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“We had treaty relationships with our neighbours. We had treaties with the land and the creatures we share the land with. Our word for treaty is naskumituwin (an oral agreement). A person’s word, or promise, was considered sacred.”

-Omushkego Education

Indigenous peoples have called the lands of the James Bay Treaty home since time immemorial. The Omushkegowuk live mainly in the James Bay and Hudson Bay lowlands, while the Anishinaabe traditionally live mainly in the interior, closer to the height of land that divides the James Bay and Hudson Bay watershed with those to the south.

Ways of Life

The Omushkegowuk have traditionally viewed themselves as guardians of their homelands, and continue to see themselves as such. At the root of their society is the land—something they believe is given by the Creator and can neither be bought nor sold.

“So we were the first people to inhabit these lands and waters, the vast region that we call our homeland. … We don’t own the land, and we never did. We were placed here to look after it. It is ours to look after and use. It is ours to bequeath to future generations. We were always willing to share, as long as our survival and wellbeing were not threatened.”

-Mushkegowuk Council

Animals are vital to the Omushkegowuk worldview. They provide resources, including food, housing, clothing, and tools.

Generations passed down traditional knowledge about hunting and fishing, and other skills through practical training.

Letter from David Ciglen
Click to see a larger image

[Anishinaabe Elder] Henry Kechebra calling a moose, Mattagami Reserve, 1959
John Macfie fonds
C 330-14-0-0-22
Archives of Ontario, I0012427

“We showed respect to the animals who provided for us. We drummed and sang to them. We danced and celebrated, as we still do today. We had, and still have, spiritual relationships with all living things.”

-Omushkego Education

The Omushkegowuk relied on their knowledge of the cycles of the seasons and the land. Oral histories attest that they were a strong and healthy people with a rich history, language, and culture since time immemorial.

“Our specialized hunting skills helped us to observe, adapt, understand and predict the timeless cycles of wildlife in relation to the recurring seasons [spring (sikwan), blooming of the earth (miloskamin), summer (nipin), autumn (takwakin), freezing-up (mikiskaw), and winter (pipon)], climates, and temperatures that affected all life forms and our lives as well.  It took us many thousands of years to develop and accumulate all our knowledge, to respect and use it in living well [(milo pimatisiwin)].” 

- On the Path of the Elders

The territory of the James Bay Treaty is home to the Abitibi, Moose, Albany and other powerful rivers, streams, and lakes north of the height of land that all eventually flow into Hudson Bay or James Bay. Traditionally, these waterways provided clean drinking water, sources of food, transportation, and cultural and spiritual value.

Letter from David Ciglen
Click to see a larger image

Joe Carpenter and family, [ca. 1905]
Duncan Campbell Scott fonds
C 275-2-0-1 (S 7685)
Archives of Ontario, I0010713

Slideshow: Aerial Photographs

Click below to view a slideshow of aerial photographs of important rivers and lakes in the James Bay Treaty territory:

Tides of Change

Starting in the late 1600s, contact took place between Indigenous peoples in the James Bay watershed and European newcomers (explorers and traders). Indigenous peoples, managing their own resources, traded berries, plants, medicines and other renewable natural goods with the Europeans and provided hunting expertise for the fur trade in exchange for goods new to their societies. They helped the European traders survive, but much of their way of life carried on. They hunted and fished in their family territories, spoke their languages, raised their families, and practiced their traditions.

In 1670, King Charles II of England signed a royal charter that established the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) and gave it exclusive rights to colonize and trade in “all the lands draining into the Hudson’s Bay and Straight.” Charles named this territory “Rupert’s Land” after his cousin. It comprised of much of what is today northern Canada and even small parts of the northern United States.

The charter created no political or legal rights over Omushkegowuk and other Indigenous peoples living in the vast territory. And the Omushkegowuk continued to call the land what they always had: nitaskiinan.

Letter from David Ciglen
Click to see a larger image

John Cary, “A new map of Upper & Lower Canada, from the latest authorities”, 1807
Library and Archives Canada,
R11981-667-7-E, MIKAN no. 4145477

In the late 1600s, the French and English vied for control of the trading posts around Hudson and James Bay. The HBC established posts at Moose Factory in 1673 and Fort Albany in 1679, and posts further inland starting in the late 1700s. By 1870, the HBC had 97 posts in Rupert’s Land. These posts became the centre of trade relationships and social gatherings during summertime. Pacts between Indigenous peoples living in the territory and the HBC—using protocols that involved entering kin relationships—made commerce possible.

The HBC merged with another trading company, the North West Company, in 1821. With this, the HBC’s fur trade monopoly extended to the Pacific Ocean.

"At first life was good for our peoples as trappers saw the rewards of their labours and the new technology offered by the Europeans. Instead of bow and arrows, we now traded for steel guns. Instead of wooden deadfall traps, we now acquired steel traps. We also traded our furs for steel pots, pans, knives, axes and other utensils. We even watched the Europeans dance to fiddle tunes and we liked it so much that we learned their dances and songs on fiddles of our own. We even incorporated foods of the Europeans like bannock, tea, sugar and lard into our traditional diets."

- On the Path of the Elders

Letter from David Ciglen
Click to see a larger image

View of the old Factory House in Moose Factory, [ca. 1867]
Captain Traill Smith photograph collection
F 2179-2-0-0-22
Archives of Ontario, I0005078

Letter from David Ciglen
Click to see a larger image

View of the port and fort in Moose Factory during the summer, [ca. 1869]
Captain Traill Smith photograph collection
F 2179-2-0-0-16
Archives of Ontario, I0005072

Following Confederation of Canada in 1867, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald and other politicians sought to acquire Rupert’s Land for westward expansion. The HBC, for its part, no longer wanted responsibility for the high financial costs of administering the territory. Britain, wary of plans of the United States to annex the territory, convinced the HBC to transfer the deed for Rupert’s Land to the Crown in 1869 for $1.5 million, after Canada had agreed to a “Protection Pledge” that ensured it would protect the interests of Indigenous peoples living in the territory. The Crown then ceded the area—along with the North-Western Territory—to Canada the following year. The transfer took place without the consultation of the Omushkegowuk, who had never believed the Crown or the HBC had sovereignty over the land in the first place.

Canada’s annexation of Rupert’s Land foreshadowed further changes. By the late 1800s, many Indigenous peoples of the James Bay watershed—particularly those living near the height of land—faced declining animal resources, hunger, and sickness brought by Europeans, as well as unwelcome poachers and mining prospectors arriving via the new railroad on their traditional territories. As problems worsened, Indigenous peoples began to press Canada to make treaty.

When outside pressures bring change to your community, how do you respond?

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