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On the Land: Grassy Narrows Traplines – Interviews with members of the Swain family

With the Grassy Narrows “Trappers’ Case” finally reaching the Supreme Court this week, it seemed like a good time to repost a write up of the interviews I did with Chrissy Swain, her son Edmond Jack, and grandfather Jim Swain, wherein we talked about the recent re-acquisition of a family trapline and the importance of trapping and being on the land for the history and future of Asubpeeschoseewagong Netum Anishinabek, the People of Grassy Narrows.

This interview originally appeared as an article in Peak Magazine‘s recent issue on “Intergenerational Movements.”


On the Land: A Grassy Narrows Family talks about the History and Future of their Relationship with Trapline and the Lands of Asubpeeschoseewagong Netum Anishnabek Territory

For me doing this isn’t just about protecting the land, it’s about reviving our people, bringing that spirit back to our people. And that’s what’s going to bring the spirit back to our people, is to keep this land.

-Chrissy Swain

On February 9, 2014, Maryanne Swain finally received word from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) that she had been approved as the new title holder for trapline KE056, located in Ontario Forestry Management Unit (FMU) #490, also known as the Whiskey Jack Forest.

The Whiskey Jack Forest roughly overlaps with the Traditional Territory of Asubpeeschooseewagaon Netum Anishnabek, also known as Grassy Narrows First Nation, and has been more or less protected from Industrial logging for over a decade by the longest standing blockade in the country.

In April of this year, the MNR’s 10 year Forestry Management Plan (FMP) for the Whiskey Jack Forest comes into effect, which means that for the first time since the blockade went up in 2002, the heart of Grassy Narrows Territory in Northwest Ontario is under immediate threat from industrial scale clearcut logging operations.

A March 1 statement from a new Grassy Narrows Youth Group says, “The new clearcutting plan threatens our home, including lands that our decade long blockade has protected. Our community’s leadership, both grassroots and Band Council, have firmly rejected the new cut plan and contested the Government’s right to make decisions regarding our Territory.”

One of the two Youth organizers quoted in the statement is Edmond Jack, Maryanne Swain’s grandson. His mother, Maryanne’s daughter is Chrissy Swain, a former Grassy Narrows Youth leader and a part of the Grassy Narrows Womens’ Drum Group, who, along with one of her sisters, is often credited with the act of starting the blockade back in the winter of ’02. She is a tireless land defender and advocate for her community.

Jack, in the Youth Group Statement, says, “Not only does the plan threaten my family trapline, but it also threatens the traditional knowledge of future generations who cannot yet speak for themselves.”

Trapline KE056 falls on the south and west shores of Keys Lake, a pristine spring fed lake that was spared from the industrial mercury poisoning of the river system in the ‘60s from which new generations in Grassy Narrows continue to suffer. This past summer, as part of the Annual Grassy Narrows Youth Gathering, a one day blockade of the roadway to Keys Lake was enacted, declaring long term intent on the part of the community’s Youth and grassroots land defenders to protect the lake.

The FMP has six separate cut blocks scheduled for clearcutting within the Swain family trapline, and another six in the adjacent trapline. One of the clearcut blocks will tear out the heart of the Swain’s trapline, spanning from Keys Lake to the neighbouring Tom Lake. Others appear, from the available maps, to engulf at least two of the natural springs that feed Keys Lake.

Ontario’s new 10 year logging plan will clearcut over 500 square kilometers of the Whiskey Jack Forest, with over 50% of Grassy Narrows lands having already been previously logged.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Chrissy Swain, 34, and Edmond Jack, 19, as well as with Maryanne’s father, 78 year old Jim Swain, to ask about the trapline—land which the family has been connected to for as long as they can remember. I consider myself tremendously privileged to have had the opportunity to conduct these interviews, write this article, and work with this family. To all of the Swains and their families, miigwetch.

During these interviews, I asked about the process of (re)claiming the trapline, its history, and the significance of its being brought back into active use by the family.


Chrissy Swain:  I know that the area that [my mom] asked for, she asked for it because we have family history there. My grandfather was living there as a kid, and I think she had to get affidavits to prove that our family was in that area.

[I just know] stories that my grandpa told, of him being a kid over there. One of the stories he told was about how one time his mom sent him for sugar, and that’s where he had to walk from, from there to the Hudsons Bay [store], and he slept with a relative close by and then the next day walked all the way back to there.

[Keys Lake and that area] is probably just one of the places [his family] stayed. Our people were everywhere.

I’ve heard some stories about that area being a sacred place, that that place was healing because of the spring where the water comes from the earth into that lake, and the medicine that’s all around that lake. And people used to do ceremonies there, and it’s an area where people went fasting. Those are the kinds of things that I heard about that place.

Edmond Jack: I’ve got my trappers certificate, and I think that when the time comes that my grandma won’t be able to use it anymore, then I will the one who takes that trapline in my name.

To me, when my grandma finally got the trapline, it gave me a sense of relief to know that ill have that when I get older.

That whole area where that trapline is, that lake, I remember one of the older people, I think that was Old Tommy Keesick; before I started my Water Walk, he was telling me about Keys Lake becausecause that’s where I was going to be walking for that first day. He told me that that lake has sturgeon, and he was telling me about why that lake was so sacred and precious. He said that the water there is the cleanest water that we have today. None of our other lakes are as clean as that one, because of all the spring water streams that go into it, I think there’s three of them. He told me that when people go there, they’re not supposed to fish there, because of those sturgeons that are in there.

He said the reason that the sturgeon are so sacred is because when it swims at the bottom, people would pray to the sturgeon and honour it like one of our own people. They can’t walk on the land like we can, but they stay under the water near the bottom of the lake, and they’re kind of like the ones who look after the land under there. They’re not much different from us. They know medicines that we could never reach, probably. And he also said that that whole area is, like my mum said, a place for healing and medicines where people would go and find that medicine that they need to clean themselves out. There are all kinds of cedar that grows around there. It’s just a really beautiful place.

I remember my grandpa telling me that people would go over there and fast on an island close by there, where they would go and drop off a young person who was going through their rites of passage. They would sit there for four days… There are lots of things that I’ve heard about Keys Lake. For me it’s just a really sacred area.

The trapline that my grandma got is right on Keys Lake. It’s almost like an asset or something, to be able to use that place… I’d just really like to be able to really take after the lake and keep it as clean as I could.

Jim Swain: I don’t know exactly how it started… how would I go about [explaining] that?

There was a white guy, who we found out later was part of the family. He is a trapper around Silver Lake. And [the trapline on] Keys Lake was up for grabs, and he applied for it. But then, [the MNR] weren’t sure if they would give it to him or not, they’re very strict. So Mary Anne decided that she would find out if it was possible for her to apply.

They wanted its history, of the trapline. But we didn’t know where to start. So, when I went to Kenora to talk to the person, he said, ‘how much do you know about it?’

I said, ‘My grandfather owned it, owned the trapline, and worked it for a while, for years.’

Before that though, [there was an old guy from the community] who had [the trapline on] Scenic Lake already, he owned it.  And he asked my grandpa if they could trade traplines, and at the same time he offered some money, not much. That’s how it started… That’s when they signed the agreement. It kept the old man happy. And after that [Scenic Lake] passed on to my Dad and my Unlce, and then I owned it after. I don’t know how many years we trapped there.

So when they asked me the questions, and I said, ‘I was there. I know the area very good.’

I told them that it would be great if one of us could get it back.

I said, ‘how would I go about it?’ He said, write an affidavit. I didn’t know anything about affidavits. But anyway, they explained to me how to write it, even though I made a mistake. The lawyer who looked at it said, ‘you were supposed to do that in front of me, not on your own’. ‘I’ve never done this before,’ I said. But anyway, they accepted it.

And [the ‘white guy’] was also fighting for it, he almost got it. But after about a year they called Maryanne and they were happy with the affidavits, so that’s how she got that trapline.

Other than that, I don’t know what sort of things to tell you, but we did a lot of trapping at Keys Lake when I was young.

We went all around that area, all the way back to Wonderland [Lake]. There used to be Caribou in that area. But after the road came, and other things, they went further north.

It was hard, really, for me [to tell them about Keys Lake specifically], because I’ve been all over the place. I trapped with my Uncle in Wilcox [Lake]. Then I went with my brother in Kilburn [Lake]. By paddle it used to take two weeks to get up there. Then I went with my other uncle to Oak Lake. But the main one was Keys Lake that she wanted me to talk about.

Anyway, the affidavits helped, and she got it. Now it’s up to her and Ed to look after it.

Chrissy Swain: I think and I feel confident that my son is going in the right direction by taking his own initiative and learning to hunt, fish and trap, and learn medicines. And I’m confident that he’s going to use that land in a good way, to teach his kids and raise them on the land, because that’s a big part of our ways that’s been missing. It makes me proud to hear my son say that he wants to protect that place and to keep it as clean as possible for my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren. That’s my hope—that those teachings and that way of life will be carried on.

Edmond Jack: For me, when I do have kids, I could only wait until they get older and hope that they would take in everything that I could teach them, whatever I know by then, to carry on that way of life.

For me, when that time comes, I’m pretty sure that other people will see whatever my kids might be going through, what they’re doing. Other kids will be talking about it; some of them will be talking about partying, some will be talking about playing games, and then hopefully my kids will be talking about what they did all weekend out in the bush, all their little adventures. And to me, that is a good way of putting it out there for future generations. When [future generations] are young, I won’t be able to interact with them as much. But once some of them learn how to do these things, it’s there, in that age group, and it gives me a hope that more young people will take up these things and pick up on lost ways of life.

There are still a lot of things for people to learn.

Our Anishnabe way of life is so shattered; there are just pieces all over the place. Some places have the ceremonies, some places have our traditional ways of hunting, some places have our traditional way of living—they know how to survive in the bush… The more that we try to enforce these things in our community; if we can bring back our ceremonies and our other more down to earth ways of living, I think it would bring a lot of good things into the community.

Jim Swain: I always liked that area. But then, it was good to see different places. It wasn’t long before I got to know what that guy gave us—Scenic [Lake]. I was really young that time.

It seemed like it used to be, for me anyways, it seemed to be a lot of freedom. There was no vehicles, there was nothing or anything going by. Then all of a sudden, when the roads came in, that kind of… I don’t know, it just seemed too civilized.

I guess I thought about travelling on frozen ice, or making portages, having to cut across—we went through all that.

Keys Lake was mostly rocky, that’s how I found it. There was one place there; it looked like there was a cave there. I told another uncle, ‘let’s go down there, take a look.’ He said, ‘no.’ My grandpa said, ‘no, no, no, you gotta be really brave to go down there.’ I said, ‘why?’ He told me why, he said, I don’t know if it really happens, but he said, ‘you go down there and you go past the entrance and it seems like the wall, the cave just closes behind you,’ so I never went down there, I was scared, so I don’t know if it’s true.

Believe it or not, sometimes you hear strange noises at night… But then again, I never believed in seeing something like that, what they talk about so much; big foot and all that. I don’t know if it’s true. But it is true that sometimes you hear strange noises at night…

Of course now it’s getting, like I said, with too many machinery, that you don’t hear them anymore. You used to.

There was one time I was coming out of the house, just at Keys Lake, where the springs open on to the shore there. I heard something, like someone was whistling loud… I stood there for a while and then walked my way to the shore, and it seemed like that’s where that sound came from, from the open water. It was just a beaver coming up to the surface. And then every time his tail would go up and his head would go up and he’d make that high pitched sound—it’s very loud. I don’t really know how to describe it, but it’s like someone is whistling loud.

Me and my cousin there, at Scenic one evening, around midnight, we heard what’s called the Howling Owl. ‘What’s that,’ he said? ‘You never heard that before?’ ‘No,’ he said. And I said it in Ojibway —- it’s a Howling Owl. After we went around that bay, that’s where our log cabin was. It was a good sleep…

These are all the sounds that you hear in the trapline, especially in the spring. And in the fall, I like in the fall, you can hear owls. We used to sit outside around the fire and listen to the predators coming out during their night hunt.

Keys Lake was one of the main routes for trappers that came down from further up—Sidney Lake, Kilburn. They’d stop by the Hudson’s Bay then go try to get to Macintosh where the school was.

I used to have a trapline house that used to be the main stop. They always stopped, sometimes for a couple days, and carry on to wherever they were going. I wrote that down [in the affidavit], how the trappers used to be, that it was a main route, going to Sidney Lake and all over the place.

I think the most interesting part of trapping was moving—you know when the ice starts breaking up, and moving away with the current—sometimes you have to go through that… These were the adventures I remember.

Spring trapping it was good. I used to like it.

That’s another place they had, around Keys Lake. You’d go to Muskeg [Lake]. Muskeg was good for spring trapping.

Other than that, I don’t know what I can say.

But how we got Keys Lake, I don’t know if my affidavit was good, but I know they enjoyed reading it. They accepted it.

I think [in the future], I don’t think it will be as, I don’t know how to say it; There’s too many—it’s gotten too civilized. There’s so much coming in and out of there, at Keys Lake all the way back to Wonderland. And there’s summer cottages over there. I know I really don’t care for it. It’s not like the old days. You didn’t hardly see anyone on your trapline.

In a way I think it is ok. To me, now I think it’s just if you’re looking for adventure or something, it might not be as frontier, if you’d like to call it. You know there’s a house down there and you know there’s somebody else that’s going to be there.

I was 16 or 17. I travelled by myself in mid winter, in mid January, from Anishnabe Lake. There was no roads, nothing. I came down Oak Lake, across that little crossing at Oak Lake Falls. I knew there was a little trappers’ cabin there but I didn’t know if anyone would be there, and I was all by myself, just a young lad. But I made it through there. The people that were there happened to by my uncles and they were happy to see me.

The next morning I was going to go. They said, ‘You’d better not go, it’s cold out there and you’re not dressed right. Yesterday it was warm and you were travelling with the sun, but today it’s not like that. It’ll be nicer tomorrow.’ So I stayed that day and the next morning I went, and came to Grassy. But after that, I got to like where I travelled by myself. The only thing is that I always made sure that I never got caught alone out there in a storm without a cabin. But I was just lucky I guess.

Only one time I did. I was with my brother. We were going to Red Lake. It was February. So we had to find a place to bed for the night in heavy snow. He went and chose, he was lucky to find a rock wall, and he said, ‘that’ll be our shelter for the night.’ He told me to gather up some wood. And he put some logs and sticks to cover it. It wasn’t the warmest place, but it was ok.

I heard of a couple guys who got caught in a storm and still had a couple days before they could get to a cabin. They had no choice, he said. They piled up some snow and covered it up and went in. ‘It didn’t collapse?’ I said. ‘No, we didn’t think about it, I guess’, he said. ‘But it was warm there, cause of the snow we piled up.’

Another thing that I’ve seen them do is that they get boulders and heat them up and put them where they’ll spend the night.

It would be good for the young fellas to learn, I would think anyway. Cause you never can tell: there might be a time where it will be something like the depression, I don’t know, and at least you’ll be ready for it, if you’ve learned to be a trapper. That’s what my grandfather told me. I was going to go back to school. He said, ‘no, wait two years before you go back to school. First learn about trapping. There won’t be that many jobs there all the time.’ I got to enjoy trapping.

It’s the things that you learn, I guess. I didn’t really make my own snowshoes, but I patched them up. I made my own lacings. I learned that. That was something that surprised me. I didn’t know that I could—I used to watch how they laced them. One day I was out around Slant Lake area and my snowshoes broke, I had to get new lacing. So Denis, he’s my uncle but not too close, he had a moose hide, so I fixed it up. No one had shown me, but I’d seen them do it a couple of times, and I did that. Got some water and laid it out in the cold, take all the moose’s fur out and then scrape it. It comes out nice if it’s frozen. I was surprised, it was the first time id tried it. I did ok the first one, but I did it real good on the second. ‘I didn’t know you could mend snowshoes,’ my uncle said. I didn’t know either.

I told my grandpa, ‘I fixed my snowshoes, no one had shown me’. He said, ‘they talk about people having gifts. That’s your gift. No one showed you, you just knew automatically.’

Chrissy Swain: What I see is that it’s always been a fight for our way of life. Because of the things that I’ve seen growing up and the things that I see now, I feel like the only way that we can always remember who we are as Anishanabe people is to have this land and be able to use it. Something that puts that pride inside of is being able to go out on the land and go out on the lakes and fish and hunt and to be out in the forest and be able to connect.

I do see a big change from when I was a kid. There are kids that are aware of what’s going on. People always say that we’ve lost a lot of our ways, but I want t stop saying that we’ve lost that, because I feel it’s always there, and that’s what we’ve got to protect is what’s there, for our kids. They look around and they see people moving and people saying this is not right. When I was a kid I don’t remember seeing that. [But] I do remember feeling it: ‘This is not right. Why do we live this way?’

I remember being eight years old, walking down the road and looking at our houses, saying ‘why do we have to live like this?’ Because I think I was kind of already aware of what living in a town or a city was like, from visiting my mom, or seeing that they had running water, that the grocery store was right there. And I was like, ‘Why is it harder for us? Why does it feel like this?’

For me doing this isn’t just about protecting the land, it’s about reviving our people, bringing that spirit back to our people. And that’s what’s going to bring the spirit back to our people, is to keep this land. That’s the way I look at it and that’s how I feel.

I see that it’s slowly moving, since the Blockade began. There are more young people that are going for their trappers licenses, that are interested in being on the land. You see and hear about a lot of young men that are going out in groups, fishing or hunting together. You hear of and know women that are like, ‘let’s go blueberry picking’, ‘let’s go get cedar.’ So that’s way more than what was in my time.

To me, protecting this land is being successful. Even if it’s just little steps, right now today we can say there’s been a little bit more movement. If we keep going, more is going to come for our kids and for our grandchildren.

Edmond Jack: I think having that trapline kind of gives me a stronger place to stand.  I know there’s a proposed clearcut area right in the middle of our trapline, and I know for sure that they’re not going to cut in there. But if they cut in other places it’s still going to have an effect.

To me, stopping the clearcuts is really important because if they do cut all the places that I’ve seen on that map, a lot of damage is going to be done and it’s just going to make sustaining the trapline harder. Animals that we trap and hunt, they have really big territories—some of them are narrow and long, and some of them are wide. And if you cut one area out then that whole thing is going to change. Some of them are going to leave or die. It would pretty much suck the life dry. Our trapline would be depleted. It would almost be pointless to have a trapline if there’s nothing to do out there. Clearcutting companies come in and when they cut down the trees they’re destroying our way of life. I guess having the trapline makes me feel like I have no choice but to fight.


The statement from the Grassy Narrows Youth group concludes with the following:

“Our People have been dealing with the impacts of logging for decades. Our rivers have been poisoned and many traplines have been destroyed. Now, still dealing with mercury poisoning (from the Dryden Paper Mill’s industrial dumping in the 60s), and facing new threats from mining expansion in Asubpeeschoseewagong Territory, the Government is coming back for our trees.

Over the years, Grassy Narrows has been fortunate enough to have support from some Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities and organizations in Ontario and across Turtle Island. This spring, that support will likely be more important than ever and Grassy Narrows organizers expect to call on renewed support from allies. Please be ready to answer our call and to back us up.”

  1. October 22, 2014 at 2:45 pm

    You are a vile monster.

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