Whapmagoostui (Cree: ᐙᐸᒣᑯᔥᑐᐃ/Wâpamekuštui, “place of the beluga”) is the northernmost Cree village in Quebec, located at the mouth of the Great Whale River (French: Grande Rivière de la Baleine) on the coast of Hudson Bay in Nunavik, Quebec, Canada. About 906 Cree with about 650 Inuit, living in the neighbouring village of Kuujjuarapik. The community is only accessible by air (Kuujjuarapik Airport) and, in late summer, by boat. Whapmagoostui is about 250 kilometres north of the nearest Cree village, Chisasibi.
Although the permanent cohabitation of Inuit and Crees at the mouth of the Great Whale River only goes back to the year 1950, the two nations were rubbing shoulders in this area for a very long time; Inuit close to the coast and the Crees more in the interior lands.
While the Cree have hunted and fished along the Hudson Bay coast long before the arrival of Europeans, it was not until 1820 when a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post was built here, known variously as Great Whale River House, Great Whale River or just Great Whale. On maps of 1851 and 1854, the post is called Whale River House and Whale House. Protestant and Catholic missions settled there in the 1880s. In 1895, a weather station was set up by the Federal Government. Medical and police services began to be offered in the first half of the 20th century. Yet the Cree would not settle here permanently and only used it as a summer encampment.
Not until 1940 did the Cree give up their nomadic way of life when the American army opened a military air base here, using Inuit and Cree workers. In 1941, the HBC post closed. After the World War II in 1948, the military base was transferred to the Canadian government. And in 1955, it began operating a Mid-Canada Line radar station. Though the radar station was not operational for long and closed in 1965, it established the village permanently.
In 1961, when the Quebec Government decided to give French names to northern settlements, the name Great Whale River was replaced with Grande-Baleine which itself was replaced a year later with Poste-de-la-Baleine. In 1979, the Cree Village Municipality, identified as Whapmagoostoo, was established. The Cree village itself was officially named Whapmagoostui in 1986, from then on replacing all other toponyms.
Stories and testimonials
I will tell you what I have heard and what I have seen. During the time of my forefathers, people used to travel from their inland camps to the coast, when the post was at Richmond Gulf, people used to go there. There was a company there, it was not a company store but another company, and I think they were Les Gros Radisson? (oopistiquayaow), Fur Traders who also used called the Whiskey traders.
As you know there the waters at Richmond Gulf are turbulent therefore sailing ships could not go into the Gulf so they moved the post to Little Whale River. It was a little community there, if one goes up the river, one will see the remains of the many camps that were there.
When whaling came up north, big boats could not sail into the Little Whale River so they moved the post to Great Whale River. This is what I have heard and as a young man, I saw the community of Whapmagoostui grow to what it is today.
I once asked an Inuk what was the purpose of hunting whales, he had told me that Whale fat was accumulated for heating fuel, (chisapisjawan pimi). My aunt, my mother’s sister told me the story of Little Whale River and it is her recollection that I will tell you because I find it interesting. She told of how the fort at Little Whale River was destroyed by the Inuit as they had raided the premise and the people who had stayed there could not sleep due to a threat of an attack of the post. There are stories that the post was raided because the people needed food and supplies.
Then another company HBC came into existence and I recall seeing the movie on the move from Little Whale River to Great Whale River. The old church of the 1800’s which is now used as a museum was being transported by boat from there to here.
The whaling expeditions of the Great Whale River were partly over as I recall when we used to live here. My grandfather (nymshoom) Mamianskum had seen the whaling events. What used to happen when the whales were caught both Cree and Inuit people were given some whale meat.
He told me that a great net was used to capture the whales, those were not beluga whales, I was told that it was the bowhead whales, those were huge in size and black, totally different looking from the beluga whales.
In those days, whale hunting took place at the mouth of the river, where the present marina is, is where another whaling activity took place. There the people used to work at night. If the whales were seen coming up the river a siren (myachikan) was heard to identify whereabouts of the whales. The net must have been very sturdy and strong because they say that the 10 gallon drums were used as floats and whale fat was put into 45 gallon drums for exportation.
The whale bins were very big, that is where they took care of the fat, it was an enormous job, and everything seemed big then, the big whales, big whale bins and large volumes of fat for heating. Everyone got their share of the whale, in some cases one whale was given to one household.
When whaling came to an end, the fur trading took its place. Sailing ships would come into the river and that was when some goods came in for the people to trade.
I recall one story of one captain not of good nature who was exiled by his men and he was not heard from ever again. I guess he was not a very good trader. At the time of trading, there were no houses except for the church and then they built the post, store and home of the trader. In all, I think they were eventually five houses. I saw some pictures in a magazine of what the community looked like before there were many houses here.
Then I heard another story whereby the post burnt down and it destroyed the store and most of its contents. They say that the trader had kept all of the good furs and did not give them away, those were destroyed in the fire as well.
I saw the graves of the family. There was a headstone and some elders said that the salesclerks died as well.
Why did they move to Whapmagoostui, I do not know exactly, I heard that the post at Little Whale River was deserted once the people went back to their trap lines and when some knew that the post at Great Whale existed, they stopped going to Little Whale River.
I also know before the post existed at Little Whale River and at Richmond Gulf, our people used to go as far as Eastmain to trade their furs in exchange for food supplies. That must have been a long way to travel if one was traveling from Clearwater Lake to Eastmain by foot.
Another interesting note I found by listening to other elders is when the Crees used to fight with the post traders and with the Inuit. One story tells us of what happened when the Inuit took over the post at Little Whale River, I spoke of that earlier, and I believe you heard that?! One Inuk told me that the stones are still visible at Little Whale River when troubled times existed there; they are remnants of one’s past. People fought with one another when food was scarce. They say that is how the fight got started at Little Whale River because the Inuit did not have anything to trade but insisted that they have food supplies.
In terms of Great Whale River, that was over 100 years ago when they settled here. I recall one trader who spoke Cree like any other Cree and knew the territory like us. He took care of the GW post. He was known as (wamistiigoosish), little Whiteman in literal translation. He and his people brought the church to Whapmagoostui from Little Whale River.
He kept the finest furs, fox, wolf, marten, mink and otter and of course beaver. They say he was the richest man in the territory. He also knew of the bible and spoke English very well. He was also a good hunter. He was like a walking encyclopedia. He also had an instrument which he would play, sometimes he would play but with much coaxing. We’d ask him to play but he would reply “no, the etos will hear…” I guess he was afraid of Etos listening to his playing.
Earlier I spoke of the fur trader giving whiskey in exchange for furs and that was when fights would erupt due to drinking incidents. In some cases they replaced tea with whiskey.
Our ancestors used to tell stories of the Little Whale River community. One time, they spoke of a ship that could not enter the river because of its shallowness. There are two islands near the mouth of the river, since the ship could not sail, the goods were left at the islands and they were being ferried out to the mainland. However an accident occurred, the delegation sank, and everyone was dead when they finally found the ferry.
An elder had spoke of why that happened because of one’s carelessness to the spirits. The captain of the whaling ship had killed too many whales at one point and certain rituals were not followed therefore that is why this incident occurred. Everything runs in a cyclical process, certain things have to be done so certain things could occur. They say that the captain had foreseen his destiny and he foretold what would happen because the animal spirits were not satisfied with his doing. Although he was a very good man, he had to leave so soon. That is one way of nature taking its course.
When they started giving food rations out, they gave out flour on Fridays, which is why it is called Flour-day or handing out food days on Saturdays. Madinwachisikaow is Saturday in Cree. Then rations stopped at one time. They did not give out rations for some reasons maybe because they were instructed to or because there was no food left anywhere.
Letter from David Masty (past chief)
The community is situated on the north side of the river, but the original site of the community was on the south side at the mouth of the Great Whale River before European contact. Every summer since 1993, we’ve had our traditional gathering at the original site of the community. This gathering started as a result of our campaign against the proposed Great Whale River hydro-electric project in the late 80’s and 90’s.
Through the strong leadership of former chiefs Robbie Dick and Matthew Mukash, the campaign against the proposed hydro-electric project was successful and the project was postponed.
The neighbouring Inuit community of Kuujjuarapik is the last major Inuit community going in a southerly direction and Whapmagoostui is the last community of Eeyouch (Cree) if you are going north in Quebec. Our two communities represent the cultural boundary between the Cree of Eeyou Istchee and the Inuit of Nunavik. Both Eeyouch and Inuit mean ‘the people’.
Although our communities have been known in the past by the postal names of Great Whale River and Poste de la Baliene, the present names have always been used by each ethnic group for the larger community. When the administrative local government structures and jurisdictions were implemented pursuant to the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement in the seventies, Whapmagoostui and Kuujjuarapik became the official names of our respective communities.
The community is a member of the nine, soon to be ten, Cree Nation communities and a member of the Cree Regional Authority/Grand Council of the Crees. The Cree Nation of Eeypi Istchee held general elections for the Grand Chief and Deputy Grand Chief in the fall of 2005. As a result of these elections, the Cree Nation has honoured our community by electing one of its members as the new Grand Chief. Whapmagoostui is the home of Matthew Mukash, the new Grand Chief. Losty Mamianskum, also a member of this community came very close to winning the run-off elections for the position of Deputy Grand Chief. I am very proud of these members of my community for the recognition they have received from the other Cree Nation communities for their leadership potential, experience and skills.
Our community is the only one which is not accessible by road. Our isolation is one of the factors why the Eeyou traditions, culture and language is still very strong in our community. Our people still go on land for several months of the year to pursue traditional activities, accompanied by their children and grandchildren.
About forty percent of the Eeyouch of Whapmagoostui pursues the traditional way of life based on hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering, on a full time basis. They are beneficiaries of the Cree Hunters and Trappers Income Security Program which was established pursuant to the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement to provide an income guarantee and benefits, and other incentives for Cree who wish to pursue the traditional harvesting activities as a way of life.
Although our community is deeply rooted in the traditional ways, we do embrace the new technology in the way we practice our traditional and cultural activities.
As an example, instead of living nomadic lives, a trapper’s family has a cabin or two from which the harvesting is done using skidoos, all-terrain-vehicles, canoe and outboard motors. All bush camps are equipment with a high frequency radio and some have a satellite phone, satellite television, generators, ice drills, television, VCR/DVD equipment. Access to a family’s traditional hunting territory, depending on the distance from the community, can be made by skidoo or by plane. The most common aircraft equipment used is the Twin Otter, which is capable of landing and take off on a 1200-foot landing strip.
Additionally, a cultural camp has been established at the edge of the community where our people celebrate their culture in various ways and where the visitor may experience that culture in a living and vital way.
To better address the needs and interests of the community members, various interest groups have been established by previous local government administrations. These groups make recommendations to the chief and council regarding the delivery of services and programs, and in fact some entities administer the programs themselves. These entities include a local youth council, a local council of elders, a women’s association, a local trappers committee, a housing committee, a health and social services committee, a school committee, etc.
The community’s uniqueness and geographical location makes it very interesting and appealing for visitors. Visitors can experience the beauty and majesty of Hudson Bay, wooded hills, and the transition to the tundra, depending on the time of the year, a variety of wildlife can be readily seen within a short distance from the community.
Traditional Wooden Trap.
The way we make a wooden trap is, we cover it like the way a beaver trap is made. We use a strong tamarack branch and securely tie the bait on it, that’s the way my father made it. He uses the same kind of branch and carves it, he uses that as a lifter and places it higher than covers it. He lifts his obitsiman on one end and places it on the right side, than he raise it to higher level so it wouldn’t be covered with snow too fast. He lifts and places the two branches together, the one with the bait on it and the other one that’s used as a lifter. Than he puts some weight on it like a fresh log, but not to heavy. After that he leaves it like that. When the martin tries to get the branch with bait on it, the log turns and drops on him. Sometimes it drops right on his under arms or his neck, it tastes very good the way it’s killed.
For trapping the fox, it’s set up in different ways too. Sometimes the snow is gathered to make a
small lump and a pole ( sikaskuuhigan ᓯᑲᐧᔅᑰᐦᐄᑭᓐ) is placed under the snow, the snow is lightly pressed before placing the trap on top. It’s covered by a snow on the top, but not to touch the trap. After it’s completely covered (akunakw-hawginood ᐊᐦᑯᓇᐦᐊᑰᐦᐋᑯᓂᐆᑦ ) and it’s fixed in a way so the fox can easily fall through, when he steps on the trap. The bait is sprinkled around and top where the trap is, anything is used for the bait. It could be a frozen fish and it’s chopped into pieces.
I have seen a beaver anus (imshkw ᐊᒥᔅᒃ) being used and the fox can easily scent it as he runs by it. Two poles are bent over and that’s where the beaver anus is smeared. While the fox eats the sprinkled bait, he steps on the trap because he has no suspicion of the trap being there.
Sometimes in areas where there’s a lumpy ground on a rocky hill, that’s where it’s good to set up a fox trap. Two small poles are placed in a standing position, the trap is placed on top. Then it’s covered by a moss, or a snow during the winter. The bait is placed under the poles, it’s hidden under a rock and just little part of it is made visible. So that the fox cannot remove the rock and the trap is placed where it’s estimated he would be standing, if he tries to pull the bait. That’s what happens when the fox tries to pull the bait, he steps on the trap.
I also saw another way of setting up the fox trap, many poles are placed bend together and the bait is placed inside. Sometimes snow is also used and shaped in the same way, the bait is placed at the back inside the covered area.
Even the lynx likes the beaver anus, it’s smeared on the tree. The lynx trap is set up in different ways too, the bait is placed where the tree has been smeared. The trap is placed under it and the snow is pressed down in a shallow form, then it’s covered after. Even if it has been snowing a lot, the lynx still falls through where the snow has been covered. The lynx doesn’t suspect about the trap and stands where he’s busy with the bait and the smeared beaver anus. It’s said that he ( lynx) rubs himself on the smeared tree.
Sometimes no bait is placed on the trap, the smeared pole is just placed near the trap. Still it’s covered the same way, he likes to bother the pole that has been smeared by a beaver anus. He really likes the scent of it. I also have heard that when someone comes across the tracks of the lynx, the smeared pole is placed there. When he finds the smeared pole, he keeps going back to it. When he makes a mess on that pole, then the trap is set up. That way he‘s not being cautious for a trap, the next time he comes back to the pole.