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.
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.
The 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.