Attawapiskat First Nation

The people of Attawapiskat, photo credit: Liam Sharp

Attawapiskat First Nation is a small Mushkegowuk (Cree, People of Muskeg) community located on the west shore of James Bay, the mouth of the Attawapiskat River in Northern Ontario. Currently, about 2,000 people are living on the reserve, many of them are children and elders. Attawapiskat is part of the regional Mushkegowuk Council, and Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN).

Attiwapiskat (People of the parting of the rocks) is considered one of the bands under Treaty 9, signed between the Mushkegowuk (Northern Cree) and Anishinaabe (Northern Ojibwa) bands and the Dominion of Canada and the Province of Ontario in 1905/06 and 1929/30, covering a vast territory of approximately 130,000 square miles of land. Treaty 9 is also known as the James Bay Treaty.

The First Nations were promised by the Commissioners representing Canada and Ontario at the time of signing that they would continue to have access to their traditional lands and harvesting rights, to continue to live as their forefathers had done. The harvesting clause assured continuing rights. Reserves are viewed as centres where certain federal/provincial services may be accessed on a convenient basis. Promises to protect the well being of the First Nations were made verbally and also in the written document. Medical: the Commissioners were accompanied by a Doctor who administered to the First Nations throughout the treaty making process, both in 1905 and in 1929. The federal and provincial governments agreed to meet the educational needs of the First Nations on a flexible basis.

– Nishnawbe-Aski Nation 1996 (Hookimaw-Witt 1997:63)

image credit: Canadian Geographic

Anishiinaabe Elders from Bear Skin Lake and Muskrat Dam also remembered and viewed the treaty as a relationship of sharing with the governments, and not land surrender or government regulation: “I can clearly remember when the treaty was signed. We were promised assistance and protection from the government for as long as the sun shines and rivers flow. We were promised that our traditional activities would not be regulated from us” (Elder Jimmy McKay, interviewed 1974 at Bear Skin Lake) (Hookimaw-Witt 1997: 62-63).

– Stan Louttit, On the Path of the Elders

According to the governments’ interpretation of Treaty 9, with the treaty, the Mushkegowuk (Northern Cree) and Anishinaabe (Northern Ojibwa) agreed to give up their title to their land in exchange for a gratuity of $8 at the time of signing and an annuity of $4 per person in perpetuity from the federal government, a reserve and free medical care (the treaty commissioners travelled to different bands for signing Treaty 9. It seemed they said slightly different things to different bands.) This treaty is the only legal basis on which the provincial and federal governments could possibly justify its claim that the land in Northern Ontario is “Crown land” – and then collect hundreds of billions of dollars in royalties from mining, logging, and other companies they allow to operate there.

Diaries kept by Daniel D. MacMartin, treaty commissioner for the Government of Ontario when the agreement was signed in 1905, were discovered by historians at Queen’s University archives. Legal Council Murray Klippenstien, claimed that in MacMartin’s diaries oral promises had been made that contradicted the written Treaties and supports Elders’ claims. He quoted from Commissioner MacMarten’s diary, “it was explained to them that they could hunt and fish as of old” and “they were not restricted as of territory” and “they could hunt wherever they pleased.” Klippenstien argued that oral promises that are part of the Treaty should override legislation like the Far North Act.


For more information on Treay 9, check out this book: Treaty No. 9, Making the Agreement to Share the Land in Far Northern Ontario in 1905 by John S. Long – The complete story behind the signing of one of North America’s largest land treaties.

90 km west of Attiwapiskat, part of their traditional territory, is a huge diamond mine, the De Beer’s Victor mine. The company signed an Impact Benefit Agreement (IBA) with Attiwapiskat that gives the First Nation a small share of the mine’s profits. The process of signing the IBA was not transparent or democratic. However, from 2008 to January 2011, Attawapiskat received $10.5 million in benefit payments. Comparing to the benefits DeBeers (488.88 million in gross revenue), Ontario and the federal government are getting from the diamond mine, the benefit payment to the community is insignificant. The IBA money is currently locked  in a trust fund that can not be used for the community’s housing crisis and other needed services.

Since the signing of the IBA, there have been 2 blockades initiated by some members of the community in protesting the environmental damages from the mine, as well as racist and unfair treatments to their people at the mine. The impact of Victor mine has significantly threatened the Mushkegowuk way of life, the land, water, animals and fish. In March 2005, DeBeers was found discharging a load of sewage into the community’s pumping station that had pushed the community toward its current dire situations (APTN).

Victor Mine, photo credit: De Beers Canada

For a great insight on Mushkegowuk’s view of land and water: Cree Cultural Perspective on the Natural World By MIKE  KOOSTACHIN | Friday, August 12, 2005

Attawapiskat First Nation Member Mike Koostachin submitted the following statement to the Federal Regulators on January 21, 2004. It concerns the impact of a possible diamond mine in the James Bay lowlands.

More about Attawapiskat:

Still waiting in Attawapiskat
A Cree community on James Bay has been fighting for a new elementary school for more than a decade. Will Indian and Northern Affairs Canada fail the next generation?
Story by Linda Goyette with photography by Liam Sharp

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