The Cree began trading with the Hudson's Bay Company in the 1600s,
exchanging fur pelts for goods at trading posts such as this one.
(Photo: Library and Archives Canada / C-008183)
A brief history of Cree
From trap lines to power lines, CG traces the James Bay Cree-outsiders’ exchange
By Diana Gee-Silverman
From trading pelts for axes to deals involving millions of dollars and jobs in exchange
for land rights, the relationship between the James Bay Cree and the people who have taken
an interest in their traditional lands has involved a lot of give and take. Follow this centuries-old
exchange from early European colonists to the present.
1600s - As French explorers move westward in the early 17th century, they
encounter the Swampy Cree, whom they call the ‘Cristinaux,’ an Ojibwa word denoting
a member of a band living south of James
Bay. This term is later shortened and came to be used to refer to all Cree.
May 2, 1670 - The Hudson’s Bay Company is incorporated. The Royal
Charter of the Hudson’s Bay Company is granted by King Charles II of England, giving
the company control of an area called Rupert’s Land, which accounts for one-third of
From the beginning, the Cree are closely related with the company, which eventually establishes
a trading post on Waswanipi Lake. As hunters and prime suppliers of pelts, the Cree are drawn
into the fur trade with the French and the English. Pelts are traded for axes, guns, ammunition,
blankets and flour. The Cree soon become middlemen, establishing treaties with other First
Nations, notably the Plains Assiniboine and the Blackfoot.
1870 – Rupert’s Land becomes a part of the Dominion of Canada.
Over time the territory will be divided into several Canadian provinces, including Ontario,
Quebec north of the Laurentians, Manitoba, most of Saskatchewan, southern Alberta and what
is now eastern Nunavut.
Early 1900s - The only non-Native presence in Cree territory in northern
Quebec consists of the Hudson’s Bay Company staff, missionaries and the federal department
responsible for Indian Affairs.
1960s – Quebec begins the process of mass resource extraction. Consequently,
the James Bay Cree are continually uprooted.
1971 – The Quebec governmentannounces plansfor
the James Bay Project in northern Quebec. The massive hydropower development plans to build
a series of dams, reservoirs and power stations on the Grand River that will cover an area
30 times the size of Prince Edward Island. The James Bay Cree, fearing the project will destroy
their traditional way of life and damage the environment, lobby against the project.
15 November 1973 - The Quebec Association of Indians, an ad hoc political
body of native northern Quebecers, wins an injunction, blocking hydroelectric development
until the province has negotiated an agreement with the First Nations. This judgement is
overruled by the Quebec Court of Appeal seven days later. Nonetheless, the province is still
legally required to negotiate a treaty covering the territory, even as construction continues.
1974 - The Grand Council of the Crees, representing nine Northern Quebec
Cree communities, is created in opposition to hydro-development to protect Cree rights during
negotiations between the Eeyouch and the Quebec and Canadian governments . The Grand Council,
founded by Cree leaders, is intended to be the official channel of Cree communications.
November 11, 1975 – The federal government, the Quebec provincial
government and representatives from each of the James Bay Cree communities sign the first
of the “modern treaties,” the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement .
Under the agreement the Cree receive $225 million in compensation and give up their claim
to certain land in northern Quebec. As part of the agreement Cree communities also gain special
hunting and fishing rights and more opportunity for self-government.
1979 – Phase one of the James Bay Project is completed.
1986 – The Quebec government announces plans for the Great Whale
Project, which would dam and divert five rivers that flow into Hudson Bay and flood over
3,500 square kilometres of Cree and Inuit treaty land along the Great Whale River in northern
Quebec. The power generated from the project will mostly be exported to the United States.
The James Bay Cree join environmental groups to launch a highly publicized campaign to stop
1991 – Under the direction of Grand
Chief Matthew Coon Come, the Cree launch a protest of the Great Whale project. They
take out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times and canoe from Hudson Bay to New
York City to lobby potential U.S. electricity customers. The protest is highly publicized.
1994 – The Quebec government cancels the Great Whale Project, in
part because of public concern over its potential impact on the environment and Cree and
2002 -- The Cree and the Government of Quebec sign the landmark Agreement
Concerning a New Relationship, also known as Paix des Braves. Far more than an economic
deal, this is seen as a "nation to nation" agreement.
Paix des Braves allows for continued hydroelectric development in exchange for Cree employment
in the hydroelectric industry and $3.5 billion in financing over 50 years. In Cree communities,
the agreement means development through the expansion of infrastructure, including housing,
community centres, health services and expanded opportunities in education.