Established in 1903 on traditional Cree lands, Moosonee was originally built to rival Moose Factory, the famous Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) fur-trading post located on a nearby island. Built in 1730, Moose Factory is one of the oldest settlements in Ontario and the second HBC trading post in North America.
Visitors to Moose Factory board the Polar Bear Express in Cochrane, Ontario and travel 300 kilometres through remote northern wilderness before arriving in the Town of Moosonee known as the “Gateway to the Arctic”. Train service began in 1932 and continues to be the town’s only land link to the province’s south. Situated on the Moose River, just south of James Bay, Moosonee is the Ontario Northland Railway’s terminus and Ontario’s only saltwater port. From there, boat taxis and a winter ice road connect Moose Factory to the municipality and mainland.
Its heritage buildings and landmarks, including the Moose Factory Buildings from the HBC trading post that date back to the 1800s, have been designated as part of a National Historic Site on the island. Today, Moose Factory is home to Moose Cree First Nation, a thriving community.
Long before HBC, Cree people lived in the heart of the James Bay watershed for millennia. The Cree Cultural Interpretive Centre in Moose Factory tells stories of their past and present culture, and displays their traditional craft. In 2000, Moose Cree First Nation, led by the late Chief Randy Kapahesit, developed an ecolodge to promote Indigenous tourism and provide economic sustainability. Surrounding the lodge is a large community garden. The Cree Village Eco Lodge reflects the Chief’s bold vision and represents the environmental and cultural values of the First Nation. As North America’s first Indigenous ecolodge, it is recognized as one of the top eco-destinations on the continent.
A bird sanctuary
Eco-tourists make the long trip north to explore the sub-arctic landscape in one of the largest wetlands in the world. Boat excursions take them to the Moose River Migratory Bird Sanctuary, where they can observe tidal marine wildlife in the salt waters of James Bay, and perhaps view the spectacular Aurora Borealis across the sky. Their guide might tell them about Chief Randy Kapahesit and his words at the opening of the ecolodge: “We believe it is possible to engage ourselves and our visitors in a modern dialogue that challenges us all to see our relationship with each other and the natural world in a different light.”
Moose Factory is an island steeped in history that is moving quickly into a community-focused future. When I visited in the summer of 2018, I was fascinated to see the Hudson’s Bay staff house, one of the oldest wooden structures in Ontario, and the newly built assisted living centre existing along the same shoreline.
It was evident in the stories I heard from the warm and generous Moose Cree First Nations people that their deep connection to the land and its history was very present in their everyday lives. While touring the National Historic Sites and Moose Factory Centennial Museum Park, I was stopped by many passersby, who shared with me their memories of the buildings, including St. Thomas’ Anglican Church. Completed in 1885, it once held services in both Cree and English and served as a pillar in the histories of many families of the First Nation. Indeed, the experiences of the Elders are very much valued and the new assisted living centre, which was self-funded, provides state-of-the-art accessible living and healthcare. It is as important to the cultural legacy of the community as the historic buildings. Keeping their Elders close to family and as part of their communities is an essential part of social cohesion and a lesson Ontarians might well learn from.
The Cree language is also flourishing. The John R. Delaney Youth Centre is a colourful and interactive place of learning with the Cree alphabet painted onto the walls and everyday objects labelled in Cree. Young people were full of pride in their culture, and I spent a fun afternoon in the centre doing a live radio interview speaking about my experience on the island. When youth are provided with space to grow and learn, we see the development of unlimited potential in the next generation. Access to education and cultural learning is a cornerstone of inclusive economic prosperity, a pillar of sustainability that the community understands deeply.
Situated on the banks of the Moose River, where belugas pass by, and the long days and nights are reflected off the water, the Eco Lodge demonstrates much of what makes this part of the province so special. Being able to stay in this place, while mitigating our footprint on the land, is central to Indigenous ways of life. And while going through the guestbook at the Eco Lodge, I was filled with pride by seeing how many names from around the world were there. Through putting environmental stewardship at the centre of their hospitality, all visitors to Moose Factory are welcomed into Indigenous culture in a holistic and meaningful way.
One of the most memorable moments was an early morning boat trip past the bird sanctuary out to the mouth of James Bay – stillness and water as far as the eye could see. I was led on this tour by a local woman named Ann Wesley, who shared with me her knowledge of the land and its wildlife, and her personal story of resilience.
The people of Moose Factory seem to understand sustainability intuitively. Visitors and those of us across Ontario who wish to see the three pillars in practice can learn a great deal from them.Sustainability