‘Living off the land’, which means being connected to nature, is essential for First Nations people, including those in the Yukon and other Aboriginal people on this planet. Hunting, fishing, trapping, and picking berries or medicinal plants has been part of First Nation cultures since time immemorial.
Cultural identities and survival for First Nation peoples is based on sharing the food harvested from the bush and the rivers with their friends and relatives.
This is important for fostering and maintaining social bonds and mutual help within community groups. It is also essential for the families of harvesters to fill the freezer and store dry-fish and dry moose or caribou meat for the winter.
Jessica, the wife of a miner, asserts, “I cannot live without my moose meat. I grew up with this taste. Imagine how much money I can save from my family budget when I don’t have to buy beef or pork. I don´t even like that taste as much as I like wild foods.” She continues, “He should bring home at least one moose in the season. One more the better, because we can then share, like with Elders who cannot go hunting anymore.”
Jessica’s husband, Mike, works a shift roster of two weeks on, two weeks off. Mike explains, “For me, working in the mine is good. You know, the hunting gear, the fuel, the vehicles and the boat are expensive. A lot has changed compared to the old days. It is hard for others who don’t have well-paying jobs to afford to go out on the land.”
A critical point is having time for traditional activities in the season when animals are around or fish are going up the river. Some companies acknowledge these cultural needs for First Nation peoples.
Agreements between the mining companies and First Nation groups are called ‘Impact Benefit Agreements’ or ‘Comprehensive Benefit Agreements’. First Nation workers are sometimes entitled to take longer leaves during the hunting season in order to harvest for their families and communities during peak animal migration. Tanya, a HR person at a mid-sized mine, explains, “Today companies want to employ locals. Therefore, we have to adjust to the local cultural needs of our workers. If they give us a note in advance, we can manage to find a cross-shift and they can take longer leaves than two weeks.”
Shania says, “Two weeks is usually enough to get moose or sheep or to go to fish camp. Sometimes you get a moose in a day or two. Sometimes it takes longer.”
Unfortunately it does not always work out like that. Some mining companies are not sensitive towards the cultural needs of their employees. Since it is such an important part of Aboriginal cultural identities and livelihoods to harvest subsistence foods, sometimes local workers report that – when the company is not sensitive to these specifics – they feel forced to quit their job during hunting season. This, in turn, leads to unemployment and other potential troubles.
In general, Mike enjoys his two weeks off. He can take his rifle and stay out on the land for a couple of days to hunt and cut firewood. He also takes his kids out to the fish camp or on a hunting trip.
He tells, “I prefer that to a nine-to-five job. I am much more flexible. The moose do not come around only on weekends. You need time, a lot of time in the bush.”
Some mining operations, especially exploration camps, may shut down during winter. This is the time when the trapping season starts. For local workers participating in trapping, shift work can be convenient during the off seasons in the mining sector.
Trapping allows some local workers to continue participating in traditional activities while making an income to support themselves and their families.
Evon says, “Sometimes I wish I could spend more time out on the land. When my father was sick it really helped me to stay grounded. But the mine job is good because I can afford equipment.”
Tanya, the HR person addresses specific experiences with First Nation employees saying, “We have great people from the community here. They are an important part of our multicultural environment.
We must consider that First Nation people have a very specific culture and attachment to the land. By recognizing certain cultural needs we try to strengthen the commitment to the mining company.
For instance we plan to regularly celebrate not only Canada Day but also the Annual Aboriginal Day.”
This acknowledgement of Aboriginal events is important to make First Nation employees feel welcome in an industrial mining environment that is rarely, but still sometimes, described as racist and prejudiced.
For First Nation communities and native employees it is crucial that mining is done in a manner that does not harm the environment and does not jeopardize subsistence or traditional ways of life. Our First Nation interview partners stress that mining should not be done only for short-term revenues. Instead, the goal is to preserve some of the wealth in the ground for future generations to profit.
When I am out for trapping, which takes some time, often weeks, I ask my boss for a leave. This is fine for him if I ask quite in advance. As long as you tell them early enough so that they can bring someone else in to do your work it is fine. It has always worked out at this mine. Gregory
Sometimes I take a leave for important things like for funerals or headstone potlatches of an Elder in the community. I want to be there if this person was close and it is also show of respect towards our Elders. Mike
What I really disliked in the other mine is that I never got off when it was hunting time. You would see the moose walking right by the camp in the season but I could not take a leave. This is the reason why I quit. Ronnie
You know mining has drastic effects on hunting, fishing and the environment. We still struggle with the waste and pollution from old mining sites. There was not sufficient environmental protection in those days. We have to be aware when mining comes in, that this is our land, that this is the most important thing that we have. Sam
In our negotiations with the companies we make sure that they value our traditions and culture. We are part of the land and part of the water. And we are stewards of our land. Our people cannot work in a mine that harms the environment; the company must understand our values. Ken
We still need the land for our basic necessities. This is the moose, this is the fish and much more, like our water. And it is not only for food. Our Elders say, “if you feel bad, go out on the land, take the boat and a little pack-sack and go.” It is true you really feel better. This is our tradition. Cloe