Celebrating the last 350 years of Waskaganish

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On September 29, 1668, a small British ship called the Nonsuch anchored in Rupert Bay, at the mouth of the Rupert River. It wasn’t the first time Europeans had been there, says historian Dr. Joseph Jolly. Many believe Henry Hudson spent the winter in the region in 1611, before he, his son and some of his crew were abandoned in a small boat by a mutinying crew and left to die in the bay named after him.

That meant some Crees had seen Europeans and their boats before. At the time, the Crees traded widely, all the way down to Georgian Bay in southern Ontario, where some had already met Europeans as well.

Instead, the landing of the Nonsuch in Waskaganish 350 years ago this September was the beginning of a wholesale change for Cree communities on both sides of James Bay. It would lead to an upheaval of their economic and hunting systems, and the beginning of an English colonial presence in what is now called Canada.

Darryl Hester, Waskaganish’s 350th Anniversary coordinator, says community celebrations will be staged throughout the year.

“We’re mentioning European contact and the first ship that landed here, and a little bit about Hudson’s Bay,” Hester said. “But the most important thing we’re celebrating is our tradition and the culture of the Crees.”

After all, Hester says, archeologists have found artifacts showing that the Waskaganish area has been inhabited for at least 4,500 years.

“We’ve been here for a very long time,” Hester said. “But the thing we’re celebrating is when our community started evolving through trade.”

Jolly is the author of the soon-to-be-published book A History of Waskaganish. He said there were plenty of settlements the Crees would return to every summer from their territory on the land. The difference is that Waskaganish was the one that the English expedition decided to give an English name: Rupert House. Named after Prince Rupert, the co-sponsor of the expedition with his cousin King Charles II, this made Waskaganish the first point in the English claim of what it began to call “Rupert’s Land,” which included all of James Bay and Hudson’s Bay, present-day Manitoba, most of Alberta, and significant northern sections of Ontario and Quebec.

Though it was an English ship, the guide for the voyage was a trapper and explorer named Médard des Groseilliers who had heard about the wonders of Cree territory when he traded with Crees in the Great Lakes area.

“The Crees told des Groseilliers [and his partner Pierre-Esprit Radisson] there were a lot of rivers in James Bay, and a big sea – the North Bay, they called it,” Jolly explained. “There were rivers stocked with prime beaver pelts. These guys were interested in James Bay, but they didn’t want to go by canoe – it would have taken about seven days and it would have been a lot of work.”

Instead, des Groseilliers and Radisson looked for a country to sponsor them. Though they were French trappers (coureurs des bois), they weren’t popular – the governor of “New France” had confiscated all their furs when he caught them trading without a license. That’s why they went to England to ask, and why they left on English ships (Radisson’s ship was forced to turn back).

“One of the reasons the Hudson’s Bay Company was so successful was that the Crees already had their own trading system. They were going to Georgian Bay [trading moose hides for things like corn and tobacco], probably going to Labrador. They had means of getting around,” said Jolly.

“The Nonsuch landed in Waskaganish in 1668 and wintered there. Native people brought their furs to them. In 1669, the ship returned to England. When the British merchants saw the kinds of pelts they brought back, it didn’t take long before Charles II issued a Royal Charter on May 2, 1670, to ‘the Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson Bay.’ The governor was Prince Rupert, and that was the beginning of the Hudson’s Bay Company.”

This made Waskaganish a recorded settlement, to which ships would come from England, and where they could unload their things and trade.

“The Nonsuch launched an empire of trade. That’s how big it was,” Jolly explained. “Eventually you had Moose Factory in 1673, then the Hudson’s Bay Company established ports at the mouths of all the rivers. Chisasibi, Wemindji, Eastmain, Moose Factory, Churchill – all along the coast. The Native people were already there, of course, and they had settlements. But it’s like the Hudson River in New York – which was already discovered by Native people long before Hudson appeared. But because of the fact that he recorded it, he gets the credit for ‘discovering’ the river.”

Since that time, said Hester, Waskaganish has held a central place in Cree history. Trappers could easily paddle the Rupert River from Waskaganish to Nemaska, Mistissini and Waswanipi, making it a well-established trading centre.

Meanwhile, struggling with illness and a famine fuelled by low animal population cycles, Waskaganish set up the first animal preserve in Canada. In 1932, Rupert House post manager James Watt took inspiration from Cree hunting approaches that carefully avoided overtrapping of lodges and allowed beavers to breed. Watt paid Robert Stephens and Andrew Whiskeychan to mark a beaver lodge as “his,” and protect the beavers in it. Supported by the Quebec government, the beaver preserve was replicated in Nottaway and Old Factory, and helped lead to a ten-fold increase in the beaver population over the next decade.

“That wasn’t the first time the Crees had done something like that. They knew what they were doing, and who knows, maybe they did that 2,000 years ago, too,” Hester said. “The first male beaver they placed in the preserve, they named George. So we got a male beaver as a mascot and named him George too!”

The first round of celebrations takes place February 22-24. It will include an arts and culture showcase, with snowshoe making and moose-hide tanning demonstrations, and displays of old-style Cree clothes. There will be traditional food, as well as games and activities. A marketplace will offer moose-hide mittens and moccasins for sale. In the evening, they will have a dance with music ranging from contemporary styles to old-time fiddle music, including songs only Elders will know. Traditional dances, such as the caribou dance, will also be performed.

At each of the seasonal celebrations, there will also be re-enactments of historic events.

Since Waskaganish was home to Billy Diamond, the Grand Chief of the Crees when the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement was signed, Hester says they are planning a re-enactment of this historic event. On a darker note, they will also re-enact the annual trauma of an Indian agent calling out the name of a child to be taken away to residential school.

The spring celebration will be centred around Goose Break, while the summer event will be the largest – the Cree Nation Government has sent an invitation to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Finally, the fall event will celebrate freeze-up on November 22-24.

“There’s a lot of history to celebrate,” Hester said. “I know people will be coming in from all the Cree communities, as well as from across Canada.”


Photos by Ian Diamond and Nation Archive


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