• Waskaganish HBC trading post chief factor's house

    The remains of the old HBC Chief Factor’s house at the Cree Nation of Waskaganish, located in the Eeyou Istchee territory in northern Quebec. (Photo: David McGuffin/Can Geo)

The Hudson’s Bay Company turns 350 years old on May 2 and Explore: A Canadian Geographic podcast is marking this moment by taking a four-part journey to look into the outsize impact this former fur trading empire turned retail giant had in shaping the Canadian nation.

If any one community can claim to be the birthplace of the Hudson’s Bay Company, it’s the James Bay Cree Nation of Waskaganish. In 1668, British merchants set up a trading post there, on the shores of the Rupert River, in what is now northern Quebec.

“Then in 1669, they went back to England with all the fur they had traded for,” says Charles Hester, Culture Director for the Cree Nation of Waskaganish, “and people were so impressed with the quality ... they made a good amount of money and decided to set up a company, And that’s how the Hudson’s Bay Company was born.”

Hester says the company, which went on to control around eight million square kilometres of northern North America from a series of fur trading posts, owes much of its success to working with the Cree nation. “There's no way they could have done it without the Cree,” he says. “When they came in it was our people that suggested they establish here on the river, because this was a trade route that goes to all the Cree communities, all the way to Labrador. So they just had to plug into that trade route; everything was already established.”

And Hester credits the long relationship with HBC for helping shape Waskaganish into the prosperous northern community it is today.

“When people ask me why the (Waskaganish) Cree are so entrepreneurial, setting themselves up for business and they are doing great, I say, ‘Hey, we’ve been doing business with the Europeans for 350 years now. This is nothing new for the Cree.’ ”

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