As a Cree person from Attawapiskat on the James Bay coast I have often wondered how my community came to be. I learned from my elders and my parents that Attawapiskat was once a place where my people came to live for only a few months to camp and fish during the summer. I know the history of my home, but I had never really understood how it came to be established as a permanent community. I didn’t know this part of my community’s past until I did some research.
In the late 1880’s First Nation people in northern Ontario, who had not been approached with a treaty, presented petitions to government representatives to protect their rights. The federal and provincial governments came to an agreement in 1905 on the contents of a treaty for the James Bay drainage area south of the Fort Albany River. This agreement was settled without consultation with the Cree and Ojibway in the affected area. So none of the people who were affected by the treaties had any say in the development of these documents.
Once selected First Nation leaders signed the treaty, it provided Native people an initial first time amount of $8 per person and then $4 a year for each First Nation person living in the treaty area. The Chief also received a flag, a copy of the treaty and a badge signifying him as leader of his people. This treaty included the assignment of lands using the formula of one square mile of land for each family. The government also agreed to pay for building schools, teaching staff and medical assistance. In addition, the Cree and Ojibway still had rights to hunt, trap and fish on their traditional lands.
In return the First Nation people of this area agreed to surrender 90,000 square miles of their territory, abide by the government’s laws and live in peace with other First Nations and non-Native settlers. This was the ninth numbered treaty made since 1870 and was named James Bay Treaty #9.
In the summer of 1905, a treaty party set out to get the treaty signed at seven settlements along the Albany River and Moose River systems. In 1906, a second round of two treaty parties paid out the first year of payments to the Native people and also got the treaty signed by another seven settlements.
This was not the end of James Bay Treaty #9. In 1912, Ontario’s borders expanded north of the Albany River at the expense of the Northwest Territories. In 1929 Government representatives travelled to this area to sign on the new treaty addition and at this time new reserves were assigned using the same formula to calculate the amount of land for each community. Eight new communities were added to this treaty including Attawapiskat which was allotted 104 square miles of reserve land. I should add that when the government treaty party officials met with the First Nation people up the coast they did so in a hit and miss way. Most of the First Nation people affected were never at any of these meetings and had little or no knowledge of what took place.
During my research I came across an interview with John Fletcher, an elder who witnessed the signing of the treaty in 1905 as a band member in the Moose Factory reserve. He recalled that the treaty commissioner at the time assured his people that hunting rights would not be taken away and that Native people would have a share of profits from any resources taken from the treaty area. The elder also pointed out that the commissioner promised that nothing would ever alter his peoples’ way of life. It is important that my people know about our real history under the rule of the federal and provincial governments and understand what promises and commitments were made to us.
I am happy to have learned this part of my people’s past. I am thankful for the resources I was able to turn to from the Ojibway And Cree Cultural Centre (OCCC) in Timmins, including the book Nishnawbe-Aski Nation – A History Of The Cree And Ojibway Of Northern Ontario, which was produced by the cultural centre. I encourage all First Nation Education Authorities to get in touch with the OCCC to benefit from their huge library of print and audio-visual works. Anyone wanting information on First Nation people in Canada, and especially the Nishnawbe-Aski Nation, should contact the OCCC at: 705-267-7911.