In their own words: Fur trappers on Ontario's oldest profession

TVO.org speaks with three northeastern trappers about the traditions of their work, urban misconceptions — and keeping animal populations healthy
By Nick Dunne - Published on Dec 03, 2020
Trappers collect and haul pelts and travel hundreds of kilometres to a trading post to sell them. (iStock/goosey270)

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The life of a trapper has never been an easy one. It involves spending countless hours alone on a boat, snowshoes, or a dogsled, collecting and hauling pelts, then travelling hundreds of kilometres to a trading post to sell them. Even with advent of snowmobiles, modern traps, GPS, and other technologies, trapping is demanding and labour-intensive. And COVID-19 has made it only more difficult.

The North Bay Fur Auction, the last remaining wild-fur auction house on the continent, saw a 25 per cent decline in sales between this year and last, according to Ken Frederick, operator of the auction’s trapping store — “mainly because we can’t get people in the building.” Chinese, Russian, Korean, and Italian vendors were unable to visit the facility to inspect the wares. “They normally like to see the fur, the colour of what they’re buying,” he says.

Yet trappers continue to venture out to the bush to maintain their traplines — routes, sometimes as long as 100 kilometres, along which they set their traps. While many assume the practice involves taking as much from the land as possible, trappers work to balance the animal populations in their ecosystems. TVO.org spoke with three trappers in northeastern Ontario about the lifestyle, tradition, ecology, and economics behind Canada’s oldest industry. Here they are in their own words.


Carmen Cotnoir

Based in: Spanish

Trapline: Near Elliot Lake (80 kilometres)

I have had my trapping license for 21 years, but it took me 15 years to get my own

trapline.

With women trapping, you wouldn’t see too much of that. Most of the women would

a woman holds an animal carcass
Carmen Cotnoir has had her trapping licence for 21 years. (Courtesy of Carmen Cotnoir)

usually be going with their husbands, and they would be helpers. So, finally, I met this 75-year-old trapper, and he said he would take me as a helper. I’m lucky he gave me a chance, and good thing he gave me a chance. When he passed away, I got his trapline. That’s how you learn: by experience and by going in the bush and doing your stuff.

I’m not infringing on the animals; I’m helping them survive. If there are too many wolves, I will try to get a couple of wolves to have fewer predators for my beavers. For marten, I will try to trap more fishers so that my population of marten can grow. It’s like a circle. If there are too many beavers or other animals in a spot, eventually there are going to be diseases that spread. Mother Nature kicks in, and then she eliminates them all — or most of the family. So I always say we are less cruel than Mother Nature.

We’re not there to waste the animals; we’re there to make sure that our trapline is in good health and that our animals are in good health. Everything is regulated. You need to have regulated traps, and these traps are all tested and approved.

Cottagers, they want to get rid of them. And then I say to them that these beavers have been here much longer than you. You’re the one infringing in their territory, but you want me to destroy them all.


Robin Horwath, general manager of the Ontario Fur Managers Federation

Based in: Blind River

Trapline: Between Thessalon and Chapleau (roughly 100 square kilometres)

a man checks a trap on a tree
Robin Horwath is general manager of the Ontario Fur Managers’ Federation, which supports sustainable and humane fur management. (Courtesy of Robin Horwath)

Both my grandfathers were trappers, and, during the Great Depression, they both supported their families with trapping. I remember my grandparents telling me at a young age that they were getting $3 for a muskrat and $5 for a skunk during the Depression. I Googled it, and the equivalent of $3 then is $146 now. They just had a sale at the North Bay Fur Auction, and they got $3.50 on average for their muskrats. The average last year, I believe, was around $22 per beaver. If you think back, in 1984-’85, we were getting $120 for a high-quality beaver. Just to give you an idea of how the fur industry has not kept up and why people can’t really support themselves wholly on trapping.

I was in Queen’s Park last December at a meeting, and I was speaking with Kiiwetinoong MPP Sol Mamakwa. When he grew up, his mother and dad took him at a very young age on the trapline. We were talking about some of the struggles we were having, and he said to me that, in his community, the delivered price for fuel was going to be almost $4 per litre. If I fill my snow machine up, that’s almost 40 litres. That would be almost $160 to fill it, and you can go two days on that. How much more would you have to catch just to pay for the price of the fuel?

I think this is lost on a lot of people in urban settings: Nature is not kind. It’s very cruel. If we aren’t here trapping and keeping healthy populations, nature’s going to step in, and starvation and disease ends up taking over in these furbearers. If you look at urban sprawl — if you think how much they’ve displaced in 100 years down around Toronto, the GTA, and some of those places — they don’t see all the wildlife they’ve displaced and killed off. And yet, they want to tell us that we can’t do this or we can’t do that. We’re actually making room for the breeders to sustain themselves over the years.


Ernie Martin, member of Moose Cree First Nation

Based in: Cochrane

Trapline: Along the Abitibi River, near Fraserdale (41 kilometres)

a man stands behind a pickup truck
Ernie Martin has been trapping since he was a child. (Courtesy of Gary Martin)

I’ve been doing this since I was a kid, trapping squirrels after school – over 60 years ago now. It was with my uncle and my grandfather where I started, but it wasn’t till 1970 or something when I got a trapline. My grandfather had always trapped. He used to go from the Moose River up by boat to the trapline on the Opasatika River and stay two, three months at a time there. In the winter, he’d snowshoe back down the Moose River and then go out west on the Missinaibi River to a town called Mattice to sell his furs. It was all snowshoeing.

I’d watch him and ask questions, and eventually I learned to do it by myself.

You watch for beaver populations by how much damage they’re doing; maybe you have to trap some more. Marten don’t really damage too much, but you don’t want to overtrap them, either. You go for a long ride, look at the snow, and try to see how many tracks you see. If you don’t see many tracks, you leave them for next year. The meat itself — nothing gets wasted. A lot of Elders around town are looking for wild beaver meat. Some of them will offer to skin the beaver for you to keep the meat. They like to keep up with their skinning.

It’s a pastime, really. It’s good to go out into the bush and all that. It’s better than hanging around town to get the fresh air out in the middle of nowhere, where there’s some peace. It gives me some exercise instead of sitting around the house, and I’m getting to my seventies now. But I still get around pretty good.

I take my children whenever they can get out on the weekends, but they’re all working. For a while, they weren’t really interested. But once they got into it, they’re enjoying it more and more.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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