About Waswanipi 

About Waswanipi

On behalf of the people of Waswanipi, Kwey !

Waswanipi tipiThe modern community of Waswanipi is located on Highway 113 along Waswanipi River and is accessible by road. Waswanipi means "Light on the Water", it describes our past when we used the torch light fuelled by pine tar, to spear and catch sturgeon that had gathered to spawn at the mouth of Waswanipi River.

While the development of the region has had an impact on our lands and community, we are committed to the sustainable management of our resources. Our hard work and dedication with the model forest networks is an example to what can be achieved through proper consultation and research on development with our respective traditional territory. We have locally owned businesses to provide you with meals, groceries, supplies and equipment. We have hiking and cross-country ski trails, rustic camping spots, and a number of beautiful lakes and several challenging rivers for canoeing and kayaking.

As the southernmost Cree community, we are the gateway to Northern Quebec. Come and visit our community along with our cultural village which is a hospitable experience upon arrival. We offer a variety of summer festivals and cultural events throughout the year, starting with Waswanipi Day which commemorates our establishment of our community. Come and experience an annual gathering at the Old Waswanipi Post and followed by our famous Fishing Derby. All information can be attained through our tourism office and our website.

We welcome visitors and guests with open arms ready to explore new cultures and to experience a unique and distinct way of life.

Come to a place of new discoveries & experience.

Chief Marcel Happyjack

Our History and Culture

Waswanipi is a Cree community in central Quebec, located near the confluence of the Opawica, Chibougamau and Waswanipi Rivers. The community has a population of about 1,400.

Traditional Night Fishing - Allan L. Cooper 2004/2005The word “waswanipi” is usually translated as “reflection on the water”. Some people say this word refers to the traditional night-time fishing method the locals, consisting of luring fish to light by using torches. Our name community is “Waswanipi” which in English translation means Light on the Water. This name is a reference to a time when fishing was guiding by the use of torches fuelled by pine tar during the spearing of fish at the spawning ground at the mouth of the Waswanipi River.

The village was founded as a trading post by the Hudson’s Bay Company. The post was closed, however, in 1965. Its residents dispersed until 1978. That year, the new village of Waswanipi was built about 45 km upstream the Waswanipi River from the former location.

The people of Waswanipi speak Cree, English and French. The community has various public facilities including several businesses, administration buildings, post-office, schools, fire-hall and last but not least the Arena, which our people have made full use of.

Chiwetau Poster 2009 - Stanley Saganash 2009/10The cultural activities include chiiwetau (“going home”), an annual summer gathering for the community at the site of the old community (often referred to as the “Old Post”) on Waswanipi Lake.

The community, also, organizes canoe and snowshoe journeys to help keep the knowledge of the old routes and travel techniques alive amongst the young.

Early Days

The whole of northern Quebec has always been very sparsely populated and its aboriginal occupants moved about a great deal. There were no permanent year-round settlements in the region until trading posts were established in the late sixteenth century along the coasts of the James Bay and Hudson Bay and only in the late eighteenth century in the inland country near Waswanipi. Waswanipi was known as a country rich in furs – particularly beaver, lynx and marten.

canoes, credits Hudson's Bay Company 1947The Northwest Company, formed by English fur merchants from Montreal after England took control of France’s colony in 1763, were the first to open a full time trading post in the Waswanipi area. They began sending small parties of men north from their Abitibi posts to trade in Waswanipi (and also Mistissini) and by 1775 they had a year-round operation in a log-tent built on Cheashquacheston Lake (Gull Lake, today’s Lac au Geoland) some 10 kilometers west of Waswanipi Island. By 1800, they had moved their place of operations to Waswanipi Island.

When the Hudson Bay Company first visited the Waswanipi region in 1819 the Northwest Company from Montreal already had four men posted on Waswanipi Island trading with the aboriginal families of the region who hunted the river basins of the Magasaci, the Bell and the Waswanipi rivers.

Even before European diseases like smallpox wiped out so many aboriginal people, it is unlikely that more than 40 families made up of four or five people occupied that territory we now classify as “Waswanipi”. In 1823 the HBC records show that 32 family groups totalling 136 people were trading at the Post. These families, formed into a dozen or so small hunting groups, scattered widely across the territory in winter. In spring or summer they would meet at some prearranged time and place. All Waswanipi families did not come into Waswanipi Post every year. Some traveled to visit or arrange marriages with neighbouring aboriginal groups and to trade at a different Post – often Megiscane or Nemiscau.

The HBC Journals, which recorded brief daily notes on the comings and goings at each Post, tell us that even by the early 20th century no more than one, two or three family groups would visit Waswanipi Post at the same time. A family might come to the Post once or twice a year, staying no more than a day or so, trading their furs for the very small stock of items the Post kept on hand. The fur trader’s stock was small because, until recently, it had to be transported hundred of kilometers by canoe and carried over dozens of portages.

In the 1950s the whole Waswanipi region opened up to outside exploitation as the Chibougamau copper boom resulted in the opening of a railway and a highway which skirted the shores of Waswanipi Lake. Thousands of workers migrated to the surrounding region as mines opened in Desmaraisville and Matagami and sawmill operations began in Miquelon-all on Waswanipi lands. Waswanipi people became a minority on our own lands. Soon some band families began to migrate to these new settlements in search of jobs. By 1960 we had about 400 Waswanipi band members, but we were widely scattered in Matagami, Senneterre, Miquelon, Desmaraisville, Waswanipi River and Chapais. As for Waswanipi Island, it was all but abandoned, except for short summer family get-togethers fro weddings or when people gathered for a funeral. When the HBC finally closed its store in June 1965, only few old people remained on the old Post and these soon moved away.

Waswanipi Eenouch - Our People

Where did our Waswanipi people originate? Aboriginal hunters and gatherers have used or occupied the boreal forest north of the Height of Land in Quebec since the last glaciers receded some 6,000 to 10,00 years ago – time immemorial as we say.We Waswanipi eenuch·are some of their descendants. Our ancestors came in contact with Europeans in the 17th century and, over the following three centuries, European governments and commercial enterprises gradually took complete control over our territory and colonized much of it with migrants from their home countries.

Tipi in Fog - Stanley Saganash 2010Within this context, we can still ask the question “Where did the people who now call themselves “Waswanipi” originate?” Since 1976 our community has been located about 275km north of Val d’Or, where Quebec Highway 113 crosses the Waswanipi River; but before that, our home base was a trading post some 15 km to the west, on the island located in Waswanipi Lake.

From 1965 and onward there was a long and difficult struggle to reunite our people at its present location at Waswanipi River. Band members were much divided as to the best location for a new town site. Ottawa delayed because of worries about cost and the indecision of the Band Members. The Quebec Government of the day did not recognize aboriginal title and was slow to transfer any “Provincial land” – as they saw it – to Federal control for a new town site. The matter was only settled in 1975 after Hydro-Quebec had lost the James Bay Court case and the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement had been negotiated.

Site preparations for our new community began in 1976 at the confluence of the Opawica and Chibougamau Rivers – the headwaters of Waswanipi River. The first houses were occupied in 1977. Today it is the home of 1400 Waswanipi – proud beneficiaries of a hard fought for James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.

Our Culture, Values and Practices

There are other cultural events that we coordinate that fall into diverse dates and seasons, like wood carving, sewing workshops, gatherings, teachings, and traditional food harvesting, to name a few projects. We cannot predict the seasons nor mother-nature’s change, we plan according to season, nature and its compassion on us.

open-cook-out -Stanley Sagansh 2010Culture department, also, assists the school and teachings programs, as well as, other departments that work with a variety of ages. 

We are open to do more.

We work with our elders on daily bases and they assist culture department in the production of programs throughout the year. Our elders are valuable, skillful, talented, and willing to pass down Cree knowledge.

The culture department, also, runs a “lunch program” on a daily bases, as we get to see our elders every day. Our kitchen is a non profit organization and runs solely on donations from the public. I hope you’ll join us at our elders gathering place, and cozy up to tea and bannock, and a good laugh with good company.

Waswanipi Today

tipi by the river - Julie Fortune 2010Waswanipi being the most southern Cree community is situated in a location that is within reasonably easy access to neighbouring municipalities. Part of a provincial road network – highway Route 113 links the Abitibi-region to the area around Chibougamau and the Lac St-Jean region which are all considered important liaison centers to the rest of the province.

new_housing - Stanley 2009The community is not entirely isolated given the geographical location and relatively has an advantage within the perspective of several dimensions. Transportation costs and the cost of living are generally much lower in Waswanipi in comparison to most other Cree communities. For air transportation the closest airport is in Chibougamau which is within a distance of 90km northeast along highway Route 113.

Waswanipi enjoys most technological services that are found in urban areas, cell phones are generally functional in the community and high-speed internet service is available.

The residents of the community generally benefit from being not too far away from main cities and towns which offer numerous possibilities to purchase readily available goods and services.