Situated on the shores of Champion Lake, Nemaska - population about 6501 - is the headquarters of the Grand Council of the Crees and the Cree Regional Authority. We call ourselves the Nemaskau Iinnuch, meaning, People from the Place of Plentiful Fish. We live, fish, hunt and trap in the area. Until we were forced to relocate, we gathered every summer at Old Nemaska to smoke and preserve for winter the many species of fish – especially, whitefish and sturgeon – that were abundant in the lake.
Attesting to our long history in the area are the pictographs – paintings – on rock faces along the travel route connecting Lake Nemiscau to the Rupert River. Said to be the second most important rock art site in Quebec, the images, consisting of 152 motifs, extend over a 40-metre surface. Our people say the motifs were created a long time ago by mamegwashio, small, hairy creatures that dwell in the rocks.2
Long before contact with non-natives, Lake Nemiscau was a trading hub where northern Iiyiyuuch (Cree) met with our ancestors and with native people from the south. For, using the rivers as highways, people from different areas convened at Lake Nemiscau to socialize and trade for goods not readily available in their areas.3
According to Jesuit missionary Charles Albanel, Lake Nemiscau had been abandoned when he passed through our area on his “journey of discovery” to James Bay in 1672. In his journals, Father Albanel mentions seeing the remains of both a fort and a settlement at Lake Nemiscau. The people, however were gone. In 1665, after terrorizing people to the south, marauding bands of Iroquois struck Mistissini; another group, consisting of about 30 warriors, attacked Lake Nemiscau killing many of our people. The survivors had probably fled.
As part of his overland trip to James Bay, in 1679, Louis Jolliet was instructed to trade and establish the Roman Catholic mission of St. Francois Xavier at Lake Nemiscau, suggesting our ancestors had returned. It's not clear whether a trading post was built at this time. In any case, it wasn't long before one was for, in 1685, the Compagnie du Nord settled a post commanded by Louis Jolliet's brother, Zacharie.4 The Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) didn't arrive until the 1790s, initially staying for two short periods: from 1794-1799 and from 1802-1809. Meanwhile, the North West Company was also interested in Lake Nemiscau, operating a post there from 1804-1806. The presence of the new Revillon Frères post, more than one hundred years later, forced the HBC, in 1908,5 to re-establish its operations at Lake Nemiscau.
In general, as long as our lands were rich in country food, our people lived well. But there were two long periods during which the animals we depended upon for survival failed. Both coincided with world-wide economic depressions, the first between 1870 and 1892, the second during the 1930s. Both resulted in drastic declines in fur prices. Our incomes were woefully inadequate. The consequences were devastating: Twenty per cent of inlanders6 died of sickness and starvation during the first depression. Many others died during the second.
Here is a story about how one of our families – the Mettaweskums - managed during the depression of the 1930s. By the beginning of the 1930s, beaver had been trapped almost to extinction and fur prices had collapsed. There were no caribou and moose hadn't yet come to the area. Beaver preserves were eventually established to help restore the beaver. The following story took place after the establishment of the Rupert River beaver preserve, when trapping was prohibited on lands included in the preserve.7
My father [Luke Mettaweskum] discovered a good place to set the fish net. That's why he stayed around here [Kaamisaach Yaatwaakami] catching fish. Look at this fish – it's so fat! It's so rich! Look at the entrails, they look so good. That's why my father loved to put his fish nets here. Especially when there were no rabbits. He brought us here to the river. He preferred staying here. He never thought of taking us closer to the community. He was certain to get nothing from the store, even if we went. That was how the HBC treated people in those days. If the hunter didn't bring any pelts, even if it was obvious the family was hungry, you still wouldn't get anything. The hunter would leave the store empty-handed.
I remember going hungry often. My father had a difficult time catching fish. Many times my father put out his fish net and there would be nothing. Many times we didn't have anything for breakfast. It seemed to get better in the very late spring. My mother would try to make whatever he caught last as long as possible. She would only cook a little bit at a time. She would tell us that she would cook some again before we went to bed. I would watch the sun during the day and wish it would set so that I could eat again. I would even eat squirrel, but I wasn't too crazy about it! My brother would kill squirrels and Canada jays. That's what we lived on. We weren't allowed to kill beaver.
Storytellers: Sarah (Mettaweskum) Wapachee and Hattie (Mettaweskum) Moses
Also disruptive to the people was the forced abandonment, in 1970, of our ancestral home on the shores of Lake Nemiscau. The HBC closed that year. Two years earlier, we had also been warned that our community would be flooded by a massive hydroelectric project involving the Nottaway, Broadback and Rupert (NBR) rivers, and that only the HBC's facilities, the church steeple and the graveyard would be above water. Under great duress, our people relocated to Mistissini and Waskaganish.8
After a seven-year “exile,” with the support of the Grand Council of the Crees, our people gathered at Doethawagan (Champion Lake) to evaluate our situation. Provisions in the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement of 1975 allowed for our resettlement in “the vicinity” of Lake Nemaska. The government had designated three sites as possible locations for our new community. We chose none, preferring to remain exactly where we were – at Doethawagan!9 Here, in the heart of our traditional lands, we have built a new home for ourselves and our children.
And what of the plans to flood our original settlement on Lake Nemiscau? After all the trouble, turmoil and expense caused by our forced relocation and by our efforts to create a new community, plans for the NBR project have been shelved. Now, each summer, our people make an annual pilgrimage “home,” where we have undertaken various restoration projects as homage to the place and people who came before us.
Visit our website at: Cree Nation of Nemaska
- 1. Source: Statistics Canada.
- 2. Source: Arsenault, Daniel “Le site Kaapehpeshapischininkanuucg (EiGf-2): les resultats de l'étude pluridisciplinaire d'un site rupestre a traces digitaux au Lac Nemiscau, territoire cri, Jamesie.”
- 3. For instance, people who hunted on the tundra were often interested in obtaining birchbark, while people from the south wanted caribou pelts.
- 4. Ten years later the Compagnie du Nord built a second post, which stayed open until 1700 when the company was dissolved. Source: Francis, Dan and Toby Morantz 1983 Partners in Fur – A History of the Fur Trade in Eastern James Bay 1600-1870. Kingston and Montreal: Queen's University Press.
- 5. Source: Morantz, Toby 2002 The Whiteman's Gonna Getcha – The Colonial Challenge to the Crees in Quebec. Kingston and Montreal: Queen's University Press. Pp 100.
- 6. Here the term “inlanders” refers to the people who traded at Waskaganish whose hunting grounds were up the Eastmain, Rupert, Nottaway and Broadback rivers as opposed to along the James Bay coast.
- 7. The Rupert River beaver preserve, which encompassed the hunting lands of Luke Mettaweskum and his family, was established in 1932. Several years later, the Nottaway beaver preserve, then the Old Factory beaver preserve and finally the Mistissini beaver preserve were established.
- 8. Unaware of what was going on, some of the students who had been at residential school and other educational institutions returned home to find an almost-empty community.
- 9. Source: Meskino, Isaac “Nemaskau Eenouch – A Brief General History.”