The Crees of Northern Québec

A Photographic Essay


Norman Chance and Paul Conklin

On April 30th, 1971, the Québec Provincial Government announced that Hydro-Québec, a Crown Corporation, would develop the river systems draining into James Bay, Canada, for hydroelectric power. Since that time the landscape has undergone a significant change including the diversion and daming of major rivers and the formation of huge reservoirs. This geographical alteration has also transformed the life of the indigenous Crees - an Algonqian-speaking people who moved into the region long before the arrival of Europeans. Today, controversies continue to rage over the need for increased hydroelectric power versus energy conservation as well as protracted contestations over Native rights, mercury pollution, loss of wildlife habitat, and other forms of cultural and environmental disruption. Much is being written in the press and elsewhere about these developments. However, relatively little attention has been given to the Crees prior to the arrival of Hydro-Québec. What follows is brief commentary about the Crees living on the eastern most edge of the James Bay drainage system in the mid-1960s; followed by a gallery of photographs taken by Paul Conklin.

The Changing World of the Crees [1965-66]

In the mid-1960s, four to eight hundred miles north of Montréal, Québec, mid-way between James Bay and Lac St. Jean, over 1500 Algonqian-speaking Crese of the Mistissini, Waswanipi, and Nemiscau Bands lived part of the year in small Canadian government-defined Native "reserves." The rest of the time, the surrounding forested land, lakes, and streams of north central Québec provided these indigenous Cree with three basic staples of their economic subsistence: fur, fish, and game. And for centuries the seasonal pursuit of these staples determined the tenor of Cree life.In the 1960s, many families continued this pattern, loading their canoes with needed supplies from the Hudson Bay Post before setting out for their hunting and trapping territories.

In the late spring they returned to their federally defined "reserve" settlements on Mistissini, Waswanipi, and Nemiscau lakes. Winter required hard work and considerable social solitude. Summer, on the other hand, was a time of relative relaxation, of dances, marriage feasts, trading at the local Hudson's Bay post, and other social events made possible by the increased population of the local community. Prior to the 1960s, changes were perceived by the Cree to be a product of this annual cycle rather than an expresssion of permanent, non-periodic shifts in their way of life.

The perception of the world varies with the economic relations and culture of the observer. At this time, corporate Canada viewed the land, lakes, and streams used by the Cree in terms of its economic potential: large stands of marketable pulpwood, valuable minerals, and the opportunity for developing extensive hydroelectric power. In the early 1960s, a major Canadian pulp and paper company began construction of a multimillion dollar mill and town near the Waswanipi "reserve;" following which the company actively recruited a labor force of over 1,000 woodcutters and 300 mill workers - most of whom came from southern Québec. At the same time, copper and other base metals were being extracted in the region by large mining companies. Soon, new roads cut through old Cree trapping grounds, and frontier towns like Chibougamau and Chapias rose on the site of earlier Cree encampments - all undertaken with little regard for Cree societal and cultural rights.

The impact of these economic developments on the Crees was profound. In 1964, after the closing of the local Hudson Bay Post, the entire population of the Waswanipi band moved off their small isolated "reserve" in search of temporary or full-time jobs in nearby lumber camps or with mining prospectors. Some families, their economic subsistence severely disrupted by clear cutting of forests [see photograph below], clustered in small extended kin-groupings along a new gravel road that linked the frontier towns of Senneterre and Chibougamau. A few looked for work in cities and towns farther to the south.

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The Mistissini Cree, on the other hand, were less mobile, although here too, increased numbers of young men and women moved off the 'reserve' in search of economic and social solutions elsewhere. Jobs were fairly abundant in the region, but, with the exception of cutting pulp wood, they usually required a knowledge of the French language - a skill held by few Crese. [As a result of early Protestant missionizing, the Crees became affiliated with the Anglican church and thus, at that time, they received their early education in Québec's English-speaking Protestant school system.]

Many older Crees preferred to bypass the search for employment in favor of their 'traditional' subsistence life. At Mistissini Post, for example, over 50 percent of the men continued trapping as their primary occupation. Of the younger men, fewer spent winters in the bush, and those who did often found their earnings insufficient to buy the consumer goods they needed. This was due both to fluctuating fur prices and rising economic aspirations. But of far greater significance was the recognition that as pulp and paper, mining, and hydroelectric enterprises expanded into the region, family trapping grounds were increasingly threatened with destruction. Lacking a land claims settlement agreement, and only minimally organized politically, the Crees faced a serious threat to their economic and cultural survival.

Given the natural wealth of the region, one might surmise that those Crees wishing to remain on their 'reserve' settlements could develop their own resources. But this was not possible. Government 'reserves' in the region were allocated as residential settlements only; a policy that severely restricted commercial development. A few jobs were available on or near the 'reserve' in government-sponsored commercial fishing and sawmill operations, but these positions provided adequate incomes for only a small percentage of the expanding Cree labor force.

At this time, most Euro-Canadians saw the solution to the Cree "problem" as directly connected to non-Cree controlled natural resource development. As a corollary, the extent of their participation in this development was closely linked to their level of vocational skill; their acceptance of the requirements of industrially-based wage labor; and their willingness to learn a new language. In an effort to encourage this process, the Indian Affairs Branch of the Canadian government set up vocational training programs in schools and towns; promoted new programs of community development and local self-government; and supported the construction of contemporary log houses for those Crees wishing to remain on their 'reserve' land.

For the Crees, on the other hand, there was a growing recognition that the future lay not just in government programs, but in receiving official acceptance of their aboriginal and present rights as a people. And finally, that the struggle to obtain these rights would be long and arduous.

Many of the photographs that follow reflect the closeness of kin and community ties of northern Cree youth in the mid-1960s. A few highlight the devastating impact of clear cutting of nearby forest lands. Particularly striking are the photographs illustrating the sharp contrasts between the life of Cree children in 'reserve'settlements and their formal education in distant boarding schools. A careful reading of these pictures will enable the viewer to see how messages of cultural assimilation were actively put forward in schools; and later, carried back to their home localities.

At mid-century, the first five or six years of a Cree child's life was almost wholly immersed in their own society. They learned the Cree language and social patterns including traditional norms and expectations appropriate to their age and sex. Contacts with Euro-Canadians were minimal. They might observe discussions with the local Indian Agent or manager of the local Hudson Bay Post. Or they might join their parents during an occasional visit to a distant village or town. But that was largely the extent of outside contact.

In the late 1950s the family life of children whose parents returned to the bush each fall underwent a drastic change. Just as the children reached an age when they could begin to assume a responsible role in their family and social life, they were placed in residential boarding schools located in towns far removed from their 'reserve' and lin-based trapping ground. Here, instructed by teachers speaking a strange and initially incomprehensible language, living in large dormitories, and eating different foods, the children spent nine months of the year.Teachers knew little of their student's background and saw their major task as preparing them for life in a modern town or city.

Each summer, when the students returned home, the conflict in norms and values was repeated. Contrasting the two worlds in which they lived, they found their parents knew as little about their school experience as their teachers knew about their home life. The only individuals with whom they could discuss both worlds -- the only people who were facing similar conflicts -- were their age-mates.

This experience, begun in primary school and carried through intermediate grades, actively sought to assimilate Cree students into Euro-Canadian society. Youths drawn to this perspective found themselves having to reject individuals with whom they had emotional ties since infancy. Or conversely, those continuing to identify with their cultural past, were forced to reject the teachings of teachers and administrators on whom they had become dependent for nine months of the year. In school, they had been taught to work hard and make their own way into the future. When they returned home, they were also expected to work hard, but within the context of Cree cultural norms.

Many tried to choose paths incorporating the best of these two options. But such searches were frought with difficulties: What social changes were needed for such decisions to become viable? How could the Crees actively promote greater self-determination and cultural enrichment? Who were possible allies to call upon in support of these aims? And finally, what economic and political factors could they utilize in striving for these goals?

Since this time, theQuébec's hydro-electric energy project has brought about changes completely unforeseen three decades ago. For the Crees, the most momentous of these included the 1975 land claims negotiations, followed by other more recent federal and provincial agreements -- all enabling this indigenous population to take a far more active role in shaping their own future. Still, the economic and cultural impact of this earlier time remain. The photographs that follow should help viewers deepen their understanding of this important period in the lives of the Cree First Nation of Mistissini and other First Nations of Québec.