Review of Reviews

The White Trapper

A Reply to “Shall the North West Territories Close the Door?”

C. J. FERGUSON September 15 1934
Review of Reviews

The White Trapper

A Reply to “Shall the North West Territories Close the Door?”

C. J. FERGUSON September 15 1934

The White Trapper

A Reply to “Shall the North West Territories Close the Door?”


Editor’s Note: Mr. Godsell’s article, "Shall the North West Territories Close the Door," appeared in Maclean's May issue. Mr. Ferguson's reply was only received in time for inclusion in this issue. Fort Providence is a long way off.

PROPAGANDA!” quickly superseded by, ‘‘But why?” were the first thoughts to go racing through my mind as I finished reading an article appearing in the May issue of Maclean’s and written by Philip H. Godsell.

The motive inspiring Mr. Godsell, I decided, was no concern of mine. But what does concern me, just as it concerns every other white person in the North West Territories, is the multitude of misleading statements and erroneous implications contained in his article.

Mr. Godsell lauds the Northern Indian as a conservationist who "farmed” his trapping country. Maybe. But I’ve never seen an Indian conservationist and, outside of fiction have never heard of one. It has been my experience that the Indian’s inherent qualities make of him a wanton killer, a destructionist. Given any type of weapon from a club or a bow and arrow to a modem firearm, and the average Indian will kill everything he can simply for the sake of killing. Too lazy to put out his campfire, he leaves its destiny to nature’s whims. If a rising breeze fans the glowing coals to a leaping, roaring red demon of destruction it causes him no worry. He simply cries to the Indian Agent that, as his trapping country is burned, he is

unable to catch fur, so asks for an increase in rations—and usually gets it. The people of Canada pay the bill through increased taxation.

Again, the Indians, becoming jealous because a white man, through hard work and the expenditure of considerable money for equipment, catches a few more pelts in a winter than do the natives, set fire to his cabins with the idea of driving him out. The fires spread and sweep over vast areas, destroying not only the timber but all game and fur as well. Again they cry hard times and famine, and blame the white trapper for the shortage in furs; and again the Canadian taxpayers foot the bill for increased I. D. rations for the poor abused Indian.

Indians Are Shiftless

TF THE INDIANS of the Mackenzie -*• District, with every natural advantage in their favor, at any time or at all times find themselves in hard straits, they can blame no one except themselves—unless it be the trading company to which they for ever are in debt. Mr. Godsell refers to the Indian as “a diplomat” whose shrewd cunning enables him to walk out of the trader’s store witli a canoe load of things bought on credit and for which he never intends to pay. Pretty smart for unsophisticated “children of nature,” that! But apart from the foolhardiness of traders who year after year give “debt” to such irresponsibles, one might reasonably think that a people imbued with

such shrewdness should be able to take care of themselves.

And so they could ! But as it happens, the Indian is not inclined to do so. He is lazy, shiftless, careless, extravagant, dirty; he lacks foresight, initiative, ambition. Easier than exerting muscular energy in trapping fur and caring for his belongings is smooth tongue-w'agging designed to chisel an even more generous allowance of rations from an indulgent Indian Department. Even as 1 sit here writing, and though the day of treaty payment is yet far in the future, every Indian in the Fort Providence district is already camped in the fort, and the sound of their gambling drums reverberates with never ceasing monotony in my ears. After treaty is paid, they will linger here on and on until their last penny has filtered into the traders’ hands and their credit is exhausted and the last morsel of I. D. issued rations is greedily devoured and hunger pains begin to gnaw at their belly linings. Then, and then only, will the Indians for whom Mr. Godsell writes so solicitously leave for their hunting grounds.

It may be, as Mr. Godsell states, that the old Scots factors of 1821 looked with disfavor upon the killing of unprime furs, but I’ll bet they did not often permit the disfavor to discourage them from buying the pelts. At any rate, not all present-day post managers do. I have in mind a comparatively recent case in which a trading-post manager advised his Indian hunters to kill game illegally, saying he w'ould buy the fur. They did and he did. Both were arrested and given light fines. In the case of the post manager it was only five dollars and costs. On the other hand, I’ve known of white men being assessed excessively heavy fines of from $100 to $300 for first offense infractions of those same game regulations. And, as every Northerner is aware, the Indians kill game and trap fur indiscriminately in season and out of season.

Then Mr. Godsell painstakingly points out that the Hudson’s Bay Company sold the natives no high-power rifles but only muzzle loaders which could never cause great slaughter. How silly! Who ever heard of high-power rifles in 1821? But when he goes farther and implies that the natives were supplied with no such modem weapons until the advent of what he so charitably terms “mobs of irresponsible pedlars and fly-by-night small traders,” Mr. Godsell is indeed leading the reader far from the path of reality.

Modem repeating rifles were carried in stock at Hudson’s Bay Company posts in the Far North and sold to natives fully as early as 1900, and by 1905 their use was very common. For the most part they were Winchester carbines in 44-40, 38-55 and 45-70 calibres—excellent weapons for use in timbered regions. Any sane-minded person knows that it is not the type of weapon that counts, but rather the use the owner makes of the particular weapon he has. For after all, no gun will kill unless someone first aims it and presses the trigger.

As to “tawdry and useless finery”—well, only a few small traders carry a line of that type of goods to compete with the extrava-

gant array usually found on the shelves of the larger Northern stores. Mr. Godsell may be right in his statement that the small trader was first to introduce yeast cakes and dried fruit from which the natives learned to make home-brew liquor. If so, I am equally right in stating that it is the big companies, termed legitimate traders by Mr. Godsell, that found the practice so profitable that they still employ it. Now, with almost all the small traders gone from the scene, they annually sell to the Indians amazing quantities of yeast cakes and dried fruit with the full knowledge that almost every bit of it will be used for brewing liquor. With rare exceptions, the Northern Indian never bakes bread and has no legitimate use for yeast cakes.

Next. Mr. Godsell dons his hobnails and puts the boots to the white trappers. And once more I say: “How silly. How childish the arguments presented against them.”

Other Misstatements

FIRST, he complains that the white trapper, unlike the Indian, does not make a short journey to visit his traps and then plant himself down to a period of lazy inactivity, only faring forth again when the money derived from the sale of his few pelts has vanished into the trader’s till. He complains that the white trapper works too hard and tries to make more than enough money to cover his day-to-day needs; he would have white men retrograde to the Indians’ lowlevel of poverty and filth; he censures industry, thrift, initiative, ambition, progress, the desire to get ahead—and he advances theories purporting to be of benefit to the advancement of the North West Territories.

And he venemously refers to the “getrich-quick white trapper, with his poison baits, and his home in Minneapolis, Vermont or Denver.” But he neglects to mention that every such trapper contributes 8150 a year in license fee, plus royalties on furs caught, for the privilege of trying to get rich quick.

Well, I’m a white trapper. My home once was in North Dakota. It now is, and for seven years has been, at Fort Providence, N. W. T. My wife is here with me. We have no other home. Yes, I’m a naturalized Canadian. For seven years I’ve trapped the same line, and I hope and expect to trap it for many more. During each of those seven years I’ve worked as hard as any man possibly could work; and, being of Scotch extraction, I’ve not exactly squandered any money I’ve made. Still, strange as it may seem, I’ve neither been encumbered with a four-figure bank balance nor found it necessary to pay income taxes. Maybe it’s because I ’ve not resorted to the use of poison bait. In fact, that may be the reason why I’ve never known a white trapjper to leave the North with any great amount of money to show for his years of hard work—so seldom does one use poison.

Here in the North the “moccasin telegraph” is a quick purveyor of news, yet seven years only two poison cases have come to my attention. Both men drew merited convictions. Very few white trappers will

stand for a poisoner. Knowing only too well what poison will do to the fur supply, we religiously abstain from its use. In this country no poisoner can hoix; to escape. Oh,

I know, Mr. Godsell pointed out that white trappers operate in remote districts where it is hard to travel, and that there are not many {»lice to enforce the law. But I wonder if he really thinks for a moment that readers will take seriously the proposition that white trappers are hardy enough to travel and profitably trap in a section of country which the famed R. C. M. Police find too difficult even to get into? And surely he is not implying that the R. C. M. Police are too inefficient to keep tabs on a group of men who, relatively speaking, do not numerically so greatly exceed themselves?

Again he errs in stating that it is difficult to detect the use of poison. It is not difficult. It is easy. Anyone finding an animal lying dead without a trap on its foot may at once suspect the use of poison. And the dead animals are bound to be seen on occasions by someone. Here, Indians constantly travel over white men’s trap lines. And, hating the whites as they do, should a poisoned bait or a jx>isoned animal be found, they would lose no time in laying complaint with the police.

Mr. Godsell also bemoans the white trappers bringing in from “outside” their own grubstake, and that someone taught the Indians to put their fur up at auction for sale to the highest bidder, regardless of where their fur debt was obtained. Why not? The trading companies operating in the Far North do not stock goods of the type and quality demanded by white people. If one places an order through a company he often pays them a net profit of from sixty to seventy-five per cent and gets goods of unsatisfactory and inferior quality. I know, having tried it for three years. And why should any man sell his fur to one company for, say, $400, if another buyer is willing to pay him $500? Anyway, when a company gives an Indian debt it is with the underlying purjxjse of trying to make him feel obligated to sell his fur to that company at prices named by them.

So, in impartial retrospection, why should the trader be condemned for the Indian’s plight and demoralization? Why should they alone be accused of exploiting the natives? And why should the pitifully few white trappers operating in the N.W. Territories be blamed and held responsible whenever there occurs a shortage in game and furs?

Unfair Tactics

T WILL SAY that I’m a staunch conserva-

tionist who, in any given year, kills less game than any Indian hunter operating in the same locality. I’ve never known a white man to resort to the unsporting tricks practised by the natives, who, when travel-

ling over a white trapper's line, spring traps, spit tobacco juice over them, throw away markers indicating where traps are set, place traps in close proximity to one’s cabin where they may catch and ruin a good and greatly needed dog, steal fur from traps, and break into and rob caches of necessities the owner is often dependent upon. I’ve had Indians do all these things and many more to me.

I am not in favor of throwing wide the doors of the N. W. Territories, permitting an unrestricted invasion of trappers and traders. The country will not support them. But neither do I believe that the door should be closed so tight as to mean virtual elimination of the white trappers and small traders. There can be no doubting the benefit derived from business competition within reasonable bounds. Also there am be no questioning that the Far North can supjxjrt a limited number of trappers besides those few already here. But the number of new licenses issued must be small and rigidlylimited. An increase, possibly, of fifty to one hundred per cent over the present number, and that level then to be maintained by issuing licenses to new trappers only at such times as vacancies occur through death, emigration or a change in vocation. Of course, provision would need be made to prevent the newcomers from encroaching ujxm lines already held by whites or natives.

Incidentally, in conclusion, I might mention that were the natives to settle on one line which they held and trapped year after year, instead of following their present practice of all flocking, in the hope of chiselling in on his catch, to some section where another trapper has already found a fur pocket, all would fare much better in the long run. As it is now, one trapper makes a good catch somewhere and immediately a dozen or more of the natives leave the lines they already are on and,rush greedily to the other trapper’s district.

Then a white trapper may move into the abandoned territory. A year or two years pass, then the white man is reported to lxcatching quite a lot of fur. At once the natives rush back and set up a hue and cry about the white man taking their hunting and trapping grounds. If he again turns in a gcxxl catch the next year, they set about with fiendish ingenuity and rotten sjxirtsmanship to contrive ways and means of getting him to move. Right now, with only four white trappers in the entire Providence district, the Indians are employing just such methods. For a change, let’s have a little clean sportsmanship and fair play in this fur game. And how about the people of the North West Territories having some say in framing the regulations governing their own country? Above all, let’s not slip back into the days of a one-company monopoly and domination, when the price of flour will again shoot to $20 a sack and sugar will sell at fifty cents a pound, with all other commodities handled by the trader bringing correspondingly extortionate prices.