Many of you may be familiar with the Canadian retail group known as The Hudson’s Bay Company. Its subsidiaries include the retail department stores Hudson’s Bay, Lord & Taylor and Saks Fifth Avenue. For much of its existence, however HBC was known as a fur trading operation from the 17th to 19th Centuries. How did it get there? English merchants were granted a fur trading monopoly on a vast track of land surrounding Hudson Bay. This land was named “Rupert’s Land” after Prince Rupert who was the cousin of King Charles II of England (in a later post I will explore in more detail not only this theft, but also the continuing travails of the indigenous people who inhabited Canada long before the Europeans laid claim).
While HBC organized fur auctions, ordered trade goods and arranged for shipping of goods, the First Nations Cree in the area were the expert trappers, so they became middleman, trapping and also collecting furs from other communities and bringing them to the forts built on Hudson Bay to trade them for rifles, ammunition, pots, cloth, axes, knives and even glass beads. These First Nations people where originally called Swampy Cree as they inhabited the swampy regions of Manitoba. Eventually they also became known as the York Factory First Nation.
The Cree established seasonal communities around the factory and developed a more permanent village settlement at York Factory itself. Initially the Cree worked as trappers, traders, wage laborers and consumers, but HBC eventually restricted the Cree to only working at the most menial of manual labor.
The York Factory became a victim of the advent of the railways, its goods shipping declined, and the site was finally closed in 1957. The closing forced the Cree to leave their homes and relocate to a much less desirable area known as York Landing,
Cree Elders who were present during the relocation still remember today how they were forced to leave their homes and go to less desirable land. The old York Factory site is now operated by Parks Canada.
Much of my research on the York Factory was gleaned from the book “Voices from Hudson Bay: Cree Stories from York Factory” which was compiled and edited by Flora Beardy and Robert Coutts. Flora Beardy is a respected elder of the York Factory First Nation people and Robert Coutts worked as a historian with Parks Canada for over 30 years. I discovered this amazing collection of interviews of the York Factory Fist Nation people through a lecture given by Antonina Kandiurin, a bright young woman whose family member were among the Cree workers at York Factory.
Now that I have set the stage with the history of the York Factory, my next post will offer a sampling of the fascinating remembrances of the Cree who worked and lived at the York Factory compound.