Beaver Reserves

Cree customary land tenure became the basis for a very successful species rehabilitation initiative - the Beaver Reserves - which increased the number of beaver lodges from 38 in 1933 to 309 by 1937.

The dawn of the 20th Century marked a dark period for the Cree. Famine struck Waskaganish and many bush camps in 1882, when starvation was reported at Rupert House. The causes are varied but most significant was a low natural population cycle in the main species trapped and hunted by the Cree. For example, while moose was abundant in the late 1600s, it was almost nonexistent in the Waskaganish area in 1827 and began to reappear shortly thereafter. The intensive trapping for fur bearing animals, especially beaver (an important food source), almost wiped out this specie (Morantz, 2002). Beginning in 1891 various epidemics began to take a toll on the Rupert House people, starting with a flu which took two lives and later whopping cough, scrofula (tuberculosis) and chicken pox were reported. The introduction of rifles by Revelillon frères Company in 1903 increased the pressure on the beaver. Coupled with competition between the now two established fur trading companies (HBC and Revelillon), Cree hunters did manage to increase their economic situation by accessing improved salaried positions as well as reduced travel time given the increased number of trading posts both on the coast and inland. Being skilled traders, the Cree hunters made good by negotiating better trading tariffs at different posts.
Nevertheless, starvation becomes widespread as many accounts confirm it. John Blacksmith from Waskaganish recounts his experience of life in the bush as a young boy. In the following passage he explains how his father found a group of starving Cree and how he took them in to recover:
James Watt and Inuit family behind clerk's house - Archives of Ontario

“They found one man, his wife, and two sons and one daughter. They had two boys there also and one girl that didn’t belong to him, seven kids altogether[...]The man who was nearly starving told my father that there had been lots of them in the group that fall. The ones that were starving were hunting way up inland – 200 miles. They told my father that even when they hunted together, none of them would bring anything to eat[...]So my father brought them to his place. The man was older than my father. His face was very thin, so poor, very poor-looking people. And they way he was before they found him was poorer than that. When they found a person that was starving, they just gave him a little fish to eat at first. When my father found these people he didn’t feed them very much, a little flour that was left, he fed them a little bannock first” (Preston, 2002:58)."

Beaver reserves cca. 1930
HBC Archives
Beaver reserves cca. 1930 HBC Archives

Harsh winters and decreasing numbers of food and fur bearing animals compelled many Cree families to settle at or near trading posts. James Watt, the post manager at Rupert House, wrote in 1929 that “the fear of starvation prevents the coast Indians from going far inland” (Morantz, 2002:113). Watt and his wife Maud are reported to ration their supplies so as to share them with the Cree established in the community. Alarmed by the situation the Watts began to consider formal conservations measures. Cree hunting practices have always included measures for beaver husbanding by tapping only a certain number per lodge or leaving several beaver lodges untouched in their respective hunting territory. Inspired by these practices the Watts established a beaver sanctuary in 1932 by ‘purchasing’ a beaver lodge from Robert Stephens and Andrew Whiskeychan, essentially paying them 60$ to mark the lodge as Watt’s and not kill the beaver there. HBC turned down Watt’s initial request for financial backing of the reserve, thus Maud made a month-long journey to Quebec City to negotiate a land lease with the deputy minister of colonization. A fifteen-year lease for a 7000 square miles of territory between the Eastmain and Rupert rivers and 20 miles inland beyond Nemiskau post was granted to Maud Watt in 1932. A year later HBC agreed to take on the lease ($10/year). The success of the Rupert House sanctuary quickly spread and other communities asked for similar measures in their territory. In all, three beaver reserves were created: the Rupert House in 1932; the Nottaway in 1938; and the Old Factory in 1941. In all, Cree hunters, such as John Blackned from Waskaganish, volunteered to manage the reserves as game wardens, they kept track of the beaver populations and reported on trapping within their respective territories. The initiative had great success. For example on Rupert House territory there were 38 lodges and 162 beavers in 1933, by 1937 approximately 1545 beavers and 309 lodges were reported (Morantz, 2002; Feit, 2005).

Morantz, Tobi. The White Man's Gonna Getcha: The Colonial Challenge to the Crees in Quebec. McGill-Queen's Native and Northern Series #30. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2002.
Preston, Richard J. Cree Narrative, Expressing the Personal Meaning of Events (Second Edition). Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2002.
Feit, Harvey. 2005. "Re-Cognizing Co-Management as Co-Governance: Histories and Visions of Conservation at James Bay." Anthropologica. 47 (2): 267-288.