From Furs to Oil – First Nations and the History of Canada

Nick T'seleie, a trapper from Fort Good Hope, holds a wolf pelt

by Daniel T’seleie

Fort Chipewyan is the oldest community in Western Canada. As a hub in the fur trade it helped transport countless fortunes in pelts back East for trade to Europe and abroad.

I know this because my father is somewhat of a guru on the history of exploration and colonization of the Northwest. I have spent many evenings around the campfire hearing about which particular European explorer passed through the area hundreds of years ago, and their associated misadventures – that usually involved being ill prepared and nearly dying – as documented in their surviving journals.

I also know that our people, the K’asho Got’ine, and other tribes in the Sahtu region were well known for the high-quality beaver pelts they provided to the traders. In the early days of the fur trade, our people would track canoes thousands of kilometres upriver to reach traders in Fort Chipewyan and further south.

In those days (sometime in the 1700’s, I don’t pretend to be an expert on the history so save your angry comments) about 40 per cent of the pelts being traded in what would become Canada were supplied by Athabaskan tribes and others west of what is currently Saskatchewan.

In the height of the fur trade a hat made from beaver felt could sell for hundreds of dollars in Europe, which was a huge sum at the time.

It’s no surprise then that many people got rich off the fur trade. Many of these traders lived in Montreal, like Peter Pond, and that city owes a large portion of its wealth, and even its current existence, to the labour of First Nations in the Northwest.

As the earliest community in the region, Fort Chipewyan and the Dene and Cree who live there contributed greatly to building the wealth of Eastern Canada (read “Ontario and Quebec”), and to the settlement of Western Canada.

How has this quiet little community benefited over the years? How has it been thanked by the country it helped build?

It hasn’t.

Fort Chipewyan, and other Treaty 8 communities, have seen continual infringement of their treaty rights and basic human rights, and have received very little benefit financially or otherwise.

Like many of our people, First Nations in Fort Chipewyan and other Treaty 8 communities had their children stolen and shipped to residential school in an effort to destroy Indigenous cultures and languages, and to assimilate the people into the broader society of “Canadians.”

The federal government has moved beyond these overt tactics of assimilation, and now practices cultural genocide by destroying the land and polluting the waters, which makes it impossible for First Nations to practice their cultures and celebrate their spirituality.

I’m talking about the tar sands developments in northern Alberta, although there are many other examples across Canada and the United States of settler governments using development and destruction of the land to take away the self-sufficiency of First Nations in an effort to destroy their cultures and force them to participate in the mainstream society and wage economy.

Here I am in Durban for another round of UN climate negotiations (my third kick at this rusted can), and once again I’m fully expecting the Canadian government to represent the interests of big oil, of the tar sands, instead of the interests of people in Canada.

Tar sands are poisoning Fort Chipewyan and other downstream communities. Greenhouse gas emissions from these developments (which are now at about 45 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, 30 times larger than the total emissions of the Northwest Territories) are the fastest growing source of carbon pollution in Canada, and the tar-sands carbon bomb is quickly pushing us over the tipping point of dangerous climate change. My people, like other Arctic Indigenous Peoples, are already seeing drastic impacts of a rapidly warming Arctic.

Yet the government does not care about us, or about Fort Chipewyan, or about the children of today, who will inherit a devastated planet where drought, disaster and death from the impacts of climate change abound.

That’s why we are here in Durban. We need to send a strong message to the government that they can no longer get away with protecting and representing the interests of big oil.

It’s time to put people before polluters.


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