for a work permit, amending the document however to read "agreement" rather than "permit."

"I believe there's a role for MNR," she explained, "but I don't believe it's policing us. I believe we're capable of doing that ourselves. The non-aboriginal community needs that type of enforcement in place." She took Stanwick's verbal stop-work order as a request that she chose to ignore, believing that an official order would be in written form.

The efforts of the Trout Lake community to find healing and recover lost skills and memories have been consistently thwarted by the ministry, Kaaren told Ponton. "Re-membering our collective life gives us strength and hope and joy. Why is MNR not working to facilitate that effort instead of putting all kinds of roadblocks in our way?"

She recalled that doing research in the 1980s, she found letters from tourism camp operators in MNR files dating back to the 1960s, requesting that the Indians of Trout Lake not be allowed to build any more cabins because they were "an eyesore" for the guests who were flown in to fish and hunt. Some cabins belonging to her cousins were torched by MNR officials. Another cousin had an attractive log cabin. It was dismantled piece by piece when he was away one summer and rebuilt on the property of a camp operator. When he returned he complained to what was then the department of lands and forests; they refused to help him. "My experience," Kaaren said, "has given me a strong message that MNR would much rather see me and my people homeless and drunk on the streets of Red Lake."

Under cross-examination by crown attorney Brian Wilkie, Kaaren agreed that her hope is for a vibrant permanent community to be re-established on Trout Lake. "If you had your way would you ever come back to Red Lake?" he asked. "No," she said. And the cabin on Anton Beach would be her permanent home base? No, she replied, that's not her vision of her permanent home on Trout Lake, "it's not what it looks like and it's not what it's going to look like."

Wilkie argued that the matter was an open and shut case. Kaaren had admitted to having built the cabin there, with a little help from her friends — whom she refused to name. While the Supreme Court has ruled that a cabin is needed for an aboriginal to exercise the right to hunt and trap, Wilkie pointed out that there were several structures on Kaaren's trapline that would provide the necessary shelter.

He challenged her portrayal of the cabin as a communal facility. On the shores of Anton Beach (the beach was named by Kaaren for her grandson) with a wonderful view of Trout Lake, the cabin is in an idyllic location, he pointed out. A satellite dish had been rigged up to provide reception for a TV and Dannenman built a child's playhouse at the request of her granddaughter. "It's a beautiful personal home," Wilkie said. "It's not some communal hall for 50 or 60 people. It's the sort of cottage all of us would like to have."

In her reply, Kaaren explained that the reason there were several cabins on her trapline was that the layout was designed by her brother — the head trapper on the line until he died in 1998 — to accommodate trapping patterns without snow machines. Each cabin was a day's travel apart.

"We have recently started talking about going back to snowshoes and walking trails to work the trap line, not so much because of the exorbitant price of gasoline, but mainly because we have found that, as soon as we step onto a snow machine, we are disconnected from the land. We have found that the more powerful the machine, the more we are disconnected from the land."

She also answered the question that Wilkie didn't ask about her vision of her permanent home. It provided a stark contrast to his take on her "cottage."

"I want my own personal shelter to emulate the shelters of the past, bent saplings covered with bark, stitched with pine roots," she said "Big enough to have a bed made of moss, balsam branches and moose hair. My shelter is going to have the ground as the floor and a stump for my table. I will have a wood stove small enough that I won't need a chain saw or maul. I will be making the shelter of my dreams when my old age will limit my abilities to work like I am able right now."

Ponton has given himself more than four months to ponder Kaaren's position that the cabin is a step down the road to achieving redress for oppressive and genocidal practices — and decide what weight to give to the evidence she brought forward, which ranged from the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (adopted last year by the UN Human Rights Council but not yet bought before the General Assembly for ratification because of opposition from Canada) to the letter her brother Harald wrote to the MNR a few months before his death in a hunting accident, urging that they not clearcut his trapline.

"I find evidence of the lives of my ancestors all over the bush," he wrote. "Trails hundreds of years old, medicine taps on ancient tree stands, birches still standing with the bark peeled off, mounds where camps one stood and flourished.

"When I relate my findings to my mother, she verifies it all and tells me a lot more. In the vast storehouses of the memories of my mother and other elders and sacred teachers is information that is more valuable to us than any other. Every square foot of the land was known and occupied. The foods from balsams, birches, ashes and other hardwoods, from the shrubs and water plants, are plentiful in this forest area.

"My time out here is more than for economic reasons in hunting and trapping and fishing. It is time of constant spiritual renewal, growth and rebirth through not only my daily activities, but in personal rituals and the sacred ceremonies of my people."

His request was not granted. Clearcuts have erased the ancient trails, and now it falls to Kaaren and other Trout Lake people to, in her word, "re-member" the community and the land.

Kate Harries is a journalist specializing in environmental and First Nations issues. She can be reached at the following email address