The Great Clay Belt Hoax – Michael Barnes

During the nineteen twenties and thirties the province of Ontario and its northern railway perpetuated a cruel hoax on unsuspecting settlers they had persuaded to come north for a new life.

The public relations ploy which set in motion this series of events was totally irresponsible but it was never widely exposed. Those who suffered because of it are mostly widely dispersed or dead now. The sense of injustice remains.

When Ontario bowed to pressure and built the railway north from North Bay in 1902, it was solely to transport settlers and open up the country. This was only changed when silver was found at Cobalt.

The Temiskaming & Northern Ontario Railway, the present Ontario Northland, put out many pamphlets extolling the virtues of the land in the
Northeast. These broadsides went to Britain,Europe and the United States.

Some bright spark in government seized on the Great Clay Belt as a settlement opportunity. This area stretches from Hearst to the Quebec
border. The campaign that followed to attract settlers was highly successful.

The push for settlement was from roughly 1903 to 1931. Generally the publicists had it all their own way but there were the odd drawbacks.

Ontario Premier Sir William Hearst described the target area in 1919 as “the most barren and God-forsaken country in the whole northland”. Yet his words were not heeded in the barrage of pamphlets which issued from both railway and Queen’s Park on the land situated mainly in the Cochrane District.

The snow was said to be beneficial to the good life and have a watering effect on the land in the spring. Crops grown in the area were described as superior. Photographs were produced showing all manner of vegetable produce of over-large size garnered from clay belt soils.

So many people came and settled in the area around Cochrane and Kapuskasing, as well as from Matheson through to Timmins. Provincial
assistance gave each family material to built a one-room shack, and funds to have one cow, a few implements,and a little start-up money.

Trouble was that the pamphlets,travelling exhibits and visiting lecturers all glossed over certain drawbacks to farming life. The winters were
exceptionally long and much of the land available was quite isolated. The heavy, wet clay was hard to drain and required machinery and extensive capital, none of which was within the range of hard-up homesteaders.

So many young men and women wasted the best years of their lives trying to make a go of it in the harsh new land which they had first to clear. They had to cut down all the trees and burn them in great piles of slash before they could even start to cultivate.

The results were often tragic. The great killer Cochrane, Matheson, and Temiskaming fires of 1911, 1916 and 1922 were all caused by poor settlers clearing land.

Some people took off timber and sold it before leaving for better climes. Others did farm but it was back breaking work. Many women grew
old before their time both in bringing up families in primitive conditions and also working on the farm was well. Another problem was that many novice farmers had little cultivation skills. The season was too short for experimentation.

But not all the settlers failed. Some made it and their places today are a testament to hard work and determination. Once they found that grains, cattle and dairy herds did thrive, those who stayed consolidated and did well.

Today around the approaches to Timmins or around Cochrane, check out  some of the side roads. For every farm thriving, there are many more just going back to the bush. In some places,abandoned, tumble down buildings bear mute testament to forgotten dreams.

There was no criminal intent in the great clay belt hoax. The people who promoted settlement thought they were fulfilling their mandate. But no one really examined their claims until it was too late.

It is rather sad to go by some of these abandoned farms and reflect on the back breaking work that went into clearing them and trees springing up in the fields that were once cleared with so much hard work.

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