James and Maud Watt: Protectors of the Beaver
Maud Watt, ca. 1938
Prior to the arrival of the HBC in 1670, the Cree of northern Quebec had been completely self-reliant. Once they began to trade furs in return for European goods, the natives became part of a new economy and interdependent with it. Trade became necessary to provide axes, guns, ammunition, blankets, flour, etc. - all of which they came to rely on. The Cree no longer lived entirely from the land. Eventually this led to overhunting. By 1929, Canada's beaver population had been reduced to such an extent that the animal was nearing extinction in some areas. Without beaver to trade, the Cree economy collapsed. Without beaver to hunt, people starved.
This fact greatly concerned HBC factor James S. C. (Jimmy) Watt, who was based at Rupert House (now Waskaganish) Quebec, the site of HBC's very first fort. If the beaver were to die out the Cree people would lose their traditional livelihood - and the Company would lose both furs and customers.
In 1930 one of the local trappers came to the post at Rupert House and told Jimmy Watt that he had found two occupied beaver lodges. Watt took the first steps in what would become a huge beaver conservation project. He bought the lodges and their contents from his visitor, on whose ancestral lands they had been found. The idea was to leave them alone to reproduce and repopulate the area naturally. This was a novel idea at the time - although it had been tried successfully almost a hundred years earlier. From 1838 - 1851 Company's depot at Charlton Island had been used as a beaver preserve to rebuild the population. It had been successful then and Watt saw no reason why it shouldn't succeed again. He convinced the Cree that it was worth a try.
James Watt explaining how beaver would multiply and population recover, ca. 1930s
The Watts decided to petition the Quebec government to set aside land for a beaver preserve. The case would have to be made in person. In the winter of 1930 it was decided that Maud, as the French speaker of the two, should be the one to go to Quebec City. She set out across the frozen Bay by dog sled with her two children, aged three and six, for Moose Factory. The temperature was 50 degrees F below zero. From there they continued south to the Temiskaming & Northern Ontario railway construction camp near Cochrane, then continued by train to Quebec City. (Maud was used to hard travel. In 1918 she and Jimmy had traveled cross-country from Fort Chimo (now Kuujuak) on Ungava Bay to Sept-Iles Quebec by foot and canoe - a journey of some 800 miles!)
Maud convinced Deputy Minister L. A. Richard that a preserve was necessary for the protection of the beaver and the Cree and that together the Watts and the Cree could bring back the beaver. He in turn convinced the premier of Quebec to turn over control of all the beaver in the Rupert House area for the protection of a group of natives the province barely acknowledged, using an unproven concept of management. An administrator described Maud as having "the persuasiveness of the Angel Gabriel!" Maud returned to Rupert House with a lease of over 7,200 square miles between the Rupert and Eastmain rivers. For this she became known as "The Angel of Hudson's Bay."
The Watts managed the preserve for two years before asking the Company to take over from them. Meanwhile the First Nations refrained from trapping in the preserve lands. In the midst of the Depression and with most on some sort of relief this was not easy promise to keep. But by 1935, seeing the population increasing, they agreed to keep the agreement for another five years. By 1940 a controlled hunt was reintroduced and 450 animals were taken. By 1944 the area sustained a population of over 13,000 beaver.
Map showing locations of beaver reserves, ca. 1930s
The success of the Rupert House preserve spawned similar initiatives in the North West Territories and Ontario. By 1944 HBC-managed sanctuaries covered over 43,000 square miles. By 1951 an area consisting of 187,100 square miles had been designated for eleven linked beaver reserves in Quebec alone.
Jimmy Watt became known to the natives as Amisk ogemow - the "Beaver Chief". When he died in 1944 of influenza Bishop Renison wrote in the Toronto Globe and Mail:
It is fitting that, at the very place where civilization first reached this lonely land, a man should have toiled and dreamed to restore what the locust of materialism had eaten. It was a noble life's work for any man.
As for Maud, she carried on the conservation work after Jimmy's death. Her biography, Angel of Hudson's Bay: The True Story of Maud Watt, was published in 1961.