350 years of Waskaganish: Yearlong celebration highlights Cree community's rich history

It was on September 29, 1668 that the Nonsuch ship anchored off the mouth of the Rupert River, near present day Waskaganish and the crew set about making a winter camp.

It's a chance to showcase and share Cree language and culture with youth, says organizer

The Hudson Bay Company store in Waskaganish. 'It was the people [of Waskaganish] who opened up the door for Hudson Bay Company,' says Charles J. Hester, director of youth and recreation for the Cree community. (Hudson Bay Company Archives/Archives of Manitoba )

For Charles J. Hester, the arrival in 1668 of a British naval ship in James Bay is worth marking — even celebrating — because it also marks the important role his community had in the very foundations of this country.

"We helped build Canada," said Hester, director of youth and recreation for the Cree community of Waskaganish and one of the organizers of the community's 350th anniversary celebrations. The fourth and final seasonal celebration is happening Nov. 22 to 24.

It was on Sept. 29, 1668 that the Nonsuch ship anchored off the mouth of the Rupert River, near present day Waskaganish, and the crew set about making a winter camp.

The records showed that Hudson Bay Company valued their employees, which were Cree.- Charles J. Hester

The following spring, according to Hudson Bay Company archives, Cree hunters came and traded beaver pelts with the crew. It was the first successful trading voyage.

Two years later, the Hudson's Bay Company was founded.

"It was the people [of Waskaganish] who opened up the door for Hudson Bay Company," said Hester.

"Without our people's contribution the company would [not] have been as successful as it was."

Charles J. Hester tours the replica of the Nonsuch ship's housing at the Manitoba Museum in Winnipeg. (CBC/Maamuitaau)

The arrival of Nonsuch and the ensuing trade also marked the beginning of the colonization of British North America and a complete change in the way of life for Indigenous people, including the Cree, who had inhabited the territory for thousands of years.

Hester says he knows some people don't see much to celebrate in the brutal attempts to eradicate Indigenous culture that followed first contact. But he says several trips to the Hudson Bay Company Archives — a massive collection of company journals, maps, photos and moving pictures housed at the Archives of Manitoba — show relations between the Cree and the company were often good.

[The records] actually document First Nations. They are really a record of the community themselves.- James Gorton, Hudson's Bay Company Archives

"The records showed that Hudson Bay Company valued their employees, which were Cree," said Hester, adding he felt it was important the story be told.

"They needed help, [Cree] help. They recognized the importance and value of their partnership."

Hester says there is a wealth of information at the Hudson Bay Company archives about how Cree life changed after contact and how the weather in the territory also changed.

"We have just scratched the surface," said Hester.

"They are very much business records," said James Gorton, archivist at the Hudson's Bay Company Archives in Winnipeg. "However they document so much more. They actually document First Nations. They are really a record of the community themselves."

The 21-gun salute in Waskaganish. An airplane came to the community in the first part of the 20th century carrying representatives of the Crown. (Hudson Bay Company Archives/Archives of Manitoba)

Hester says one photo he found on a visit to the archives earlier this year connected him to a story his grandfather told him as a young boy, about the first time an airplane came to the community in the first part of the 20th century, carrying representatives of the Crown.  

"He was around seven years old and when he heard the plane come in he thought he was going to die," said Hester, adding there was a 21-gun salute to welcome the visitors. He said his grandfather told him he was hiding under the dock.

"I was able to find that picture," said Hester. "The first thing I did was I looked for a kid under the dock."

For Hester, the anniversary is also a chance to showcase and share Cree language and culture with Cree youth and the larger community, according to Hester.

"We are basically saying it's been 350 years since first contact and we are still pretty much in control of our territory and practising our traditions and maintaining our language," said Hester.

"I can sit here using high speed internet, and come 5 o'clock, I can be out on my trapline in virgin forest doing the same activities as my ancestors did. We have the best of both worlds."

The fall celebration will include a trade fair, music and traditional activities highlighting the fall hunt.

Four seasonal celebrations have been held in Waskaganish this year to mark the arrival of the Nonsuch, highlighting cultural and traditional activities, music and trade. This is the Aashuumiih Winter Journey arrival during the winter celebration in February. (Waskaganish 350th)