On a cold November morning, Lester Balfour heads out onto the land with a group of boys to check his rabbit snares about a 40 minute drive north of Norway House Cree Nation.
A snare is a simple tool — a branch and a silver wire.
Balfour uses his fist to measure the circumference of the wire loop, making it slightly larger than a rabbit’s head.
The end of the wire is loosely fastened, the idea being that when a rabbit runs through it, the wire tightens around its neck.
“So when a rabbit runs in, it gets caught,” Balfour said. “That’s how you get your rabbit.”
Balfour doesn’t want traditional hunting, trapping and fishing skills to be lost to younger generations, so he dedicates much of his time to teaching youth who want to learn.
Keeping up with his snares is a laborious task. Balfour checks them multiple times a week, to avoid losing his catch to other predators, like martens and lynxes.
“The other day, we had checked and were setting snares, my brother actually seen a small lynx close by,” Balfour said.
That morning, the youth caught six wapos — the Cree word for rabbits — but lost two, learning a valuable lesson about being diligent when checking snares and to remain aware of your surroundings.
“A lynx got to it, so there’s other predators, so we’re not the only ones trying to eat the rabbits,” Balfour said.
Growing up, Balfour didn’t have many chances to learn about living off the land, and that’s why he now shares his knowledge with youth from Norway House Cree Nation.
“Nobody is teaching them … [about] eating wild food. For me, it’s a lot healthier,” said Balfour, who was initially taught by his grandmother to stick to a diet of mostly wild foods.
WATCH | Lester Balfour teaches lessons on the land to his community’s kids:
Balfour hasn’t been to a doctor in years.
“A lot of our Native people are getting sick with diabetes, and that’s why I’m trying to get out there that we need to go back [to traditional foods],” he said.
“I’m trying to teach them to start eating off the land. It is our table, it is our food, and that’s who we are.”
Over the years, as word spread about the work that Balfour was doing, more parents started to approach Balfour so their kids could learn how to live off the land.
“It’s good to see that more and more people, more and more of our youth, are coming out to learn,” Balfour said.
“One boy said, ‘I can’t wait till I grow up. I’m going to drive a boat like you, I’m going to take out kids,’ so it’s already touching me, touching my heart. And that feels good, for him to say that.”
This isn’t a paid job for Balfour, but he dreams of one day opening up a land-based education camp.
Last summer alone, Balfour taught over 100 youth how to live off the land. They learned skills like hunting, trapping, fishing, smoking meat and growing their own vegetables.
Balfour built a smoker and taught the youth how to smoke meat and fish.
“We smoked about 64 [fish] and it took two days, because it was a big smoker and we fed the community,” Balfour said.
WATCH | Lester Balfour teaches traditional skills and the Cree language to children in his community:
The students are learning more than just survival skills; they are learning the Cree language and about themselves.
“I feel like I’m just myself, like, feeling better,” said Faron, one of the youth out with Balfour.
Faron is shy, but when asked what was the best thing Balfour taught him, he lit up.
“Fishing … catching big fish,” said Faron, who likes eating his catch just as much as he likes being out on the water.
Another student out that day was living up to his name, Kisinow, which means extreme cold in Cree.
Kisinow likes the exercise he gets while being out on the land, and the friends he has made along the way.
Like Faron, Kisinow’s favourite activity is fishing. He looks forward to ice fishing in the coming months and has a tip for those who are new to the sport.
“You got to dress warm so you don’t freeze, and you got to wear better gloves than these,” he said, looking at his thin gloves.
With that many students fishing, hunting and trapping, there’s often an abundance of food. Whatever Balfour and his students don’t use, they give away.
“I do feed the community with fish and when we get rabbits too, when we get a lot, we post [online] and say, ‘Come and get your rabbits.’ We feed the elders,” Balfour said.