Nemaskau Eenouch have a rich and remarkable heritage

A Brief History of Nemaska

Nemaskau Eenouch have a rich and remarkable heritage that defines their collective identity and specific worldview.

Life in the bush has characterised most of this history and has informed the community’s relationship with the land and with one another. The arrival of Europeans and the subsequent fur trade brought about changes in these relationships without disturbing their essence. Nevertheless, the second half of the 20th century initiated a marked interference from the part of governmental institutions into all aspects of community life. Children were taken away to residential schools and the community was disbanded and displaced to make way for a planned hydroelectric project. Throughout this adversity, Nemaskau eenouch have persevered. They have built a community and preserved their way of life.

European contact and the Fur Trade

Father Charles Albanel's route in 1672.

The Nemaskau Eenouch have since time immemorial maintained a harmonious relationship with the Creator, His Creation and His provisions, in and around Nemaskau Sagaheegan (Nemaska Lake), lake where the fish are plentiful. It is by the Lake that they are called or call themselves the Nemaskau Eenouch, People from the Place of Plentiful Fish.

The Nemaskau Eenouch lived, fished, hunted and trapped in the area peacefully without much contact with the outside world. During their annual summer gathering at Nemaskau Sagaheegan the people would catch, smoke and preserve the numerous species of fish, which were very abundant on the Lake, especially sturgeon and whitefish.

Prior to the arrival of European fur traders and missionaries there is not much that is known of the history of the Nemaskau Eenouch but there is evidence of their presence on the Lake which could date back to certain millennia, these being the Petroglyphs or “rock art/paintings” found on a rock faces, on or near the Lake. During the Iroquois Wars, there were frequent visits by war parties and the Iroquois built a fort on an island on Nemaska Lake, the location has not yet been found but was mentioned in the journals of Father Charles Albanel.


The Hudson Bay Company in Old Nemaska

For over three hundred recorded years the Nemaskau Eenouch have had a settlement of some sort on the shores of Nemaska Lake. European Fur traders first reached the settlement around 1663. Father Charles Albanel, a Jesuit Priest, as recorded in his journal, arrived on Nemiskau Lake on June 25, 1672. The Hudson’s Bay Company, the Northwest Company and Reveillon et Freres all had a trading post at one time or another either at the Old Settlement or on some other area of the Lake. The Hudson’s Bay Company made numerous attempts at having a post at Old Nemaska and eventually in 1906/07 built more permanent facilities, consisting of a residence, warehouse and store and which after many years were finally abandoned and closed in 1970. Prior to any housing of any form being built the people lived in various forms of temporary dwellings, with the first houses in the 1950’s and 1960’s being provided by the Department of Indian Affairs, mostly with local materials with some lumber brought in by plane.

The Anglican Church built a church at the Old Post in the late 1940’s with a local “catechist” whose father and grandfather had served the Anglican Church and the community. In the 1950’s the Department of Indian Affairs built a “summer day school” and a teacher’s residence, for school age children, which served as an introduction to “institutionalized” education. In the late 1950’s or early 1960’s Reverend Dale and Josephine Tozer family set up a “Baptist” mission, and upon their departure were succeeded by Reverend Larry and Peggy Linton, who remained at Old Nemaska until the relocation.


Nemaska Eenouch relocated to Waskaganish.

Relocation and the James Bay Agreement

During the 1950’s and 1960’s Hydro-Quebec made frequent forays into the Nemaskau Eenouch traditional and ancestral territory for the purposes of gathering technical information to support the feasibility and development of the Nottaway/Broadback/Rupert Hydro-electric Projector, commonly referred to as the NBR Project. Part of the information gathering forays were for outlining, identification and early neutralization of potential problems. One major identifiable potential problem was the settlement on Nemaska Lake and the Nemaskau Eenouch who lived there. If the Project were to be a reality the settlement would be under water, therefore the residents would have to be removed or relocated.

In the summer of 1968, the Nemaskau Eenouch received a visit from either a Representative of the Government of Quebec, Government of Canada or Hydro-Quebec and were told that they had to move out of their community, and warned that their community would be flooded by a large-scale hydroelectric project, and that only the Hudson’s Bay Company facilities, the Church steeple and the graveyard would be above water.

The Hudson Bay Company, which had for so many years provided materials, supplies and non-traditional foods was finally closing its services which further “persuaded” the people to “abandon” their centuries’ old settlement, in 1970. It was during this same summer Nemaskau Eenouch under duress moved from their original and ancestral home on the shores of Nemaska Lake, where their ancestors since time immemorial practiced, maintained and survived through the traditional way of life and harmonious relationship and connection with the Lake. They were relocated to the communities of Mistissini and Waskaganish.

The Nemaskau Eenouch prior to and at the time of the relocation, lived a very simple traditional lifestyle and were unfamiliar with the ways of governments, their agencies and developers. Very few had (if) any “academic or formal” education other than through “traditional and life skills teachings”. The so-called “educated youth” at the time were mostly in Residential Schools or Educational Institutions outside of the community and in the south. Some of these students were not even aware that their community was been abandoned or rather their parents had been forced to move. Some youth came home to an almost empty community. The James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (1975) briefly and vaguely mentions [Sec.4.7.4. 1), 2)] the Nemaskau Eenouch and certain conditions which had to be met in order for the Nemaskau Eenouch to resettle in the vicinity of their original HOME.


Rebuilding a New Life

Site of present day Nemaska.

After seven (7) years of “exile”, in September 1977, the Nemaskau Eenouch decided to gather at Doethawagan (Champion Lake), near their original settlement. With the help of the Grand Council of the Crees (Eeyou Istchee) the community members, considered, discussed and evaluated their situation. Approximately ninety-five (95) members were present. The Nemaskau Eenouch at had a choice whether to attempt “assimilating” into their respective communities of relocation or they could start over.

According to the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement they could resettle “within the vicinity of Nemaska Lake”. If they choose to resettle within the area they were given by Government Officials three (3) choices for the location of their new community, they choose none. The Nemaskau Elders had made a recommendation for the site and the Nemaskau Eenouch chose the site recommended by the Elders. The decision to listen to the Elders has proven itself, beyond a doubt, fruitful and wise over the past twenty-eight (28) years. The new Village has been threatened on three (3) separate occasions by out of control, raging forest fires and each time the new Community has remained unscathed although the people had to be evacuated.


Present day Nemaska.

In 1976, 147 band members formally pledged themselves to permanently relocate on Lake Champion. The Band administration was composed of one Chief and two councillors and the annual budget provided by Indian Affairs was $12,000. In 1980 housing construction began. The community church was the first building to be completed and an access road linking the community to the Hydro Quebec gravel road ‘58’ was completed allowing residents to properly commute for the first time.

Nemaska is now accessible by air through daily flights by Air Creebec and is linked to both the James Bay Highway, which leads into Abitibi Temiscamingue and the Route du Nord leading into Chibougamau. The community features two hotels, and hosts the Cree Regional Authority head offices, a newly constructed Band Office, a postal office, a community Wellness Center, the Luke Mettaweskum School, and a newly constructed church.

The Nemaskau Eenouch have turned a forest into a vibrant and wholesome modern community. Links to the previous settlement on Nemaska Lake are strongly maintained. The area was declared a historic site by the Nemaska community and has been recognized as such by the Cree Nation. The reconstruction of family houses as they were in 1960s has been under way for the past couple of years.

Every summer Nemaska holds a traditional gathering every summer at Nemaska Lake. The Journey of the Nemaskau Eenouch has only just begun….