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Two communities live side by side in the region : the Jamesians, with a population of about 17,000 and the Crees of Eeyou Istchee, numbering nearly 13,000 people. The ancestors of the current Cree population have occupied the land for nearly 5,000 years.
The Crees of Eeyou Istchee (Land of the People) live along the rivers and lakes surrounding the southeastern extremity of James Bay. Their traditional way of life is based on hunting, fishing and trapping.Thanks to their creativity and ingenuity, the Crees have traveled through and become familiar with this huge territory, living mainly on flora and wildlife from the many bodies of water and from the forest.
Defining themselves as a nation of hunters – Ndooheenou – the Crees followed the seasons and animal migrations. Among big game, caribou was their favourite prey. It not only supplied them with food but also provided essential elements for making clothing, tools, snowshoes, moccasins and teepees.
As for small game, a two-month period of goose hunting in the spring and fall helped keep the cupboards full then, and still does today. During Goose Break, one of the major traditional activities observed by the Crees, the whole family returns to a nomadic lifestyle for a period of two weeks.
In the summer, fishing is in full swing in the coastal bays and river estuaries. At the end of the season comes the long-awaited time for picking berries, small fruits and other plants; the Crees use them not only as food but also as ingredients in medicine and dyes.
The first encounters with Europeans, dating back to the beginning of the 17th century, revolved around the fur trade, which lasted nearly 300 years. With the passing years, the Crees considerably changed their lifestyle. To meet the demands of the fur trade, they gradually set aside big game hunting and their nomadic way of life, and trapping became a major activity. The trading post sites became the location of today's Cree communities.
Though some Crees still make a living from trapping and other traditional activities such as hunting and fishing, modern life has considerably changed the behaviour of hunters and trappers. With longer distances to cover, they now travel by snowmobile or all-terrain vehicle, depending on the season. In fact, the significant transformation of the landscape first caused by mining and logging activities, and all the more , by the construction of huge hydro-electric facilities and roads since the beginning of the 1970s, has significantly affected day-to-day life and transportation for the Crees.
Since the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement was signed in 1975, the Crees have moved into the 20th century at the speed of light. A proud people, they are working to revitalize their traditions and language, while providing community members with the benefits of modern life, especially in the areas of health, education, economics and housing. Provisions of the Agreement give the Crees exclusive or shared access, depending on the case, to territories they previously occupied alone, where they can practice traditional hunting, fishing and trapping activities.
Cree culture is vibrant, rich and unique. The inhabitants of the 9 communities of the region invite you to discover it by sharing their way of life: authentic cuisine, distinctive crafts, fabulous tales and traditional activities in harmony and respect for nature.
The fabulous adventure of the first Europeans to come to America mingles with the history of the early occupants of this huge territory. Their exploration of the new continent was fuelled by the search for a new route to Asia and, in 1610, Sir Henry Hudson discovered the bay that bears his name. In 1631, Thomas James published the map of Hudson Bay showing once and for all that it was not the Northwest Passage, the fabled sea route to the Orient. However, people rapidly realized that the region was full of animals whose furs were among the most sought-after in the world.
During that period, Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Médard Chouart, Sieur des Groseilliers, developed the fur trade in New France. They first managed to interest the English and, in May 1670, King Charles granted a royal charter to the Hudson's Bay Company, which is still in operation today!
Preferring exploration to trade, in 1674, they left the company and returned once more to France to create the North West Company, a direct competitor of the Hudson's Bay Company. The struggle for control of the fur trade continued until 1713, when the signature of the Treaty of Utrecht ended hostilities between the French and the English. The fur market gradually declined; only Natives now practise trapping. As for the last trappers, they became prospectors!
In fact, interest in the area was revived by the riches found in the bedrock of the James Bay territory. Road construction and railway development after World War II made it possible for the mining industry to flourish. A dozen mines went into operation in the 1950s, leading to the founding of the towns of Chapais, Chibougamau and, a little later, Matagami. The infrastructure set up by the mining industry opened the way to another natural resource : the boreal forest. Spruce is used to produce excellent wood framing and its pulp enhances the strength of certain types of paper. Therefore, the 1960s became the logging years; here as well as elsewhere in Québec, many companies were established and their needs increased constantly.
At the beginning of the 1970s, nearly all the rivers near major urban centres had been harnessed for hydro-electricity. With the rising demand for power, it became urgent to develop new projects. In 1971, the Quebec Government announced a mega-project : the harnessing of the rivers in the James Bay territory. Therefore, in 1972, Hydro-Québec began construction of the La Grande complex, including the largest underground powerhouse in the world, La Grande-2. It has since been renamed Robert-Bourassa in honour of the proponent of the project and former premier.
In all, eight generating stations, producing more than half of Quebec's hydro-electric power, went up during the two construction phases. Three highways totalling more than 1,700 km were built, the James Bay road (Matagami-Radisson), the Transtaiga road (Radisson-Caniapiscau) and the Northern Road (Chibougamau-Radisson). Quebec's most ambitious public project to date created thousands of jobs !