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  • Trapped by Geography in the BC-Yukon Borderlands

Since Confederation, the Canadian government has devoted a great amount of energy to bringing indigenous communities under the administrative control of the state. These efforts to administratively control indigenous communities have resulted in the production of a great amount of documentation. Much of this documentation is the result of efforts to spatially circumscribe indigenous land use while simultaneously opening up new tracts of land for Euro-Canadians. [End Page 113] However, records produced in one context can take on new meanings in another context. While once representative of efforts to bring Indigenous peoples under government administration, many spatially-oriented records produced by government agents – such as the Department of Indian Affairs – now represent opportunities for Indigenous groups to assert sovereignty over their traditional territories. However, even as these records represent new opportunities for demonstrating Aboriginal title, questions must be raised regarding their abilities to render customary land use patterns in a manner legible to the state.1

The questionable nature of colonial understandings of land use is particularly true of 'frontier' regions of these regimes. In these cases, it is important to recognize that renderings of land use which have had and in some cases continue to have administrative and legal functions were produced based on inchoate geographical knowledge – to say nothing of extant Indigenous land tenure practices – and represented geographical or cartographical fictions. An example of these fictions can be seen in the implementation of trapline registration in the British Columbia-Yukon borderlands.

Trapline registration in northern British Columbia and the Yukon Territory represented state efforts to rationalize northern land use. These regulations also resulted in debates between governmental agencies as they sought to bring Indigenous trapping under the state apparatus (although state agencies, and particularly the Department of Indian Affairs and the BC Government were far from united on how to go about bringing Indigenous peoples under administration). As these efforts circumscribed Indigenous land use decades after trapline implementation, they also provided means for Indigenous peoples to advance their rights to Aboriginal title.2

The example of trapline registration in the Yukon-BC borderlands illustrates the complex and contradictory nature of colonial mapping projects with implications for the broader significance of colonial mapping projects. In Maps and Memes, Gwilym Eades argues that Indigenous peoples can appropriate colonial maps as a means of advancing their rights. According to Meads, this process involved "using the 'tools of the master's house'."3 As trapline registration spread through northern British Columbia, it held complex and contradictory implications for Kaska trappers. Traplines served to limit the mobility of Indigenous trappers and opened up space for Euro-Canadian trappers within their traditional territories. However, for the tracts of land that Kaska trappers were successful in registering, the policy of trapline registration served to safeguard these lands from further encroachment. As land claim negotiations commenced during the 1970s and 1980s, the records produced by trapline registration took on a new life as they served to reinforce Kaska Aboriginal title.4

However, as the Kaska and other Indigenous groups have advanced their land claims, the process was more complicated than simply adopting colonial cartographical knowledge and using it against colonizers. The advancement of Aboriginal title has also challenged the legitimacy of state representations of Indigenous land use. Kaska claims to Aboriginal title undermined authority of the records by noting geographical errors in government agents' attempts to describe land use, thereby challenging their authority. Government agents and the records they left, rather than being regarded as arbiters of land use, provided supporting evidence to pre-existing Indigenous understandings of land use.5

Even as colonial records, such as trapline maps and correspondence, can serve as sources for asserting Aboriginal title, these documents can also be used to challenge Aboriginal title. These records are replete with misrepresentations and distortions of Indigenous land use, as government agents from both Indian Affairs and the Game Branch sought to advance ideas of Indigenous land use in order to serve their own interests. These misrepresentations included [End Page 114] advancing a diluted notion of terra nullius in order to rationalize appropriating Indigenous lands for Euro-Canadian trapping.6

While Indigenous groups such as the Kaska have been able to challenge the authority of government renderings of their land use, these records nevertheless contribute greatly to circumscribing and simplifying debates around land use. For instance, the process of rendering trapping grounds to single areas delineated on maps or a list of latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates, serves to reify boundaries between Indigenous groups.7 The anthropologist Paul Nadasdy has observed that comprehensive land claim and self-government agreements served to created different layers of land rights between Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents in the Yukon, as well as among Indigenous residents. In particular, these different layers of land rights among Indigenous peoples were set in place between individual bands or nations. According to Nadasdy, the settlement of these agreements was part of a process called territoriality.8

The premise of territoriality can also be applied to understanding how trapline and other colonial records can be employed to advance Aboriginal title in the absence of a land claim agreement. Moreover, these documents demonstrate early colonial efforts to impose the process of territoriality on Indigenous communities. As geographer Robert David Sack was written in his efforts to define territoriality, "territoriality involves the attempt by an individual or group to influence or affect the actions of others including non-humans."9 Building upon this conceptualization, trapline registration represents an effort to control the spatial relationship between humans and animals. Trapline registration also represents an attempt to spatially regulate the relationships among trappers. The divisions created between Indigenous communities through trapline registration and other colonial efforts to spatially organize Indigenous peoples have since been reified.

If historical geographers and other scholars are to effectively challenge the state simplifications and processes of territoriality that is supported and perpetuated by state-produced government documents, it may be useful to turn to the field of archival studies. By engaging with scholarship which seeks to elucidate the provenance of records, it is possible to ask more probing questions of materials such as trapline maps. In writing about the North Saanich Treaty (one of the 1950-54 Douglas Treaties signed on Vancouver Island), archival scholar Raymond Frogner suggested that the treaty was a legal fiction in which the document purported to provide "evidence of mutual expressions of rights and title where none existed."10 Frogner raised questions regarding various assumptions related to the production of the North Saanich Treaty:

Looking beyond the rhetoric, by describing these documents, in an archival sense, as Aboriginal treaties, archivists elide several traditional assumptions. First, in a traditional archival view, a treaty is a dispositive document – meaning the document is the embodiment of a completed transaction involving wilful participants. The document should be perceived and understood within the social worldview of the participants. Titling such documents as "treaties" is an elision of the native participation. Second, archival documents acquire evidential values within the interpretive context of a uniform jurisdictional system, a system not found on the colonial frontier.11

From the perspective of historical geography, the second point is particularly instructive. While trapline registration in the Yukon-BC borderlands did not occur in a colonial frontier in the same sense that the North Saanich Treaty took place, it nevertheless occurred within a frontier of effective state knowledge of the region. Although the Canadian government had extended their authority to the region and created boundaries between territorial and provincial officials, the further extension of this authority through the rationalization of trapping activities represented government agents' efforts to render both the physical and social geography of this region knowable and mappable. These administrative frontiers can be extended to many other [End Page 115] regions in northern Canada and should consequently raise questions concerning the production of spatial knowledge in these regions. When discussing the rationalization and circumscription of Indigenous land use in ways that are legible to the state, it is also it is also important to highlight geographical fictions.

Thus, on the occasion of Canada's sesquicentennial, as we consider government-produced geographical knowledge, it is important to consider both its restrictive and emancipatory effects. Maps and other forms of geographical knowledge are powerful tools for asserting land rights. But as colonial tools, they can also stifle more complicated understandings of land use and occupancy. Without disregarding the legacy of the myriad of records created to rationalize trapping activities in the Canadian North, it is important to engage these materials in a manner that seriously considers the subjective nature of their creation.

Glenn Iceton
Department of History University of Sasktachewan


1. James C. Scott, Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

2. Records describing this process are housed in the following collections: British Columbia Archives, British Columbia, Fish and Wildlife Branch, GR-1085; Library and Archives Canada (LAC), Indian Affairs, RG 10; and Yukon Archives (YA), Records of the Yukon Government, YRG1, Series 1 and Series 9.

3. Gwilym Lucas Eades, Maps and Memes: Redrawing Culture, Place, and Identity in Indigenous Communities (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 2015), 17.

4. Peter Douglas Elias, Kaska Dena Land Use and Occupancy in the Yukon (Kaska Dena Council, 18 May 1985); Peter Douglas Elias, Kaska Dena Land Use and Occupancy in British Columbia (Kaska Dena Council, 31 January 1986).

5. An example of the challenging of state geographical authority is provided in Elias, Kaska Dena Land Use and Occupancy in the Yukon, 30-31.

6. LAC, Indian Affairs, RG 10, vol. 6736, file 420-302, part 2, James Coleman, "RE Indian Traplines, Stikine Indian Agency," 17 September 1940, 2. In this document, Coleman questions the size of the Indigenous population in northern BC and their need for vast tracts of trapping territory.

7. For instance YA, Records of the Yukon Government, YRG1, Series 9, GOV 2154, File 12, J.R. Gilholme letter to NCO in charge of Watson Lake Detachment, Fort Liard, NWT, 10 March 1966 is just one correspondence in a series of many that elucidated the extent of Acho Dene Koe (historically referred to as the Fort Liard Salve) trapping activities in the southeastern corner of the Yukon. These correspondence, accompanied by maps, served to solidify the line against which the Acho Dene Koe and Liard First Nation (members of the broader Kaska Nation) abutted each other.

8. Paul Nadasdy, "Imposing Territoriality: First Nation Land Claims and the Transformation of Human-Environment Relations in the Yukon," in Ice Blink: Navigating Northern Environmental History, eds. Stephen Bocking and Brad Martin (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2017), 333-376. It is also important to observe that territoriality as it relates to Indigenous land rights and intra-Indigenous land rights has deeper temporal roots than the signing of comprehensive land claim and self-government agreements.

9. Robert David Sack, Human Territoriality: Its Theory and History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 19.

10. Raymond Frogner, "'Innocent Legal Fictions': Archival Convention and the North Saanich Treaty of 1852," Archivaria 70 (Fall 2010), 47.

11. Frogner, "'Innocent Legal Fictions'," 48-49. [End Page 116]

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