This article was submitted to The Nation as part of the commemoration of the 1996 Year of the Child in Nemaska.
Nemaska was originally established in the late 1800s at its present location approximately 80 miles east of Rupert’s House on the Rupert River. Initially, it was just a summer meeting place for the Natives who lived and hunted in the surrounding areas during the winter. There were no permanent structures, only old wigwam and teepee frames, which were reused on occasion each year when the annual get-together took place of the then-very nomadic families.
Nemaska was the junction point for those people who wished to trade furs for goods in Rupert’s House from Mistassini, Nichigun, Neoskweskau and Waswanipi. As time went by, the Hudson’s Bay Company and Revillon Frères, then still in competition against each other, both established trading posts on Nemiscau Lake, approximately one mile apart on the same shoreline. This, more or less, was when a form of permanent settlement began.
However, there were two small settlements both centred around the trading post that offered the best deal to the trapper and his family. It was not unusual at the time to have one distinct village built around the Revillon Frères Post composed of those loyal or happy with the services of “Pishtookooyeow” (the French) and another further along the shore, comprising those loyal to the “Company.”
Two factors contributed to the eventual move of all the inhabitants to join together to where the present site of the old Nemaska village is. The sale of Revillon Frères to the Hudson’s Bay Company, and unusually high spring water levels for a number of successive years flooded one of the sites and led to the move to where the Hudson’s Bay Post stood, being on higher ground.
During the days of the canoe brigades, Nemaska served as a base of operations for the Cree voyageurs from the inland posts of Mistassini, Neoskweskau and Waswanipi, including those from Nemaska. Groups from these villages would leave the women and children here to fish and prepare a food supply of dried smoked fish to be used on the return trip home after the men had returned from their freight runs from Rupert’s House. This activity no doubt provided the appropriate significance of the Cree word “Nemaskau,” meaning “plenty of fish,” which the area was named after. On the advent of the bush plane, the adandonment of Nichigun and Neoskweskau, and the completion or roads in the Mistassini and Waswanipi regions, made access and transportation easier; the canoe brigades stopped and the importance of Nemaska as a sub-station for the transport of goods to the inland communities ceased.
However, because of good fishing and the presence of the HBC trading post, the Cree people who trapped in the surrounding area and their relatives continued to gather there every summer. It was a time to see old friends, to arrange marriages and generally celebrate together and enjoy each others’ company. When the summer drew to an end, all the families then purchased the necessities and each made their way to their respective trapping areas, not to see each other, unless by chance, until the following summer. The village was left a “ghost town” with the exception of the HBC factor (manager) and his assistant who spent the entire winter alone, except for an occasional visit of a trapper on a re-supply trip.
Around 1945, the HBC expanded its facilities in Nemaska by building a new store, warehouses and a residence. The people, realizing the good intention of the HBC plans to stay within the area, began building small log cabins for themselves in the later 1940s. The Nemaska Post slowly began to take the form of a village again, as it had been closed on two earlier occasions.
Nevertheless, it continued to be a trapper’s community with no one living there during the winter months for a good many years, other than one or two families.
In the early ’50s, the first day school was started, operating only during the summer. This continued successfully, so the government decided to build a residence for its summer teacher in 1957 and a school the following year. Those students who the summer teacher selected were then sent to outside “residential” schools during the winter. There never was, however, some semblance of a permanent school. The population, at this time, consisted of about 26 families or approximately 160 people, including children.
During the same period, doctors and nurses started making annual summer visits to tend to the sick, take x-rays and replenish the community medicine at the HBC. Of course, just in case there was an emergency case, the HBC factor was also supplied with an instructional booklet explaining the procedure(s) in handling such an emergency. The only means of communication was by way of a transmitting unit operated by the HBC factor, in case of real emergencies.
Also, during the same period, the HBC using its own plane started flying its goods into the settlement from Rupert’s House, providing limited employment and also mail services, another function for the HBC factor. During the winter months, depending on the demand and payloads, a plane would come in once a month (if at all). Nevertheless, despite this increased contact with the outside world, the people remained nomadic and continued the traditional way of life.
As time went by, having had quite regular annual summer visits from Indian Affairs officials, we were one day supplied with several plane-loads of lumber, which we were informed was for the material for the houses we were going to build for ourselves. However, due to the high cost of transportation by plane of the required lumber, a critical shortage was anticipated, so the missing material had to be produced locally. Four houses were built that year, with the help of an anthropologist who acted as foreman and technical expert. The housing program continued for some years, until the administration for the Cree settlements was transferred from James Bay to the Val d’Or District Office. Further construction ceased. There was, however, the construction of a new internal road system one year, which served us tremendously, as we had no motor vehicles whatsoever… not even a bicycle.
When the village was abandoned in 1970, there were 24 buildings, of which 15 were log homes and the rest belonging to the Church, the HBC and the local evangelist. Needless to say, there were no services, so water had to be carried, new outhouses built when needed, wood chopped as required, and the purchase of a lot of candles. For recreation, as there was a massive shortage of labour in the community, there were the usual parties and for entertainment, the usual fanfare generally associated with such proceedings. Many grievances arising from the previous long winter were often settled after the consumption of a well-known, home-made “concoction”… of course, there were those who had more than one grievance to settle. There was no real evidence of vandalism, stealing or any crime whatsoever and if anything was ever stolen, everybody knew about it and who did it. There was an incident where a box of ‘Macintosh’ cookies were taken from the HBC warehouse and two young teenagers finally admitted to the crime. They were seen a couple of days later both working on the HBC woodpile, presumably paying for their misdeeds. Local jobs were rarely available. The only work available was unloading planes and chopping wood for the HBC buildings. (They, too, used wood-heated stoves).
Therefore, as became apparent later, the local economic base came from fur sales, commercial fishing on occasion and welfare, which did little to help and contributed to the eventual abandonment of Nemaska in 1970.
There are several reasons why Nemaska was abandoned. They are as follows: no real economic base, no job opportunities, HBC withdrawal, accessibility to the community, the James Bay Project, misunderstanding by the people.
Since there were no jobs available, the economic base of the community was composed largely of revenues from traditional activities and welfare. This, coupled with air transport being the only means of access to the community, other than canoe, and its high cost caused the HBC to start having operational deficits each year for the post. This amount, as this writer learned from a reliable source, was approximately $4,000 per annum. This loss and the cost to replace its old buildings (which had been declared Fire Hazards by the Public Health Department) with new ones, caused the HBC to cease servicing the post and withdraw from the community in 1970, but not before giving prior notice to the people one year early. Coincidentally, their plans to withdraw came around the same time as rumours of the impending James Bay Project were making their rounds. As many as 25 years prior to 1970, the people had had contact with non-Natives working for Natural Resources and Hydro-Quebec in the area.
In the late 60’s the activities of Hydro-Quebec increased. More exploration camps were established each year. However, little information was passed to the people regarding these activities and the reasons for them. Bit by bit each year, the rumours of the intentions and activities of Hydro-Quebec increased until people realized that there was a project being planned in the area to dam the rivers and flood the land, including the settlement itself. We received no detailed information as to where the dams and dikes would be located and what would be flooded and to what extent.
In the summer of ’68, a member from either the Quebec National Assembly or Parliament came to the community with a letter of warning which he read to the people at a meeting, stating that our lands would be flooded, the HBC would close and advising us to move out of the area. It was at this time that an appeal for assistance was made to the Indians of Quebec Association who pledged their support and promised to aid us, in all ways possible. However, nothing happened and no further information or result was received. Indian Affairs was no help, as it was their policy during those times to attempt to locate native settlements in close proximity to established road arteries, a program cost-saving measure.
In 1969, initial consultation took place regarding the future plans of each family, if indeed the Nottaway-Broadback-Rupert (NBR) complex was built and the HBC withdrew as planned. Some indicated their wish to re-locate to another site or another community while others wished to stay as they still refused to believe that the HBC would actually move out after having spent so many years in Nemaska, but nothing concrete was decided upon.
In 1970, the HBC ceased operations and the people, faced with the dilemma of not having a store, began leaving by plane to either Mistassini or Rupert’s House.
Relocation can be a traumatic experience for anybody and the Cree people of Nemaska were no exception, and for the next seven years there was always the desire to return to the vicinity of their traditional hunting grounds.
In 1975, the Grand Council of the Crees (of Quebec) successfully negotiated and signed the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, along with the various concerned parties. By then, the proposed development of the NBR Complex had now shifted to the La Grande Complex. The Agreement provided a provision whereby the people of Nemaska can reestablish their community in the area of Champion Lake.
In 1977, through the assistance of the Grand Council of the Crees, which was in charge of the implementation of the Agreement, the people made the move to Champion Lake through a major planning session known as the “Consult,” with their full participation. The housing program starts in 1979.
For the past 10 years, the people of the new community of Nemiscau, situated on the northern shores of Champion Lake, have made an annual pilgrimage to the old Nemaska Post, through a summer event known as “Nadnemskawanoo Days.”
The people of Nemiscau have taken it upon themselves to gradually restore the old site. In fact, for some, it has become a second home during the summer months, as the site continues to be a prime fishing spot. There are already talks with the government of Quebec to officially declare it a historical site.
Although a provision within the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement prevents us from ever returning to permanently occupy our old home, the people of Nemaska have, nonetheless, started to use the old site as part of the Community Wellness Program. Various camp facilities have been set up and more development is forthcoming. It also provides summer employment for the people.
And as far as permanently occupying the old site?… Who knows what the future holds… Nothing is ever written in stone.