A River in the Canadian Shield

The area in which Subarctic people live in is 5 million square kilometres. Three quarters of this land is situated on the Canadian shield.  In this environment, many boreal coniferous forest can be found, with additional lakes and innumerable rivers. Mountains, plateaus, and Yukon lowlands are widespread in the Subarctic area of Canada. The temperatures are extreme, in that winter temperatures can go as low as -40C while in the summer it can go as high as 30C. Winters can be quite harsh, but fortunately, protection is offered by the forest cover and snow.

Dene, Carrier, and Cree, Inland Thlingit peoples live in the Subarctic. Algonquin people people dwell in the east, whereas Athapaskan people live on the west side. These 2 different language groups share similar ways of life. However, there is more differentiation in language and culture among Athapaskan speakers.

The Subarctic is the most sparsely populated region of Canada and there are estimates as low as 60,000 people

A Cree Woman

across the entire region. The Subarctic people lived in local bands of generally 25-30 people. These bands were nomadic, in that they moved frequently but within designated areas following seasons. These people survived hunting, fishing, trapping, and gathered wild plants for food. Both the men and women did hunting, such that the men hunted big game, and the women hunted smaller animals, fished, and processed hides and meat. Bands generally shared the land, but when it comes to certain areas (e.g. fishing sites), it was held exclusive from band to band.

There were no formal chief system established within the Subarctic people before European contact. People aligned themselves with people whom they believed to possess leadership qualities. These people lead egalitarian societies, where both the men and women were involved in making decisions. There was a high value placed on personal autonomy, in that if you disagreed with your band leader, you had the freedom to join another one; in essence, a flexible social organization.

The kinship ties differed over the Subarctic region. Athapaskan speakers along the Pacific drainage followed a matrilineal society, whereas the Athapaskan speakers along the Mackenzie drainage followed a bilateral society. The Algonquin speakers contained both bilateral and patrilineal societies. West of the Mackenzie, there were some clan divisions.These divisions regulate marriage, ensure hospitality and protection, and prescribe ceremonial obligations.

The Subarctic people carried very few possessions with them because of their need to follow food supply. The traveled light, and was able to construct new tools as required and discard them when moving on. For animal hunting, these people would generally use bows, arrows, traps, and snares. Dip and gill nets were popular tools used to fish. Other technologies used amongst the Subarctic people were snowshoes, toboggans, and canoes. Their homes were skin and bank based, conical or domes tents that could be easily broken down for travel.

The elders of the Subarctic people told the children about myths & legends focusing on animals that could transform into a human. These myths may include a  “culture her” in that he/she becomes the first human to acquire power. The knowledge passed down from generation to generation is synonymous with power. These people had an interdependence of culture and nature. Some of the Algonquin culture heroes and trickster figures were Nanabush and Wisahkecahk.

Religious leaders in Subarctic societies were people who used knowledge/power to benefit and help others. Shaman (healers) was believed to be able to intimately connect with the spirit world.