One could easily write a page-turning book about the life and accomplishments of outfitter, trapper, residential school survivor and honoured veteran Alex Van Bibber.
I was lucky to have coffee with Van Bibber one morning in January when he was in Whitehorse. His list of errands included picking up his cowboy boots, which he had polished for his upcoming trip to Saskatoon to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award from the 20th annual Indspire Awards (formerly the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards) on February 15.
This “black-tie” televised gala (Van Bibber will wear a beaded moose hide vest) annually hosts approximately 2,500 people from the Indigenous community, as well as the private and public sectors. A national jury comprised of 10 former Indspire Award laureates selects 12 achievement recipients, three youth and one lifetime achievement recipient each year.
Aged 96 and still an active trapper, Van Bibber was the most delightful coffee date I’ve had in quite some time. He is generous with fascinating stories from his lifetime of outdoor living, his experiences in both Canadian and US armies and his extensive travels.
We discussed trapping and snaring techniques for wolf, coyote and lynx; trapping with dog teams; the importance of learning a trade; the necessity of protecting wildlife habitats; and the history of the fur trade, the railway and mining in Canada.
I also tried to obtain marriage advice from Van Bibber who was hitched to a loving wife, trapper and mother, Sue, for over 65 years. Sue had seven children from a previous marriage and two more with Van Bibber. She passed away at age 99 in 2011.
While I didn’t pry any specific love advice, we did laughingly surmise that keeping separate trap lines had something to do with the longevity of his marriage. The family that he and Sue began now has 150 members and spans six generations.
Born near Pelly Crossing to Northern Tutchone mother Eliza (who lived to 104) and West Virginian father Ira Van Bibber — and one of fourteen siblings — Van Bibber has always been part of a tight-knit family. It was his mother who first taught him trapping skills as a boy.
He has always been a hard-working man. Past jobs include positions with Federal Water Resources (10 years), Yukon Government, teaching wilderness and trapping skills, (35 years) and eight seasons mining for gold on Dredge No. 2 in Dawson City as a young man. Since 1947, Van Bibber has been an active member of the Canadian Rangers, he was the Yukon representative for the Assembly of First Nations’ original Veterans’ Round Table and he currently sits as the Yukon representative for the Assembly of First Nations’ Veterans.Van Bibber has laid the wreath in Ottawa three times for Aboriginal veterans in Remembrance Day ceremonies and he is the last living WWII Aboriginal veteran in the Yukon.He has met dignitaries such as Prime Minister Stephen Harper, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and the late U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy.You can also see Van Bibber on the silver screen in the movies Yukon Safari (1954), Arrow for a Grizzly Bear (1956), Challenge to be Free (1975), and The Last Trapper (2004).
After reflecting upon this list of jobs, adventures, awards and accomplishments, I asked Van Bibber, who is a member of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, if he had advice for young people. He responded without hesitation:
“Be self-supporting,” he says. “That’s the main thing. When you do get on a job, look after the job. But look after yourself and be self-supporting.”
There is no finer example of self-sufficiency than this energetic and upbeat elder. Van Bibber adds the Indspire Lifetime Achievement Award to his growing list of 17 awards including the Order of Canada, the Queen’s Jubilee Medal (Gold & Silver), two awards from the Fur Institute of Canada, Lloyd Cook & Jun Bourque, an honour from Yukon Big Game Outfitters, awards from the Assembly of First Nations, Council of Yukon First Nations and the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, the Skookum Jim Friendship Centre and the Yukon Order of Pioneers.Van Bibber is proud of his First Nations heritage and sat as the first Elder Councilor for the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations and he is still an active participant on the Elders’ Council.
For more information about Indspire and to learn when the awards ceremony will be broadcast on television visit: www.indspire.ca.