Located on the shores of Lake Opemiska, Oujé-Bougoumou is the newest and smallest – population 6061– Cree community. Awards have been bestowed upon us by the United Nations, for being a model community, and by the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation, in recognition of our approach to housing. It hasn't always been so: Until 1994, our people were living in abject poverty, in rudimentary shacks scattered over the countryside, displaced by intensive mining and forestry activities on our lands.
Before the arrival of the mining and forestry companies, our ancestors lived off the land, fishing, hunting and trapping for most of the year. In the summer, they went either to Pointe-Bleue or Mistissini to exchange their furs for supplies. Then the men joined the canoe brigades at Mistissini to transport the furs to Waskaganish, while the women, children and elderly repaired to fishing places to put up fish for the winter. The seeds of change were planted, in 1869, when the Hudson's Bay Company sold Rupert's Land – the lands drained by the rivers flowing into James and Hudson bays – to the new Dominion of Canada.
People from the Geological Survey of Canada immediately began to survey northern Quebec for profitable and accessible minerals, fisheries, forests and agricultural lands. The fur trader Peter McKenzie is credited with finding the mineral deposits in our region, in 19032, but, according to Mary Ann Bosum, the credit should really go to her father, William Couchees, whose hunting lands were about Lake Chibougamau.
Mary Ann Bosum:
“My father told me he had found a rock with ore in it, where the Campbell mine is today, and this happened a long time before the whiteman arrived.... One day my father showed the rock he had found to a white man who had been introduced to him as the big boss. This man asked my father to show him the place where he had found the rock, and promised to give him a job in return. My father never got what he had been promised.”3
The initial prospecting activity in our area was sporadic but intense: McKenzie's reports were so enthusiastic that by 1906, 250 prospectors combed the area. When, a few years later, the government refused their requests to build a railway to improve access to the region, they packed their shovels and picks, and moved on. The buoyant economy of the 1920s prompted a small army of prospectors, mining engineers and promoters to return to our land. Investors were optimistic about mining and fur prices were high. Indeed, according to the late Reggie Bosum, it was a prosperous time for our people.
Chibougamau was all set to become a second Yukon when, in 1929, the stock market crashed, giving rise to the Great Depression. Investment in mining evaporated. But more immediately significant to our people, at this time, was the collapse in fur prices, a collapse that coincided with a devastating decline in beaver, our single most important source of nourishment and income.
Within a few years – in 1934 - interest in mining had been rekindled. Two shafts were sunk. Very quickly the mining population around Doré Lake and Chibougamau Lake swelled to 1,000. Some of our people worked as guides for prospectors, while others supplied the mining camps with food and wood, the income a welcome buffer against the hardships resulting from the decline in beaver and fur prices. Then came World War II and, once again, money for mining dried up.
In the meantime, a chief from Pointe-Bleue who guided prospectors to Chibougamau Lake warned people about the possible consequences of mining development in the region.
Mary Ann Bosum:
“There was a chief at Pointe-Bleue whom my father knew well.... He used to guide prospectors as far as Chibougamau Lake. A long time ago he said to my father, 'One day, in this region, here on this territory where you are standing, there may not be one tree left around this lake.' Several whitemen, including prospectors, had told him about the excellent mining potential in the region.”4
The most serious impact on our people and our lands began after the 1950 completion of the permanent road between St. Felicien and Chibougamau, permitting year-round access to our region. The mining industry took hold and forestry operations began. Within a year our people were told to get off their lands because they were either too close to blastingor because the sand was needed to build roads. In 1952, the people moved to Swampy Point, the only place that hadn't been staked. This site was so damp, so unhealthy, we moved 10 years later to Caché Bay, on Doré Lake. When mineral deposits were found nearby, we were told to move to Mistissini. The government threatened to eliminate our social benefits and Indian status if we didn't go.5
But there wasn't enough housing in Mistissini. And there were no jobs. Most of our people dispersed to small encampments where we lived in crude, makeshift camps. By then a dozen mines were operating the area, while a significant portion of the trees had been clear-cut. And two non-native towns – Chibougamau and Chapais – had been established to service the forestry and mining sectors. Lakes on our hunting grounds were polluted by the effluent from mines. Forests and animal habitat in our territory were destroyed by forestry operations. Game was depleted in the vicinity of the towns. In the process, our interests had been continually and completely overlooked.
Years earlier the same Pointe-Bleue chief who had warned us about the effects of industrial activity on our lands had also suggested we seek legal claim to our territory.
“On one of his many trips to Chibougamau Lake, [he] suggested that my father [William Couchees] find someone to help him have his territory recognized legally. Once my father went to the prospectors' camp and [he] acted as interpreter but no one wanted to help him.”6
In the 1960s, when we were still living at Caché Bay, at Doré Lake, our chief, Jimmy Mianscum, petitioned the government for a reserve at Caché Bay. His request went unheeded, as had William's. In the 1980s, isolated in our little camps, marginalised and poor, we renewed our efforts for recognition.
After a protracted struggle for funding, in 1994 we moved to our new village, located close to all our traditional traplines.
Throughout the region, shorelines are dotted with campsites for every season, birth places and final resting places. There are goose camps and goose blinds, fishing camps and portages, bear trap sites, canoe racks, and meat and fish smokers....7The land provided a good life for our people and for that we are very grateful.
Visit our website at: Oujé-Bougoumou
- 1. Source: Statistics Canada 2006.
- 2. McKenzie's exploration was inspired by the results of the survey by Richardson, in 1870, that suggested the geological structure in the Chibougamau area held valuable mineral wealth.
- 3. Source: Frenette, Jacques 1985 The History of the Chibougamau Cree – An Amerindian Band Reveals its Identity. Cree Indian Centre of Chibougamau. Pp:17.
- 4. Source: Frenette, Jacques 1985 The History of the Chibougamau Cree – An Amerindian Band Reveals its Identity. Cree Indian Centre of Chibougamau. Pp:19.
- 5. Source: Bosum, Freddy “An Essay” www.ouje.ca, accessed July 1, 2009.
- 6. Source: Frenette, Jacques 1985 The History of the Chibougamau Cree – An Amerindian Band Reveals its Identity. Cree Indian Centre of Chibougamau. Pp:19.
- 7. Source: Marcoux, Francis 2009 Archaeological Survey in the Region of the Proposed Park. Report submitted to the Ministère du Dévelopment durable, de l'Environnement et des Parcs and the Oujé-Bougoumou Band Council.