Northern Ontario Settlers Mining on Indian Land in the 1840s – Michael Barnes

Across the North American continent there are many stories from earlier times of conflict when the interests of First Nations people came up against commercial greed.

One such incident took place at Bruce Mines in 1847 and fortunately for all concerned the situation was defused and settled amicably.

The rush to obtain copper and other minerals at Bruce Mines was the first instance of commercial mining operations in the northern Ontario. Mining companies took advantage of the lack of government regulation of this comparatively new industry to set up exploration camps and search for mineral deposits.

There was just one problem. The first people on the ground, the Chippewa,  were not consulted. They had received no remuneration for what they believed was their land and were naturally hostile to the newcomers.

One mining survey party was driven off by the natives and this spurred George Desbarats, an agent for several mining companies, to complain in strong terms to the Governor General.

Desbarats knew that the Governor General and likely all of his advisers would have no knowledge of the North Shore area. His letter made no mention of a treaty or native rights.

The mining agent’s letter was crafted to invoke the response he sought. He wanted measures taken by the authorities, otherwise he suggested there might be bloodshed.

Fortunately this once sided suggestion was not received without news from the other side. Chippewa band members Kabosa and Chingwahose complained of the incursions of the mining company.

They said that during the war of 1812 they had occupied the British side of the lake because they wanted to be subjects of the  crown. They were loyal,having fought for the king. Their wants were straightforward. The people asked for an annuity which would support their religion, schools and other trappings of civilization.

Unfortunately the Indian claims were ignored. Local government officials like one surveyor who was more familiar with tribes to the west, lent credence to the view that the natives were not deserving of land. He stated that the Chippewa leader, Charlotte Rattawbide, had lived in various locations other than the land claimed.

Further reports from civil servants stated that the Indians were not the original inhabitants of the land and that they were too small a group to deal with.

Much of the information sent south was incorrect and anyway the government did not act on the problem of the rights of the First Nations people in the Bruce Mines area.

Relations worsened when land on either side of the Garden River was assigned to a settler. The surveyor, Alexander Vidal, laid out the property but was troubled by what he saw.

He reported that the Indians were located on either side of the river and had been there a long time. They considered themselves to have a claim to the ground and the surveyor felt they should have their case heard.

Another citizen also took up the right of the Chippewas. Q.H. Price went further than just repeating the claim of long time land possession. He said that the Six Nations Indians of the Grand River were well treated for their support of the British and the Indians along the North Shore should be similarly rewarded.

A local missionary even offered to act as a mediator for he felt the government Indian Agents would take the side of the mining companies rather than the natives they were supposed to serve.

The area was a long way from the seat of power and the situation was allowed to drift with no action being taken for several years. One authority has suggested that there was a real threat of open hostilities between the natives and the mining interests.

The Montreal Mining Company wanted troops sent to maintain the peace. The government hesitated and offered to send soldiers to Sault Ste.Marie instead.

Surprisingly the authorities reneged on the promise of stationing soldiers in the area. The Indian people kept their own counsel and patiently let time go by without any action.

Eventually they received the Garden River Reserve and live  productive and prosperous lives on their ancestral lands to this day. As for the mining companies, well the copper petered out after a while and when they left the area, there was no more agitation against the Chippewas.

Michael Barnes is a published Canadian author who has written extensively on Northern Ontario.