Dr. Priscilla Settee (PhD) is a professor in the Department of Indigenous Studies in the College of Arts and Science. (Photo: David Stobbe)

Plight of northern trappers shows need for education and activism: USask professor

The hardships and environmental damage reported by trappers in Northern Saskatchewan should be a “wake-up call” for all Canadians, says University of Saskatchewan (USask) professor Dr. Priscilla Settee (PhD).

By Chris Putnam

Settee, a faculty member in the College of Arts and Science’s Department of Indigenous Studies, recently completed a one-year fellowship with the David Suzuki Foundation in which she researched the effects of industry and climate change on the lives of northern Indigenous trappers.

Settee, a member of the Cumberland House Cree Nation, interviewed trappers and Traditional Knowledge Keepers in her home community and heard them describe what she calls a “monumental crisis” affecting the local environment.

“What’s being destroyed is a way of life. One thing the trappers talked about was it’s not just hunting and trapping—it’s a worldview. It’s a worldview that we share with the millions of Indigenous folks throughout the world, and unfortunately it’s always been the object of pillage,” she said.

Trappers in the community 350 km northeast of Saskatoon reported devastating effects on the surrounding area from clearcutting and dam construction. Fluctuating water levels in the local river have caused beavers to starve, prevented moose from reaching the river and cut off access to traplines.

Settee heard accounts of the local impacts of climate change, including softer snow and ice that has restricted the movement of animals. Fires are destroying plant life and traplines, and big game animals that were plentiful even 20 years ago have become rare.

“That’s major. I think people are no longer able to live on hunting and trapping. The whole economy is being disrupted,” said Settee.

Settee recently submitted her final report on the project, which she anticipates will soon be published by the David Suzuki Foundation. In it, she attempts to raise the alarm about the ongoing crisis while also seeking solutions.

One of those solutions, Settee believes, will be social economic development: a model in which the control and profits of enterprises are kept within the communities in which they are developed.

“Currently, we live with a model where someone else makes the planning down in Regina or Ottawa and we live with the consequences,” said Settee. “I teach on social economies, and I'm making a very strong suggestion that we need to begin looking at sustainable development.”

Settee points to examples such as Aki Industries in Winnipeg, an Indigenous-run alternative energy company that has installed geothermal systems in hundreds of homes on First Nations in partnership with the communities.

But for social economies to succeed, Settee argues, they will need support and baseline funding from governments. Average citizens will also need to speak out about preserving the environment and traditional practices.

“There's not enough resistance by ordinary folks. There's not enough education about (Indigenous) ways of life. So we have a lot of education to do and white people have a lot of learning to do, especially if they want to be allies in preserving the natural world—which I think today's youth do,” Settee said.

Settee believes universities can play an important role by conducting more critical and analytical research, by training students in Indigenous knowledge systems, and by hearing the voices of young people.

“I don't pretend to know everything about what needs to be done, but I sure do know that if change is to occur it’s because we are mobilizing the youth and listening to their concerns,” said Settee.                                                                                     

April, Settee began another one-year fellowship. As a 2021 NDN Changemaker Fellow, she will engage in work that defends, develops and decolonizes Indigenous communities and nations.