Heritage Protection By-Law
In adopting a heritage protection by-law, Waskaganish became the first Cree community to protect, under municipal law, heritage areas and products. Proposals to alter or export “cultural landscapes” and products classified under this by-law must be subjected to an evaluation by a broadly-based committee and the local environmental administrator.
Proposal to Develop the Heritage Waterfront
The Waskaganish heritage waterfront was the first cultural landscape classified under the heritage by-law because: it was the first capital and governor's residence of Rupert's Land (more than half of today's Canada); it was the location of the first Hudson's Bay Company trading post in what was to become an enormous trading empire; and it was the site of the trading post at Rupert House when it was the trading and transport centre for goods going to and from the interior of eastern James Bay. Several buildings on the waterfront are therefore considered heritage structures: the old Hudson's Bay Company store; the 1908 log HBC men's house, known now as the John Blackned house; the Anglican Church and the game warden's house (built as the twin of a former HBC's manager's house).
The waterfront is the object of a long-term cultural development project. As part of the development, a large, twelve-sided log structure has been built to provide support to activities held on the traditional festivals grounds. A multi-purpose gazebo overlooking the water has also been built. Its use ranges from being a stage, to providing a nice place to sit, picnic and look out over the mouth of the river and the bay.
Waskaganish Cultural Institute
The Waskaganish Cultural Institute was established in the late 1980s to research and promote Cree culture and history. While its primary interest is in supporting and encouraging personal and public cultural projects in Waskaganish, it also initiates and supports a range of regional projects, including genealogy and family history (over 6,000 names) and the inventory of historical photographs found in public and private collections (over 6,000 entries). As part of an ongoing program to create a library and documentation centre, the institute continues to develop its eclectic collection of reference materials. In addition, the institute has purchased and digitally scanned all the Hudson's Bay Company archives' microfilms touching the Quebec James Bay Cree (and adjacent areas).
Locally, the institute undertakes archaeological and general research. For instance, it studies historical and modern patterns of land use – specifically, how Crees harvested land and water resources - as one approach to understanding Crees' relationship with the land. And, it supports and sponsors classes for traditional and modern art and craft skills.
Office of the Cultural Coordinator
In collaboration with the Waskaganish Cultural Institute and such local entities as the Elder's Council, Youth Council, Tourism, Arts and Craft Association, Cree Trappers Association, the local school and any other organization or individual with proposals or ideas; the office of the cultural coordinator organizes traditional feasts, festivities, winter and summer cultural trips and expeditions, and craft training and educational projects. Of special interest are the classes in tanning hides, and the fabrication of snowshoes, tamarack geese, toboggans, ice shovels, paddles and items of clothing (including clothing whose designs must be resurrected from museum records).
The most popular festivals are the feasts and celebrations (including the “walking-out ceremony,” held for young children after they are ready to walk outside). “We have a big celebration on National Aboriginal Day [June 21st] with a walking-out ceremony, displays of dead-falls and furs on stretchers, demonstrations about how to make things like snowshoes and snow shovels, and plenty of games.” In addition, leather work, sculptures made from antlers and paintings are sold. Traditional buildings - a miichiwaahp (tepee), a shaapuhtuwaan (longhouse) and a dome-shaped dwelling - are erected. And, community members fish and hunt to supply food for the big feasts that are held that day.
Located about 20 kilometres from the community, Smokey Hill contains traditional dwellings and a traditional weir. It was a popular fishing spot where, for generations, people gathered in late summer. In fact, sometimes there were so many people at Smokey Hill, it was hard to find a place to put up a tent. In the past, pressure from the current in the river forced the fish into the weir. Now, the site is threatened. Because the diversion of the Rupert River for a hydroelectric project has reduced the amount of water and current in the river, people fear the loss of a much-loved tradition.
One of the main attractions for youth during the summer is the month-long canoe excursion that follows the old canoe brigade route along the Rupert River to Nemaska. Organized by the youth council and elders council, this expedition has been an annual event since 1990.
During the canoe brigades “youth are taught a lot about the Cree way of life, about who they are and where they come from. Elders teach the participants about Cree traditions and survival skills in the bush, they demonstrate hunting and fishing techniques, and talk about canoe and water safety. The kids learn about wildlife, about fauna and habitat, about the history of the Rupert River. And they hear lots of stories!” Requiring discipline and responsibility, the canoe trip involves hard work, but the youth derive a great sense of satisfaction for having done it.
A welcome spin-off of the canoe brigades projects is the employment they provide, both to the guides and to the people who are engaged to clear and maintain the portage trails, trails that are also used by the “pleasure” canoe expeditions that enter the bay near Waskaganish.
Winter Snowshoe Walk
The winter snowshoe walk for elders and youth is an opportunity for youth to learn winter survival skills and to be exposed to traditional knowledge and values. It is done for the same reasons, accomplishes the same goals and inspires the same sense of satisfaction and pride as participating in the canoe brigades.
In keeping with the realistic ambitions of a small community, archaeology at Waskaganish is usually low-key and long-term. Because of the historical importance of the first contact between Crees and Europeans at Waskaganish, archaeological research has focused on where that first contact took place - the “early contact” sites. There is a growing interest, however, in studying “pre-contact sites,” meaning, places that were inhabited before our ancestors had contact with Europeans.
Archaeological tests and excavations have been conducted in response to activity related to the expansion of our growing community. Digging along the waterfront has revealed a circular structure - which is too big to be a hearth and too small to be a tent - that has not yet been fully explored and sites with stone tools. Another feature that was exposed appears to have been a “chipping station,” where stone tools were fabricated.
To establish an idea of how and for how long our ancestors lived there, archaeology projects have been conducted, over the years, at Smokey Hill: Smokey Hill was used so extensively that all the terraces contain evidence of human habitation. “Historic” sites – inhabited after our ancestors had contact with Europeans – and pre-contact sites are scattered throughout. Pre-contact sites revealed native pottery and stone tools like pestles and anvils, which were used in pounding fish, and knives and scrapers. The historic sites revealed pipe parts, beads and pieces of European pottery.
Bio-diversity/Land Use Study
Quebec has established studies to promote five bio-diversity preserves within Waskaganish traditional territory. People in the community have been interviewed by a team from the Waskaganish Cultural Institute and the Cree Trappers Association, and, additionally, by biologists from Quebec's ministry of the environment about how they used and cared for resources in these areas.
Research involves talking to people about their knowledge of animal behaviour, as well as about traditional hunting practices and locations of camps and travel routes. From the stories the people tell about campsites, travel routes and hunting places, we hope to develop an idea not only about how our people harvested the areas’ resources, but also the beliefs and values underlying their “management” practices. It is felt that the protection of established bio-diversity preserves will benefit future generations of Crees and non-Crees, alike.
Interim Cultural coordinator: Melvin Wesley