Hunting and the Quest for Power:

The James Bay Cree and Whitemen in the 20th Century


Harvey A. Feit

Part II: The Cree Struggle to Maintain Autonomy in the Face of Government Intervention

Crises in the Fur Trade and Establishment of Government Presence

Many Cree today speak of the lives of their parents and grandparents at the turn of this century as being traditional. This century has seen greater change in their lives than earlier ones, primarily because other Canadians have intervened in their lives.

Fur traders have been present in the region since the mid-seventeenth century, and missionaries have visited most trading posts since the mid-nineteenth century; but the arrival of the government characterizes the twentieth century. Although these lands were purchased by Canada from the Hudson's Bay Company in 1870, the government presence was slow to be felt.

In the late 1920s the Quebec government's first intervention in the region occurred when it responded to requests to help solve the crisis created by white trappers. Quebec first made the killing of beaver by non-lndians illegal in the northern regions of the province, and then in the mid-1930s outlawed all killing of beaver. The Cree supported this closure, and some communities reached their own agreements to cease taking any beaver before the government took its decision.

When hunting resumed - after ten to twenty years depending on the region - the response had worked: beaver were numerous, they were no longer "mad," and they wanted to give themselves again. The Cree and the government thus agreed independently on the means and the timing for re-establishing beaver populations.

When beaver harvesting was again permitted, the federal and provincial governments jointly mapped the hunting territories and recognized the Cree stewards, whom they now called tally men, because they were paid an honorarium to tally the number of active beaver lodges on the territory each year. The mapping and appointments were done in the communities at meetings of all the stewards, and the formal system of traplines thus established was clearly based on the already existing system of territories. However, there was a feeling among government agents that the territory system had broken down in part and that a more formal process had to be built into it. Thus, the stewards' annual tally of the number of beaver lodges was used by the government agent to calculate how many beaver could be caught on each territory. The steward would then be asked to allocate the harvest among the hunters he permitted to use his land. The government agents acted as if they were administering for the Cree a system of hunting and management.

For the Cree, the government was recognizing their own system and giving the stewards an additional source of authority that they could use to limit the hunting activities of people from outside their communities, including non-Natives, who often were less responsive to their spiritual and traditional authority. Frequently, what the agents suggested made good sense to the Cree hunters. Nevertheless, with their extensive knowledge of the resource populations, the Cree did not feel bound to follow the advice of government agents, which was based on simply following the trends in the number of lodges. Cree decisions were based on far more extensive knowledge.

In this respect, therefore, an important but not yet fully apparent conflict developed between the Cree and the government. The government thought that Cree hunting was regulated and supervised by government regulations and authority, and that they determined the Cree rights to hunt. The Cree thought the government had recognized their own system of tenure and self-governance.

The final element of the government response to the crisis of the 1930s was to establish a band government structure for each community and to start issuing rations and, later, social assistance. In the late 1930s and early 1940s the federal Department of Indian Affairs sent an Indian agent to each community to establish an official list of band membership - one band for each fur trade post - and to elect a chief and council. It appears that a chief and council system had been adopted in most communities before this time. In any case, a formal election system was now established under the Indian Act, which not only defined the size of the council but also its powers and those of the Minister of Indian Affairs. I have found no reports that the consequences of coming under the legislation were discussed with the Cree, although most of them describe the Indian agents' initial role as the giving out of surplus clothing and food, which was very much appreciated in the time of shortage. Cree accounts suggest that the band list was seen as a means of signing up for aid. The band council initially appears to have served as a source of information to the agent about who was in need of aid and of what kind, and as a representative group by which individual Cree could petition for assistance.

Nevertheless, these responses also represented a turning point in Cree society. They bound the Cree within the fabric of Canadian political society, law, and economy for the first time, and in circumstances that did not make the potential threats to their autonomy clear. The Cree were still exercising extensive control and autonomy in their hunting culture, but they were now doing so as part of the Canadian polity.

Government Assistance Turns To an Assertion of Dominance

Government presence in the region accelerated rapidly throughout the 1950s and 1960s as governments sought to "open the North." This involved making the region more accessible in order that its resources could be exploited by southern Canadians; it also involved extending the domains of government administration and authority. These changes were not intended to aid the Cree but to promote the interests of southern Canadians, and programs specifically affecting the Cree were not developed in consultation with them, aiming at their assimilation rather than at support for their culture and economy.

The expansion of the rail and road networks into the southern portions of Cree territory occurred in the 1950s and 1960s, and several mining towns were incorporated at that time. The towns of 500 to 10,000 people each, occupied up to several square miles of land, and each disrupted one or more hunting territories. Their impacts on the Cree were neither foreseen nor considered in the process of planning.

The direct impacts on hunting spread more widely than the land immediately occupied. Hunters said animals became much less calm and less willing to be caught over large areas affected by noise generated by railways, road traffic, and airplanes now frequently traversing the region. Roadway shrubs were kept down by the use of powerful chemical sprays, despite the fact that moose and other game fed on these shrubs, and Cree fed on them. The Cree found several dead and sick animals, became cautious about consuming animals from the immediate vicinity, and successfully petitioned the governments to cease the spraying. Pollution from the mine waste waters and waste sediment ponds was also a problem. The Cree reported frequent finds of dead fish and aquatic animals and changes in the tastes of the animals over large areas.

The extensive Cree use of the environment and their knowledge of it made clear to them the extent of the impacts these developments were having, but no mechanism was established by governments or the companies to give them a voice in the projects. The meaning of the hunting territory system, upon which the government had built the beaver reserve system, was ignored. That the government did not consider the Cree system of land use and management as a system of land tenure and of rights, and that it did not consider that the government and developers as well as the Cree had mutual obligations, was becoming clear.

These development impacts reached near tragic proportions with the coming of the forestry industry. A pulp and paper mill went into operation in 1965, and its wastes were dumped into streams leading into a major river and lake network. In its initial operations this plant used a process that released a significant quantity of mercury into both the water and airborne effluents. The fact that inorganic mercury could be converted into deadly methylmercury through natural processes was not then known; it was discovered later at Minimata, Japan. In 1970, sampling of fish being sent to the commercial markets revealed that they had levels of methyl mercury beyond those permissible for human safety.

Over the last fifteen years, several research projects have been conducted to determine the sources of mercury in the region, the possible evidence of its impacts on Cree health, and the implications for future use of fishery resources in the region. It was found that mercury levels are naturally high in several geological zones, but that the highest levels were downstream from the pulp mill. The plant has significantly reduced its releases of mercury, which now are slowly being buried by sedimentation. The impacts on people of methylmercury were hard to determine at the standards of scientific proof. However, the evidence is strong that the health of some Cree individuals was affected by the methylmercury.

In the 1970s the government advised the Cree to cease consuming the fish of the region. Because this recommendation itself would have severe consequences for the Cree diet and possibly their health, the Cree insisted on research to establish more precise norms. In 1978 specific recommendations for each affected community suggested a limited consumption of those species of fish with high methylmercury levels. The problem has not been stabilized, however, because of new fears that acid rain may be increasing the leaching of mercury from bedrock into the food chain. An irony for the Cree is that, while the governments improved medical services in the 1940s, within two decades these same governments promoted developments in the region that endangered their health and well-being.

The opening of the region to development projects not only affected the land, it affected the economic choices and pressures on the Cree. When fur prices declined in the 1950s, hunters began to meet the cash shortage by taking summer employment. They chose employment primarily in projects that were compatible with continued hunting, used their bush skills, allowed them to work in Cree groups, and were not organized by industrial time or authority structures.

The taking of these jobs provoked a new crisis. Agents of government saw this as the first step in an irreversible process of abandoning hunting for wage labour. This fit the common image of hunting as an unreliable, unproductive, and insecure means of living, and one that any rational person would willingly give up for a steady job and wages.

The Cree not only knew differently about hunting, but also about jobs. They had worked transporting goods for the Hudson's Bay Company, only to see the jobs disappear in the 1930s when airplanes came into use, just when they needed the incomes because of declining beaver populations. During their summer jobs in the 1960s they were aware of often being given the hardest work, of being paid lower wages than non-Natives, and of being the first fired. The non-Native sawmills, exploration companies, fisheries, and hunting outfitters for whom they worked were constantly failing or moving.

Government agents, however, operated on the belief, reinforced by our cultural assumptions, that the Cree had begun the transition from hunters to wage labourers. This view fit well with government policies of the period. Having discovered the poverty of many Native people across the country, the government placed emphasis on economic development, defined primarily as a need for jobs. It also fit well with plans to "develop the North" and with ignoring the impacts of those developments on the land and animals.

Government agents began withdrawing social aid and support services in order to speed the transition to wage labour. There was no consultation. These events made clear how the basic need for cash inputs to the hunting economy had made the Cree less autonomous, and how government agents could alter the possibilities of hunting by changing the conditions for receipt of government payments. Although the Cree continued to hunt, the number who did not pursue hunting as their main occupation rose significantly.

Other changes at the posts also influenced this process: the formation of reserves, the construction of permanent settlements, and the establishment of schools. Each of these factors contributed to the shift in economic opportunities, but none was decisive until the crisis in hunting.

Although some schooling had been provided earlier, during the 1960s a significant portion of Cree youths began to attend schools. The government tried to force Cree parents to send their children, sometimes threatening to cut social assistance if they did not. Most parents wanted their children to have some schooling, and an increase in the number of children also affected their willingness to send some to school. The trauma of schooling away from the reserves, in programs not significantly adapted to Cree culture, separated parents from their children in more than a physical sense. The longer children stayed in school the harder it was for parents and children to understand each other. As people saw what was happening, up to one-third of a community s children were kept out of school each year to learn bush skills and the hunting way of life. Thus, the Cree kept some control over the education of their children.

The result was not to limit the continuation of the hunting economy but to diversify the range of skills and interests of the young adults. The effect of schooling paralleled that of the crisis in hunting, creating a need for a more diversified economy, one in which both hunting and employment would be viable activities.

At the time, however, the economic conditions were making both choices difficult. By the early 1970s, real unemployment and underemployment had developed in Cree communities as opportunities for hunting and wage labour were too limited for the population.

This period was therefore one in which the government attempts to integrate the Cree into the labour market met very limited success; they had instead helped provoke an economic crisis. The Cree had moved toward an economy that would have to integrate employment and hunting within their own communities. The conflicts had created economic, educational, and social problems of profound concern to the Cree. However, the process had also created new resources for the Cree's continuing efforts to define their own future. An effect of schooling was to bring a young generation of Cree with high school, and some with higher education, back to the communities and into active roles in social and political life.

Quebec's Search for Power and Cree Opposition to the James Bay Hydroelectric Scheme

When the government of Quebec announced its plans for hydroelectric development in the James Bay region in April, 1971, it followed its practice of neither involving the Cree in the decision nor examining the impacts of the development on them. When asked about the effects on the Cree and their rights, government spokesmen simply asserted that the project was to be built on provincial lands and would benefit the Native people.

Several young Cree leaders called a meeting of the leaders from each village to discuss the hydro project. The Cree at this time were comprised of eight separate communities and bands having no regional integration or political structure. At the meeting, all were opposed to the project because of the severe damage it would cause to the land and the animals, and to the Cree. In their view, the project was to serve whites, not Indians, who would not benefit substantially. They discussed ways to oppose the project and decided to organize within their own communities, soliciting support also from other Indian groups and from the public at large.

The Cree also attempted to get discussions going with the Quebec government and its crown corporations. They wanted to avoid complete opposition to the project and to see if modifications to plans might reduce its impact. However, the government retused to do anything but inform the Cree as the plans developed. The Cree were left with no choice but to oppose the project (Feit, 1985).

The Cree approached the federal minister to take action based on his trust responsibility for Indians, but he was reluctant. The Liberal federal government was politically allied with the Liberal Quebec government against a growing separatist sentiment in the province. Ottawa was therefore reluctant to take action that would appear as a federal intervention in provincial affairs. By the end of 1972, the federal cabinet had approved this position and labelled it "alert neutrality."

The Cree decided to use legal means to force Quebec into discussions. Joined by the Inuit of northern Quebec, some of whom lived on one of the rivers to be diverted by the project, in November, 1972, they initiated the longest temporary injunction hearing in Canadian history. Basically, the Native people had to prove that they had a prima facie claim to rights in the territory, that the project would damage their exercise of these rights, and that these damages would be irreversible and unremediable. They asked the court for a temporary injunction stopping construction until permanent injunction hearings could be completed.

The court hearings provided a detailed description of the project planned for the La Grande region. A 700-kilometre road was being built north across hunting lands belonging to six Cree communities. Airports and communication infrastructures would be needed as well as construction camps and a new town to house project headquarters. New mines and forestry operations were planned. The La Grande hydro complex involved diverting three major rivers into the La Grande River to increase its flow by 80 per cent. This required four main dams, 130 kilometres of dikes, and eight main reservoirs flooding 8,722 square kilometres (5 per cent of the land surface). The reservoirs would be filled in summer, and the water would be released in winter to produce electricity needed for heating requirements in southern cities; thus, water levels would vary all winter. The construction of power transmission lines would require the cutting of three or four corridors 960 kilometres long through the forest. And all this was envisaged as the first of three phases.

In the Cree view, many of the damages were like those they had previously identified from earlier developments, although now over a much larger area. In addition, the particular effects of flooding were of special concern because about 50 per cent of the wetlands of the region would be underwater, destroying important beaver and game habitat. The number of animals would therefore be significantly reduced, and the variability of water levels in the reservoirs would restrict the ability of many animals, particularly beaver, to re-inhabit the areas. Fish numbers would also decline, and a new balance of species could take up to fifty years to be reestablished in the reservoirs. The vegetation destroyed by construction could take fifty to a hundred years to again become mature forest. In short, they argued that the hunters would suffer a serious and permanent loss of subsistence resources and a major threat to the continuity of their culture and society.

The Cree lawyers then argued that their clients had been exercising rights to the land since time immemorial, including the rights to hunt, fish, and trap, which constituted an Indian title over the land. The case was one of the most important on the concept of Aboriginal rights and Indian title until that time, and it was also one of the strongest such cases.

The governmental lawyers argued that the project would affect only a small percentage of the land directly, that it would improve its productivity in many respects, and that in any case the damages were temporary or remediable. They claimed that the Cree no longer lived primarily off the land, catching only 20-25 per cent of their food. The Cree lived in settlements, had houses, used manufactured clothes and equipment, and now ate purchased foods predominantly. They argued that Cree culture had been substantially transformed and replaced by Canadian culture. They said the Cree were dependent on government financial assistance and support for their settlements. They argued that the use of wildlife, especially beaver, was completely institutionalized by the government as a result of the establishment of beaver reserves. They claimed that a majority of the Cree now derived incomes from employment. Finally, they argued that the Cree had no Aboriginal title to the land, or at most had a right to some monetary compensation and small reserves such as were provided in other treaties made elsewhere in Canada.

In November, 1973, Mr. Justice Malouf ruled that the Cree and Inuit people did appear to have an Indian title to the land; that they had been occupying and using the land to a full extent; that hunting was still of great importance, constituted a way of life, and provided a portion of their diet and incomes; that they had a unique concept of the land; that they wished to continue their way of life; that any interference with their use compromised their very existence as a people; and that the project was already causing much interference. He ruled that the province was trespassing. The ruling was a stronger affirmation of Cree rights than many people had thought would be possible at that time and forced the government to negotiate with the Cree.

To the Cree people in the villages the ruling was a great victory, but it was also a straightforward recognition of the truth - the truth about their way of life and values and about the dangers inherent in development conducted without their involvement and consent. It was also interpreted as a statement of good sense, reaffirming that relations between Cree and non-Natives could be guided by the principle of reciprocity that informs interrelations among all powerful beings in the Cree world (Scott, 1983, 1989). Reciprocity implied mutual respect for the needs and wants of others, ongoing obligations to others, and the possibility of sharing the land responsibly.

Part III: Cree Autonomy and the Aboriginal Rights Agreement