Naskapi culture is a rich legacy of arts, stories, and survival.
We, the Naskapi people have occupied the land of what is now northern Quebec and Labrador since time immemorial. Our ancestors were nomads, living off the land and following the caribou herds on which they depended for resources. In the 1950s, our way of life changed when most of the Naskapi people moved from Fort Chimo to the Schefferville region. The move to our actual location of Kawawachikamach took place in the early 1980s. The Naskapi Band of Québec was created in 1984 by the Naskapi Act, making us and Cree communities the first self-governing bands in Canada. Our name changed to the Naskapi Nation of Kawawachikamach in 1999. The Naskapi Nation of Kawawachikamach has the mandate, through its council and employees, to govern, manage, offer services to its members and promote development while preserving a unique culture and language. Our history is an important part of our identity and we must continually work on preserving our culture by practicing it and ensuring that we pass it down to our future generations.
The earliest written reference to Naskapi appears around 1643; when the Jesuit André Richard referred to the “Ounackkapiouek”, but little is known about the group to which Richard was referring, other than that they were one of many “small nations” situated somewhere north of Tadoussac.
The word “Naskapi” appeared for the first time in 1733, at which time the group so described was said to number approximately forty families and to have an important camp at Lake Achouanipi. At approximately the same time, in 1740, Joseph Isbister, the manager of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s post at Eastmain, reported being told that there were Indians, whom he called “Annes-carps” to the northeast of Richmond Gulf. In later years those Indians came to be called variously “Nascopie” and “Nascappe”. Not many years later, in 1790, the Periodical Accounts of the Moravian Missionaries described a group of Indians living west of Okak as “Nascopies”. The Naskapi came under the influence of Protestant missionaries, and remain Protestant to this day. In addition to their native tongue, they speak English, in contrast to their Montagnais cousins who are for the most part Roman Catholic, speaking the native language and French. The Montagnais are far more numerous than the Naskapi.
The years 1831 onwards were characterized by the first regular contact between the Naskapi and western society, when the Hudson’s Bay Company established its first trading post at Old Fort Chimo.
The relationship between the Naskapi and the Hudson’s Bay Company was not an easy one. It was difficult for the Naskapi to integrate commercial trapping, especially of marten in Winter, into their seasonal round of subsistence activities, for the simple reason that the distribution of marten was in large measure different from the distribution of essential sources of food at that season. In consequence, the Naskapi did not prove to be the regular and diligent trappers that the traders must have hoped to find, and the traders seem to have attributed this fact to laziness or intransigence on the part of Naskapi.
In the 1945 census (in the Dominion of Newfoundland) the total Innu population in Labrador (consisting of both Montagnais and Naskapi) was 100 in Davis Inlet, 33 in Nain and 137 in North West River/Sheshatshiu (270 in total, it has since increased to over 2,000). The previous census in 1935 only counted Innu in David Inlet. Some surnames listed in the census include Rich, Michimagaua, Mishimapu and Pokue. Most Innu in Labrador did not have surnames until after the confederation in 1949. None of the Innu lived in modern houses but instead camped in tents near North West River, Nain and Davis Inlet (all Inuit settlements) during the summer.
Between 1831 and 1956, the Naskapi were subjected to several major relocations, all of which reflected not their needs nor interests, but those of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The major moves were:
- 1842 – Fort Chimo to Fort Nascopie
- 1870 – Fort Nascopie to Fort Chimo
- 1915 – Fort Chimo to Fort McKenzie
- 1948 – Fort McKenzie to Fort Chimo
- 1956 – Fort Chimo to Schefferville
Numerous cases have been documented in which the Hudson’s Bay Company relocated the Naskapi from post to post purely for its own commercial purposes, and without any concern as to whether the areas where the posts were situated offered the Naskapi the possibility of harvesting the fish and game that they required for food as well as the fur-bearers that the Company sought. In several instances, individual managers, apparently dissatisfied with the Naskapi’ seeming lack of commitment to trapping withheld from them the ammunition that they needed to hunt for food, thereby directly causing a considerable number of deaths from starvation.
By the late 1940s, the pressures of the fur trade, high rates of mortality and debilitation from diseases communicated by Europeans, and the effects of the virtual disappearance of the George River Caribou Herd had reduced the Naskapi to a state where their very survival was threatened.
The Naskapi had received “relief” from the Federal Government as early as the end of the 19th century, but their first regular contacts with the Federal Government began only in 1949, when Colonel H.M. Jones, Superintendent of Welfare Services in Ottawa, and M. Larivière of the Abitibi Indian Agency visited them in Fort Chimo and arranged for the issuing of welfare to them.
In the early 1950s, the Naskapi made a partially successful effort to re-establish themselves at Fort McKenzie, where they had already lived between 1916 and 1948, and to return to an economy based substantially on hunting, fishing and commercial trapping. They could no longer be entirely self-sufficient, however, and the high cost of resupplying them, combined with the continuing high incidence of tuberculosis and other factors, obliged them to return to Fort Chimo after only two years.
Move to Schefferville
For reasons that are not entirely clear, virtually all of the Naskapi moved from Fort Chimo to the recently founded iron-ore mining community of Schefferville in 1956. Two principal schools of thought about this move exist. One of them holds that the Naskapi were induced, if not ordered, to move by officials of Indian and Northern Affairs, while the other believes that the Naskapi themselves decided to move in the hope of finding employment, housing, medical assistance, and educational facilities for their children.
Although officials of Indian and Northern Affairs were certainly aware of the intention of the Naskapi to move from Fort Chimo to Schefferville and may even have instigated that move, they appear to have done little or nothing to prepare for their arrival there, not even by warning the representatives of the Iron Ore Company of Canada (“IOCC”) or the municipality of Schefferville.
The Naskapi left Fort Chimo on foot to make the 400-mile (640 km) journey to Schefferville overland. By the time they reached Wakuach Lake, some 70 miles (113 km) north of Schefferville, most of them were in a pitiable state, exhausted, ill, and close to starvation.
A successful rescue effort was mounted, but the only homes that awaited the Naskapi were the shacks that they built for themselves on the edge of Pearce Lake, near the railroad station, with scavenged and donated materials. A short time later, in 1957, under the pretext that the water at Pearce Lake was contaminated, the municipal authorities moved them to a site adjacent to John Lake, some four miles (6 km) north-north-east of Schefferville, where they lived without benefit of water sewage, or electricity, and where, despite their hopes in coming to Schefferville, there was no school for their children and no medical facility.
The Naskapi shared the site at John Lake with a group of Montagnais, who had moved voluntarily from Sept-Îles to Schefferville with the completion of the railroad in the early 1950s.
Initially, the Naskapi lived in tiny shacks that they built for themselves, but by 1962 Indian and Northern Affairs had built 30 houses for them, and a further four were under construction at a cost of $5,000 each.
Move to Matimekosh
In 1969, Indian and Northern Affairs acquired from the reluctant Municipality of Schefferville, a marshy, 39-acre (160,000 m2) site north of the town centre and adjacent to Pearce Lake. By 1972, 43 row-housing units had been built there for the Naskapi, and a further 63 for Montagnais and most of the Naskapi and Montagnais moved to this new site, known today as Matimekosh.
For the first time in their long history of relocations, the Naskapi were consulted in the planning of their new home. Indian and Northern Affairs sent officials to explain the new community to the Naskapi, a brochure was published, models built, and progress reports issued. Particular interest among the Naskapi centred on the type of housing that they would receive. Possibly for financial reasons, Indian and Northern Affairs wanted them to live in row houses, whereas the Naskapi had a strong preference for detached, single-family residences. In the event, Council was persuaded to accept row housing, but it did so only on the condition that the houses were adequately sound-proofed, which turned out not to be the case.
Perhaps because it was the first such process in which they had been involved, the Naskapi placed considerable faith in the consultation undertaken by Indian and Northern Affairs. It is a source of considerable bitterness even today that, in the minds of many Naskapi, not all of the promises or reassurances that were made were lived up to. Two examples are most commonly cited: the insistence of Indian and Northern Affairs’ representatives that the Naskapi live in row houses that, in the event, proved not to be adequately soundproofed and that had a variety of other faults; and the fact that the brochure prepared by Indian and Northern Affairs showed a fully landscaped site with trees and bushes, whereas no landscaping was done, and no trees or bushes were ever planted.
Incidents like those may seem very minor to persons with long experience of large and impersonal institutions such as government departments, but they happened to the Naskapi when they were in a very formative stage of their relations with Indian and Northern Affairs and when they had still not forgotten their callous treatment by the Hudson’s Bay Company. It should not come as a surprise, therefore, that these matters are still spoken of frequently today and that they maintain very considerable importance and significance for many Naskapi.
James Bay Agreement
A pivotal event in the history of the Naskapi occurred in early 1975, when, after separate visits to Schefferville by Billy Diamond, Grand Chief, Grand Council of the Crees (of Quebec) (“GCCQ”), and Charlie Watt, President, Northern Quebec Inuit Association (“NQIA”), the Naskapi decided to become involved in the negotiations leading to the signature of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (“JBNQA”).
The Naskapi entered into a contract with the NQIA, under which the latter was to provide logistical support, legal advice, and representation to a small team of Naskapi negotiators based in Montreal. That arrangement was not very successful, however, and the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement was signed on 11 November 1975, without the Naskapi.
Shortly before the signing of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, realizing that the demands on the Inuit were too great to allow them to represent the interests of the Naskapi in addition to their own interests, the Naskapi negotiators retained their own non-Native advisors and started to function as an independent negotiating body.
The signatories of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement were fully aware that it provided for the extinguishment of the Naskapi Aboriginal rights in the Territory without granting them any compensatory rights or benefits. They also knew that the Naskapi, unlike certain others of Quebec’s First Nations at that time, were willing to negotiate a settlement of their Aboriginal claims.
Thus, although the Naskapi had never filed a formal statement of claim or similar document, except for a draft history prepared by the late Dr. Alan Cooke, the parties to the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement accepted the legitimacy of their claims, and they entered into an agreement-in-principle with the Naskapi in the Spring of 1977 to negotiate an agreement that would have the same principal features as the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. The result of the negotiations was the Northeastern Quebec Agreement (“NEQA”), which was executed on 31 January 1978.
Section 20 of the Northeastern Quebec Agreement offered the Naskapi the possibility of relocating from the Matimekosh Reserve to a new site.
Move to Kawawachikamach
Between 1978 and 1980, technical and socio-economic studies of the potential sites for the permanent Naskapi community were carried out. On 31 January 1980, the Naskapi voted overwhelmingly to relocate to the present site of Kawawachikamach, built largely by Naskapi between 1980 and 1983. The planning and building gave Naskapi training and experience in administration and in construction and maintenance trades.
Between 1981 and 1984, the self-government legislation promised by Canada in Section 7 of the Northeastern Quebec Agreement was negotiated. The outcome of those negotiations was the Cree-Naskapi (of Quebec) Act (“CNQA”), which was assented to by Parliament on 14 June 1984.
The overriding purpose of the Cree-Naskapi (of Quebec) Act was to make the Naskapi Nation of Kawawachikamach and the James Bay Cree Bands largely self-governing. In addition to the powers then exercised by band councils under the Indian Act, most of the powers that had until then been exercised by the Minister of the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (“DIAND”) under the Indian Act were transferred to the Naskapi Nation of Kawawachikamach and to the James Bay Cree bands, to be exercised by their elected councils. The Naskapi Nation of Kawawachikamach and the James Bay Cree bands were also given powers not found in the Indian Act, powers normally exercised by non-Native municipalities throughout Canada.
The Northeastern Quebec Agreement had been negotiated under the assumption that Schefferville would continue to be an active centre of mining, outfitting, and exploration for the foreseeable future. Inquiries by the Government of Quebec to the Iron Ore Company of Canada (“IOCC”) in the late 1970s had confirmed that assumption. Nevertheless, Iron Ore Company of Canada announced in 1982 its intention to close the mines at Schefferville immediately.
The closing of the mines at Schefferville had profound implications for the implementation of the Northeastern Quebec Agreement, particularly for those provisions dealing with health and social services and with training and job creation. Consequently, in the late 1980s, the Naskapi Nation of Kawawachikamach and the Government of Canada undertook a joint evaluation of Canada’s discharging of its responsibilities under the Northeastern Quebec Agreement. The evaluation was motivated more by the change in the circumstances of Schefferville and of the Naskapi than by any belief on the part of the Naskapi that Canada had wilfully neglected any of its responsibilities under the Northeastern Quebec Agreement.
Northeastern Quebec Agreement
The outcome of those negotiations was the Agreement Respecting the Implementation of the Northeastern Quebec Agreement (“ARINEQA”), which was executed in September 1990. Among other things, the Agreement Respecting the Implementation of the Northeastern Quebec Agreement established the model for funding capital and O&M expenditures over five-year periods, created a Dispute Resolution Mechanism for disputes arising from the interpretation, administration, and implementation of the Northeastern Quebec Agreement, the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, and the Agreement Respecting the Implementation of the Northeastern Quebec Agreement, and created a working group to address employment for Naskapi people.