Hunting the Hunt

On Recent Expressions of Anishinabe Sovereignty

Written by Liaisons Montreal & Committee for Territorial Defense and Decolonization

Originally published in French on Contrepoints and Lundi Matin


In February 2020, the main rail lines between Toronto and the Atlantic Ocean were blocked for several weeks in support of the Wet’suwet’en people’s struggle on the west coast against the Coastal Gas Link pipeline. In -22°F weather (-30°C), Mohawks from Tyendinaga and Kahnawake, Mi’kmaqs from Listiguj, and many other Indigenous peoples across the continent shut down almost all rail traffic in the country. Living on lands, reserves, and hunting grounds traversed and occupied by all sorts of colonial infrastructure, and knowing how the economy depends on resource extraction and distribution, the blockades spread like wildfire from coast to coast. A multinational Indigenous front appeared at once, united to protect the land. In Montreal, kilometers of shipping containers accumulated in the port because of the train blockades. Shortages of propane and animal feed were announced. Following the call from Indigenous people to shut down infrastructure, settler allies set up a blockade of four major railways south of Montreal that lasted three days. We learned from this that if you put objects, snow, or your body on the tracks, there needs to be an inspection before the trains can come through.

The energy from this period of occupations still lifts our spirits and shows the potential of Indigenous movements, even though it was cut short by the pandemic. As the Anishinabe writer Leanne Betasamosake Simpson wrote, a blockade is always both a negation of destruction and an affirmation of life. Like a beaver dam, we can look at it from the perspective of the water it stops from flowing, or from all the possibilities for life that emerge from it: a big pond for fish, a space for moose to cool off, or lukewarm water for amphibians and insects. Blockades are part of a tradition of reinventing collective life and allowing livable worlds to reemerge.

This fall, just before the announcement that lockdown measures would be reimposed in Quebec and Ontario, many struggles for the autonomy of Indigenous peoples had reappeared, each rooted in its own history of affirmation against resource extraction, colonialism, and the state.

Since July 19, an encampment has been blocking a housing development near Six Nations of the Grand River, Canada’s largest reserve and home primarily to the nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. This territory, since renamed 1492 Land Back Lane, belongs to the community according to a 1784 treaty of which the developments’ backers were unaware. A piece of land reoccupied in the same way in 2006, Kanonhstaton ("The Protected Place"), is today a lookout post for watching police activity. The reserve grows denser and denser on its limited, polluted territory, while the metropolis of Toronto continues to sprawl its suburbs across a hundred kilometers. Struggles for Haudenosaunee autonomy aims to retake their traditional territory beyond the area they’re confined to. Following their actions to heal the earth, an encampment popped up in downtown Toronto and another reoccupation was launched in the Akwesasne Mohawk reserve.

On September 15, Mi’kmaq fishers in Nova Scotia launched their first independent lobster fishing fleet. The same day, settler fishermen showed up on the docks to steal their equipment, cut their fishing lines, try to cause boat accidents, and slash the tires of Indigenous fishers. The Mi’kmaqs want respect for their treaty rights to make a "moderate livelihood" from off-season fishing, rights that were upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1999. Similar to the struggle at Six Nations, respect for treaties is not only a demand made to the state but is also a rallying cry for their people to relearn how to inhabit the territory.

This text focuses on another recent manifestation of Indigenous sovereignty. In the forested Anishinabe territory of La Vérendrye Park, we observed and participated in the weaving of alliances and prophecies on a level higher than the human world. As Shiri Pasternak wrote in her book on the Anishinabe of Barriere Lake:

A prophecy at Barriere Lake predicts ka-dish-pog-washni, “In the future, we will jump high.” They have knowledge of a time to come on earth when the storms will rage, tornadoes will violently stir, floods will drench, and the wind will shake the world to its foundations. When that time comes, people from other nations will come to the Anishnabek and seek their knowledge.

For the month-long moose hunting season, the roads—colonial infrastructure that opened the territory to settlers—were destituted, closed and made to serve only the goal of taking care of the earth. It was a scene at once from a catastrophic present and a decolonial future.

Hunting the Hunt

In the fall of 2019, some Anishinabe families from Barriere Lake and Kitigan Zibi established themselves at the entrance to the roads leading into the park’s moose hunting areas. At that time, their plan was to symbolically show their disagreement and to convince the hunters to back off, but without blocking access. The next year, government indifference at all levels led to the elders deciding that all the roads should be blocked. Some had seen panicked moose in their dreams, calling for help. Shortly after, their children took off at top speed through the forests where they had grown up and raised their own children, finding and expelling the "sport" hunters who had been chosen at random by the government to abuse the Anishinabe woodlands.

First one camp was established, then a second. The movement soon went viral, especially among the Anishinabe youth, who spread out along Highway 117 to set up new camps, for a total of eight. Community members from Barriere Lake, Kitigan Zibi, Kitcisakik, and Simon Lake participated. Their efforts formed a ring of united Algonquin communities, drawing strength from their experiences of genocidal violence that continues to this day.

The movement in defense of the moose has seen Anishinabe sovereignty once again take up residence in its own territory. In doing so, it sweeps away the arbitrary divisions between the La Vérendrye Wildlife Preserve (managed by SÉPAQ, the provincial agency in charge of parks and wildlife reserves), the designated "controlled harvesting zones," and the outfitting operations, because all there has ever been is a vast Anishinabe forest, scattered with endless lakes. In the portion of the Wildlife Reserve midway between Montreal and Abitibi, the territory of the Anishinabe Nation of the Ottawa River Watershed* is certainly vast. From north to south, it extends over some 300 kilometers: from Val d’Or, the mining capital of Abitibi, cleared less than a century ago, to Mount Laurier, the northern limit of the Laurentians, colonized by Catholic fundamentalists. On either side of the 117, the Anishinabe backcountry goes all the way to Temiscamingue, 300km to the west. To the east, it extends for an even greater distance overlapping with Nitaskinan, the territory of the Attikamekw people, and extending on towards Saguenay.

When Environmentalism Destroys Ecology

Around the fire, elders explain in detail the causes of the recent drop in moose population. Thirty years ago, in order to secure funding, various environmental groups (including Greenpeace) ran major campaigns to ban the sale of trapped furs. This war on furs was never really about protecting the ecosystem, but rather stirring up the indignation of white people so the organizations could secure a steady flow of new members and donations. The more legal victories those groups had against trapping, the more hunting, fishing, and trapping came to be seen as "sporting" activities rather than necessities of life on the territory.

Commercial trapping in La Vérendrye Park was banned when it became a wildlife refuge in 1979. As a result, the number of beavers increased—as did the numbers of their predators (wolves, lynx, and coyotes). The resurgence of carnivores put pressure on fawns (juvenile moose), with many killed in their first years, leading to a major long-term drop in the moose population. It’s a bitter irony for those lovers of "wild nature," who try hard to deny human predators any part in the non-human world. SÉPAQ acts like it’s interested in sustainable development just to prolong its exploitation. That goes for mines, the shocking clearcuts, and also for animals like moose, seen as free, renewable "natural resources" that can be "harvested" anew each year.

To protect their business from the Anishinabe blockades, SÉPAQ sometimes has to stop pretending that its purpose is to provide natural parks for family camping trips. While they were cutting new roadways to help hunters get around the blockades, a SÉPAQ agent hid in the bushes at nightfall. His goal was to film any Indigenous people who might come cut down trees and block the road, but while doing so he filmed a 5-year-old Anishinabe girl urinating. The scandal spread through the area’s Indigenous communities and brought back memories of sexual abuse suffered at the hands of French Canadian priests, as well as the murders and sexual assaults carried out by provincial police more recently. After a week of blockades, SÉPAQ agents resorted to bringing dogs to threaten the Anishinabe while discretely transporting in weapons for hunters, who could then pretend they were just going to fix up their cottages.

After a few weeks of threatening to run over Anishinabe people with their trucks to get at their prey, the hunters organized their own rally on September 18 under the banner of "the right to hunt." Although hundreds of people were expected, only a dozen turned up. They blocked Highway 117, which the Anishinabe would not have dared to do given the fierce repression they faced for it back in 2008, when the provincial police gassed their families. Visibly confused, one of the anti-blockade blockaders explained their desire to kill their prey: "Well, it’s the Indians who gave us the tradition of hunting, so it’s because of them we’re doing it now!" In the days that followed, some hunters who had circumvented the barricades threw moose legs at Indigenous people from the windows of their truck.

The hunters have supporters in high places. The government (and the media who relay its words) is always going on about "the fundamental right of all Quebecers to go hunting." The state considered a thirty percent reduction in hunting licenses to be an adequate concession. Now "it’s the Algonquins’ turn to do their part," said Pierre Dufour, the minister of Forest, Wildlife, and Parks, who went so far as to remind "American Indians" that "it’s 2020" and that they have to behave "in a civilized manner" and not "as if it were 200 years ago."

The protection of moose on Anishinabe territory means refusing to be coerced in the name of progress. It means affirming ancestral sovereignty. The past returns to unmake the future. To stop hunters from encroaching and trampling on this sovereignty, the moose protectors organize hours-long patrols down dirt roads around the perimeter of their families’ territories to flush out poachers. Some say that beavers are allies in the struggle and that they sometimes cut down trees, while bears and wolves dig trenches around the SÉPAQ bases, forcing them to make long detours.

Hunting the Hunt

The Anishinabe people who live in La Vérendrye Park don't see the moose only as a source of food, but as conscious beings in their own right. We were told that the Anishinabe word for moose, kacabagonégabwec (the longest word in the Algonquin language spoken in Barriere Lake), means a strong, majestic animal whose behavior can teach us how to live. The moose can, for example, show us certain medicinal plants. It was the moose who showed the Anishinabe how to use balsam fir to disinfect wounds and how to take black spruce during pregnancy. Just as the Anishinabe have always known that their existence on the territory depends on the other species that live there, settlers have always known that a sure way to assimilate a people is to eradicate their animal allies.

In the seventeenth century, Anishinabe people said that the early Europeans colonizers' greed for beautiful pelts had provoked a "war" between them and the beaver people, who were a nation unto themselves, holding their own councils and maintaining diplomatic relationships with human and non-human animals. At one time, reciprocity with animals was a daily necessity. On it depended the abundance of wildlife and the survival of humans, who were special more because of their precarity than their supremacy. This perspective where hunting is a way of living, more than just a form of subsistence—the cynegetic point of view—is still alive all across the Indigenous world, from the Amazon to India and Oceania, despite being ceaselessly targeted for genocide. All the more so since the world war against wild animals began, causing more than fifty percent to vanish in the last fifty years.

The traditional way of life of the Anishinabe of the Ottawa River Watershed is based on relationships that emerge from subsistence hunting. Without good (and sometimes personal) relationships with animals, without knowing their families, their hiding holes, their inclinations and their habits, creatures would not offer so many tracks and signs for how to go about collecting them without threatening their survival. The animals work with humans too, engaging with them as equals. They speak to us most often in our dreams, and such dreams have nearly the force of law among Anishinabe hunters and mothers. In the Amazon forest, Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro describes how the cynegetic point of view considers all living beings to have the same culture, acting among themselves as we act among ourselves. Only the appearance of species—the nature of their bodies—is different. It is possible to translate across these differences, to dialogue and hold assemblies, but it happens that relationships can start to crumble and negotiations are required to restore dialogue. If hunting relationships are necessarily based on a certain hostility, it only makes holding councils more urgent. Hunting relationships demand diplomacy.

But when subsistence hunting turns against sport hunting, as when Anishinabe spot the tracks of white poachers in the dust or their airplanes in the sky, the essential difference between them is exposed. The Anishinabe and the moose renew the alliance they shared long before the settlers declared war on both of them. As the moose—buffalo of the north-east—has provided its original peoples with meat, hides, and tendons for food, clothes, and crafts since time immemorial, it is highly respected and all its parts must be eaten or used. A Wolf Clan mother said that if the moose disappeared, they would be "alone in the forest." It is plain to see that the movement was always going to win, for the Anishinabe are good hunters.

By gathering around the fires on the barricades and blocking sports hunting for a month—until dismantling their camps once the hunting season ended in mid-October—the Anishinabe effectively enforced their ancestral sovereignty on their land. Every day that fewer moose were killed was already a victory, as the blockades realized the demand for a moratorium that the government refused. On the barricades, all agree that there is little to expect from the government. During the movement, racist Quebecois nurses drugged and killed Attikamekw mother Joyce Echaquan, and the government of Quebec replaced the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs with the ex-spokesperson for the Montreal police department. Even though the injunction finally obtained against the blockades was never served, the government announced it would compensate private outfitters while the Anishinabe would get nothing. If the five year moratorium is to happen, the Anishinabe can only count on themselves, and this they do.

The blockades give time for the forest to replenish itself, so it can thrive once again. Fawns will survive to become adults who give birth to more fawns. How many settlers have never seen a moose, living a life pitted against wildlife? What will happen to the Anishinabe forest, still spared by colonial infrastructure in spite of the mines and clear cuts, when the settlers come to expropriate and privatize the fresh water sources, once they poison their own? What will happen when white people flock to one of the last livable places on the planet, for the very reason that they have not spoiled it yet? The role non-Indigenous allies will be called on to fill in those days starts here and now. The forest can teach what is required to defend it, if only one can listen.

The Seventh Fire

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson tells us that hundreds of years ago, when the earth was still thriving, seven prophets came to tell the Anishinabe what the coming centuries held for them. This is known as the Seventh Fire Prophecy, with each fire corresponding to a period of history. The prophets came to warn the inhabitants of Turtle Island to be wary of the violence of those who would come from other continents. This prophecy accurately foretold the horrors and violence that modernity brought to the first peoples, but it also foretold that the collapse of the colonial world was inevitable. The seventh fire is understood as the era of rebirth. Rooted in the Indigenous principles of peace, justice, and integrity contained in the Mino-bimaadiziwin (the Anishinabe "way of a good life"), this resurgence is destined to transform the colonial world.

If we are to rise to the roles such prophecies ascribe to their allies, our learning must be on another level than the liberal discourse of "understanding Indigenous realities." We will need to reconsider our way of life from top to bottom. Here in so-called Canada—but in reality everywhere—destitution coincides with restitution. The restitution of a territory's sovereignty, of a sovereignty that pertains to the land itself, with all its living relations. The question of how to inhabit concerns any living being in any given place. Restitution confides to these sovereignties whatever power was stolen from them. The so-called "Canadian" territory is in the process of fragmenting into a plurality of ancestral sovereignties. Anyone can help it happen, if only by defending an urban forest from colonial infrastructure. From such fragments of desirable worlds, we may be able to restitute the world as it was and still is, common yet multiple.

*Instead of the French name “Algonquians,” used by colonial institutions and Band Councils, Anishinabe simply means “human being.” This generic self-domination is followed by a specification of their territory, the Ottawa River watershed.