The Crees are the largest group in the Algonkian family in Canada. They are found in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, but the majority of them live in Ontario (over 13,000) and in Quebec (over 12,000).
Their presence in Quebec dates back to the beginning of human occupation of the Quebec territory, when they took their subsistence from the rich and various natural resources of the Hudson and James Bay shores. At that time, they were one of the small nomadic groups living primarily from game (moose, caribou, goose) and fish. The area's unfertile soils and rigorous climate were not well suited to agriculture; however, birch trees and game abounded. Because of the intense cold, the furs were of exceptional quality and quickly attracted European merchants, despite the distance.
The first contacts with the Europeans occured in 1610, during the explorations of Henry Hudson. The fur trade boomed with the creation of the Hudson's Bay Company, which obtained a monopoly on 13 million km2 of land in 1670. The French traders provided fierce competition for the English traders as they established themselves upstream of the major waterways and bought the furs before they reached the Company posts, which were near the coast. The rivalry does not appear to have affected the Crees, who dealt with both the English and French traders.
The second wave of contact was with the missionaries who settled there during the second half of the 19th century. During the 1950's, the federal government starts the colonization of northern of Quebec and imposes the Indian Act to the Cree communities. Until that time, the Cree way of life remained almost unchanged, but with the introduction of mandatory schooling, the construction of permanent housing and the decline in the price of furs, the Crees way of life was dractically impacted.
The most important changes for the Cree communities (and the Inuit communities) occured in the 1970s. In 1975, as a result of the government of Quebec's large scale hydroelectric projects, the Crees signed the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA) with the provincial and federal governments. In exchange for important land concessions, they obtained monetary compensation and the rights and powers conferred by the JBNQA. This agreement was the first of its kind ever signed in North America between Native and non-Native governments.
The Agreement establishes the system of Category 1 (Villages) and Category 2 (exclusive hunting grounds) lands. It grants significant powers and defines the institutions authorized to exercise them, such as the Cree Regional Authority, the Cree Board of Health and Social Services, the Cree Hunters and Trappers Income Security Office and the Cree School Board.
The Grand Council of the Crees, established before the JBNQA, is still the political organization wich represents the Crees in dealings with the various governments. The Cree Regional Authority manages the services and programs offered to the communities, such as housing and environment.
The Cree communities have realized drastic changes, particularly in the social transportation, construction and tourism sectors, but it has not meant the loss of traditions. Over 30% of the actual members of the Cree communities in Quebec still live from traditional activities related to fishing, hunting and trapping, the Cree People, as a whole, benefit from harvesting wildlife resources.