INTO THE WILD

As hunt­ing at­tracts a new group of so­cial me­dia-lov­ing city slick­ers, a bat­tle over the woods be­gins.

Sharp Magazine Middle East (English) - - Contents - BY LEY­LAND CECCO

Two years ago, Ja­son Cousineau was a veg­e­tar­ian. Last year, he went hunt­ing. It was a grad­ual shift, from veg­eta­bles to lo­cally sourced meat and then to the for­est it­self. The Toronto bar­ber, along with a small group of men, spent days shiv­er­ing in the On­tario back­coun­try last Novem­ber, wait­ing through bouts of freez­ing rain un­til their din­ner ar­rived. “If you sit and don’t move, the world for­gets you’re there,” says Cousineau. A red fox strolled me­tres from them, un­aware of the men and guns crouched nearby. Then, a doe. It wasn’t Cousineau who pulled the trig­ger — “I haven’t had that hon­our yet” — but it went down with one shot, its body tum­bling onto a bed of leaves. The group dressed the deer, par­celling off thick cuts of meat. Later that week, they feasted at the hunt­ing camp near Ban­croft, On­tario, pair­ing the fresh veni­son with a game meat stew and elk flank. All of the food had come from within two kilo­me­tres of where he now sat. “There was some­thing warm­ing about eat­ing truly lo­cal,” he says.

Hunt­ing is once again gain­ing pop­u­lar­ity with those far re­moved from its tra­di­tions: young ur­ban pro­fes­sion­als (and, oc­ca­sion­ally, for­mer veg­e­tar­i­ans like Cousineau) con­cerned about the qual­ity — and ethics — of their food. With spring hunts be­gin­ning across the coun­try, a surge of new hunters is now stalk­ing the forests and fields out­side ma­jor cities, some for the very first time. And that has wider im­pli­ca­tions than you might think.

This re­cent trend has re­vealed a grow­ing ten­sion in the

coun­try’s hin­ter­lands. Ur­ban hunters now rush into the woods with­out the crit­i­cal knowl­edge of the land that has tra­di­tion­ally been passed down from more ex­pe­ri­enced woods­men. So­cial me­dia is ex­pos­ing a legacy of hypocrisy to­wards Indige­nous hunters. And hunt­ing spots are prov­ing more dif­fi­cult to find as cities ex­pand. Th­ese tec­tonic changes are forc­ing a reck­on­ing of what hunt­ing means for Canada — now and in the years to come.

The first hunt, as ev­ery veteran will tell you, is an over­whelm­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, a dizzy­ing sym­phony of adren­a­line and an­tic­i­pa­tion. Breaths be­come shal­low. Eyes dart. Ev­ery crack of a twig is a 10-point buck. But a beat­ing heart, those same vet­er­ans will say, makes for a bad shot. Cousineau is one of the lucky ones: most of the group he hunts with are in their six­ties and seven­ties. “Old guys love to teach you shit,” he says. His father never hunted, but two gen­er­a­tions back, Ja­son’s grand­fa­ther kept a fam­ily of eight chil­dren alive on a diet of game meat. “When I’m out there, I think about the wealth of knowl­edge that’s been lost,” he says. The long bouts of bore­dom — which of­ten last more than a few days — are also a time to learn from a gen­er­a­tion that knows the woods bet­ter than he ever might. There’s a lot that can be learned from be­hind a hunt­ing blind, like how to spot, track, shoot, and dress an an­i­mal. The most un­nerv­ing les­son: the for­est doesn’t care. It doesn’t care how long you’ve been sit­ting, or that the cold gnaws at your fin­gers and toes. Some days it re­wards pa­tience. Other weeks — or years — it doesn’t.

For many of the new­est acolytes, it’s more about find­ing great food and be­ing out­side than the pur­suit of a kill. This is

re­flected in the grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity of hunt­ing and cook­ing shows, blogs, and pod­casts. “The meat it­self is re­ally beau­ti­ful. It is free-range meat that lived a re­ally good life with­out fac­tory farm­ing,” says Chris Nut­tall- Smith, The Globe and Mail’s for­mer restau­rant critic, and cur­rent CBC pod­cast host and judge on Top Chef Canada, who took up hunt­ing in 2012. “I love be­ing in the woods be­fore dawn. I love watch­ing the world wake up,” he says. “The ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing there, re­gard­less of whether you get an an­i­mal, is re­ally beau­ti­ful and re­ally quite pro­found.”

Nut­tall- Smith has re­sisted join­ing the hunt­ing com­mu­nity; he sees the pur­suit of food as en­tirely in­de­pen­dent of hunt­ing cul­ture. “Most of the hunters I’ve met, they’re not quite so nu­anced. They just want to kill some shit and hope­fully make some jerky,” he says. “I had no one to teach me how to hunt. I am self taught; I read books and I went out by my­self

and learned slowly how to do it and how to be suc­cess­ful at

it.”

Rob Cesta, a 34-year-old Toronto-based out­fit­ter and ex­pe­ri­enced hunter, has seen his fair share of rookie mis­takes in

the woods. Some, he chalks up to ner­vous ban­ter — us­ing the wrong terms for cal­i­bres, ea­gerly ask­ing a hunter if they got a “kill” — but other trans­gres­sions strike him as wor­ry­ing.

He’s seen hunters out in the woods wear­ing cam­ou­flage, for ex­am­ple, with­out the man­dated bright or­ange vests for safety.

“I def­i­nitely will not hunt on pub­lic lands be­cause I know the dan­ger has sig­nif­i­cantly in­creased,” Cesta says. On oc­ca­sion, he’s had new hunters ac­ci­den­tally cross onto his pri­vate land. “I’m like, what the hell are you do­ing here? Get off my land — you’re tres­pass­ing.” For him, worse than the tres­pass is the like­li­hood that the con­fused hunters will have put their scent on the ground — eras­ing years of ex­cru­ci­at­ing track­ing.

Still, he wel­comes the surge in new hunters. “We’re of­ten out there for the same rea­sons: a love of the land and a deep re­spect for the an­i­mals we’re stalk­ing.”

For most of Canada’s his­tory, hunt­ing was about one thing: sur­vival. Why else would you walk up­wards of 15 kilo­me­tres a day, for weeks on end, with lit­tle prom­ise of suc­cess? But for this new breed of hunters, most of whom have ready ac­cess to gro­cery stores teem­ing with fresh meat, the ur­gency is gone.

In his book Fac­ing the Hunter, Giller Prize–win­ner David Adams Richards mourns the loss of the hunter as a hero and provider. More peo­ple than ever are leav­ing ru­ral ar­eas for cities, of­ten tak­ing with them in­ter­gen­er­a­tional knowl­edge

“The first hunt is an over­whelm­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, a dizzy­ing sym­phony of adren­a­line and an­tic­i­pa­tion.”

of the woods that will slowly at­ro­phy. “The world no longer be­longs to us,” he writes. “In so many ways, we are now in the same po­si­tion the First Na­tions peo­ple found them­selves in. Think­ing this, and mul­ti­ply­ing it a thou­sand times, we might be­gin to re­al­ize the tragedy that oc­curred here four hun­dred years ago.”

For many Indige­nous hunters, that tragedy lives on. As early set­tlers marched west­ward, Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties lost ac­cess — by force or gov­ern­ment de­cree — to the ar­eas hunted for gen­er­a­tions, lead­ing to wide­spread star­va­tion. It wasn’t un­til 1982 that the Indige­nous right to hunt and fish was fi­nally en­shrined in the Char­ter of Rights and Free­doms.

Yet to this day, Indige­nous hunters face back­lash — of­ten am­pli­fied by so­cial me­dia — where ur­ban hunters are oth­er­wise praised. In­sta­gram ac­counts of no­table chefs and food­ies por­tray hunt­ing as a sus­tain­able and morally su­pe­rior life, and garner hun­dreds of “likes” in the process. But in De­cem­ber, af­ter the On­tario gov­ern­ment per­mit­ted mem­bers of the Six Na­tions of the Grand River — a reser­va­tion an hour out­side Toronto — to hunt deer in Short Hills Pro­vin­cial Park, an on line pe­ti­tion call­ing for the end to the hunt was shared widely. As hunters en­tered the park, pro­test­ers jeered while trucks passed by the picket line.

The Cana­dian hunt that still re­ceives the most ob­jec­tion — and yet is likely the most nec­es­sary for sur­vival — hap­pens hun­dreds of kilo­me­tres north of the tree­line. For the last 30 years, celebri­ties and con­ser­va­tion groups have protested the Inuit seal hunt, win­ning a Euro­pean ban on the trade of pelts. For Inuit com­mu­ni­ties, the ef­fects have been bru­tal. Gabriel Nir­lun­gayuk, the for­mer Deputy Min­is­ter of the En­vi­ron­ment in Nu­navut, re­calls the dev­as­ta­tion it brought to his grand­fa­ther’s com­mu­nity. “I saw a bro­ken man,” he says. In spite of near-full re­liance on the hunt for sur­vival, the Inuit have had to bat­tle for gen­er­a­tions for the right to hunt the vast swaths of ice, rock, and wa­ter. “It’s the wild that feeds us, it’s the rivers that feed us. It’s the ocean that feeds us. It’s the land that feeds us,” he says.

And even with legally har­vested game meat, Indige­nous chefs and hunters are learn­ing that they still must bat­tle for pub­lic ap­proval — ap­proval that ap­pears more eas­ily won by ur­ban hunters. When the Toronto restau­rant Kukum Kitchen be­gan of­fer­ing seal tartare on its menu, chef Joseph Shawana was over­whelmed by an on­line pe­ti­tion to shut down. The pe­ti­tion amassed more than 6,000 sig­na­tures. “Such per­ver­sion. Are you peo­ple in Toronto STARV­ING??? Is that why you serve seal meat? Be­cause there is no other sane ra­tio­nal rea­son. You peo­ple are beyond sick,” wrote one com­menter. Shawana re­fused to re­lent, keep­ing seal and other tra­di­tional foods, on the menu.

The back­lash high­lights an un­com­fort­able re­al­ity for Indige­nous hunters: the killing of some an­i­mals just isn’t ac­cept­able to the broader pub­lic. This re­sis­tance — of­ten ar­bi­trary in its de­ploy­ment — is largely ig­no­rant of the deep his­tory of tra­di­tional hunts where whales, seals, and po­lar bears con­tinue to be crit­i­cal sources of food in hardier ar­eas of the coun­try. Deer and elk, which closely re­sem­ble cat­tle in shape and form, are more palat­able to hunter and non-hunter alike.

Hunt­ing has al­ways faced a de­gree of re­sis­tance. But so­cial me­dia is in­creas­ingly chang­ing the way hunters and chefs in­ter­act with the an­i­mals they hunt. “I def­i­nitely watch what I post,” says Jer­maine Hamil­ton. Pre­vi­ously a brand man­ager, the 28-year-old hunt­ing out­fit­ter based out of Toronto un­der­stands the whip­saw na­ture of so­cial me­dia. “I’ll post pic­tures of me out in the bush, with my guns. But no tro­phy kills.” He’s seen the way a poorly re­ceived im­age can ruin a rep­u­ta­tion — or a busi­ness. So­cial me­dia cuts both ways: it has been an ef­fec­tive re­cruit­ment tool not just for his fledg­ling busi­ness, but for help­ing change the per­cep­tion of hunt­ing.

Hamil­ton sees a steady stream of young ur­ban pro­fes­sion­als

ea­ger to leave the metropo­lis be­hind — at least for a few days. “I take a lot of guys out who have never been in the bush,” he says. “For some of them, it’s just enough to go for a walk in the woods. Oth­ers want to be able to say ‘Hey, I got this food my­self.’”

Hunt­ing in­volves an in­ti­mate con­nec­tion with the land, says Hamil­ton, track­ing herd move­ments and find­ing graz­ing ar­eas. This takes time. In­creas­ingly, he has no­ticed older hunters get­ting cagey about shar­ing good hunt­ing lo­ca­tions. “They’re the friendli­est guys ever. They’ll help you out if they see you in the store, talk your ear off about gear. But when you ask about good hunt­ing spots, they go silent.” An ex­cep­tional hunt­ing lo­ca­tion is the kind of thing you pass down to the next gen­er­a­tion — not some­thing one ca­su­ally drops at a Bass Pro Shop. In large part, this is a scarcity is­sue. Land that once promised a good hunt is be­ing over­run with city res­i­dents, as cot­tage coun­try and ur­ban de­vel­op­ment push bound­aries fur­ther and fur­ther into the for­est. “It’s come to the point that for me to find a great hunt­ing spot, I have to drive three hours out­side of the city,” says Hamil­ton. Cesta has also seen the down­side of overea­ger hunters. “I’ve been to pub­lic lands where I thought I would see no one for the en­tire day. I pad­dle across the lake, walk through a swamp, and on ev­ery sin­gle hill­top, there’s an or­ange vest,” he says. “I’m like, holy shit, now where do I go?”

Veteran hunters may be wary of the crowd­ing forests, but prov­inces love the re­newed in­ter­est — and the cash that comes with it. In Al­berta, hunt­ing tag sales have al­most dou­bled over the last decade. The wind­fall means more funds are di­rected to­wards much-needed con­ser­va­tion ef­forts to pro­tect herd num­bers and park­land.

There is lit­tle ques­tion th­ese new hunters are bring­ing changes to the woods. But the cost of th­ese changes is not yet known. As Cesta points out, the wis­dom passed down for gen­er­a­tions is quite lit­er­ally dy­ing out. To pre­serve what he finds most mean­ing­ful about the hunt, he en­vi­sions a pro­vin­cial men­tor­ship that brings to­gether new hunters with sea­soned woods­men. At the mo­ment, other than a few small pro­grams scat­tered through­out the coun­try, noth­ing ex­ists. Even more ben­e­fi­cial would be men­tor­ship pro­grams that bring in Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties across the coun­try, bet­ter ed­u­cat­ing new hunters about the his­tory — and chal­lenges — of the hunt.

As cities and towns con­tinue to ex­pand, the clois­ter of the for­est — and the in­ti­mate knowl­edge of it — is quickly be­com­ing a lux­ury. But it’s one that any­one who spends time on the land knows is worth pre­serv­ing, es­pe­cially for in­ex­pe­ri­enced hunters. “Af­ter all those early morn­ings, days spent in the cold, and the cost of the tag — I still didn’t get any­thing,” says Cousineau. “But for damn sure I’ll do it again.”

“An ex­cep­tional hunt­ing lo­ca­tion is some­thing you pass down to the next gen­er­a­tion — not some­thing to ca­su­ally drop at a Bass Pro Shop.”

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