Brief History of Northern Ontario

This brief history was originally posted on the Ontario Ministry of Northern Development, Mines and Forestry

The largest single population increase in the history of Northern Ontario
occurred in the 1950s during a period of unprecedented economic prosperity.
The boom, mostly in the mining sector, pushed the population from 536,000
in 1951 to 722,000 in 1961

Northern Ontario a Vast and Magnificent Land

Northern Ontario is a unique land sculpted by geology, tempered by climate. Imagine more than a million square kilometre expanse of Precambrian forests and lakes punctuated occasionally by towns and cities — a contrast to the flat, populous, lowland area that is southern Ontario.

Northerners believe that living on this ruggedly beautiful land and battling climatic extremes has imbued them with a distinctiveness.

The mists of time in Northern Ontario lift 9,000 years ago with the arrival of the ancestors of First Nations people. From them descended the woodland, hunter-gatherer societies of the Algonkian culture.

The first European forays into the area came in the early 17th century by explorers from competing colonial empires, England’s Henry Hudson and France’s Samuel de Champlain. Initially, they were looking for a shorter trade route to Asia. They found something else, a land blessed with fur, which was in great demand in Europe.

Fur – The First Resource

Fur fuelled national rivalries and were the portent of Northern Ontario’s resource-based economy. Aboriginals trapped, prepared and traded furs to Europeans for tools, weapons and other goods.

The competition for furs crystallized in 1670 when King Charles of England granted a trading charter – a monopoly – to the Hudson’s Bay Company for the entire Hudson’s Bay drainage basin. The French responded by sending expeditions to proclaim the area as their own.

Traders crisscrossed the expanses pushing further west. Trading posts were the only European settlements.

Geopolitically, North America was radically altered by the British defeat of France in 1763 (The Seven Years War). All the lands claimed by France, including Northern Ontario, fell into British hands.

Fur trade rivalries once couched in nationalism were now defined in business syndicates. The Northwest Company challenged the Hudson’s Bay Company for supremacy in the fur trade until 1821 when they merged.

The primacy of fur wilted with diminishing European demand. Silk supplanted beaver as a favoured fashion material. Other natural resources in the north, however, would come to the fore.

Natural Resources and Politics

During the 1820s and 1830s the Province of Upper Canada was responsible for Northern Ontario. Throughout the area, isolated missionary activities of Roman Catholic, Anglican and Methodist Churches were being undertaken in Lake Timiskaming-Moose River, Manitoulin Island, Michipicoten, Thunder Bay and Rainy River.

In the 1840s, natural resources renewed interest in Northern Ontario. First, it was the timber in huge virgin stands of white pine forest around Nipissing and Timiskaming. Later, it was the mineral discoveries at Bruce Mines and Michipicoten.

That compelled the government of the Province of Canada to negotiate the 1850 Robinson-Superior Treaty with Ojibwa Chiefs at Sault Ste. Marie. The Robinson-Huron Treaty was negotiated for the lands east from Batchawana Bay to Penetanguishene.

If treaties made land available to British settlers, then transportation opened the gates to settlement. The construction of a canal at Sault Ste. Marie by the Americans in 1855 and the building of the Northern Railway from Toronto to Collingwood opened the Great Lakes and places like Manitoulin Island to settlement.

In the 1870’s and 1880’s, Northern Ontario was the centre of a jurisdictional dispute between the federal and provincial governments. The issue — who would oversee the development of the incalculable natural wealth in the area.

The controversy was settled by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Great Britain which ruled in favour of the province.

By 1912, the boundaries of what today is the Province of Ontario were set. Today, 80 per cent of the province’s land mass lies in what we know as Northern Ontario.

Unlocking the Resources

In terms of population, Northern Ontario was and remains sparsely populated in relation to the south. According to 1871 figures, only 15,000 souls lived in Northern Ontario, most of them in communities clinging to the shores of Lake Huron — Sault Ste. Marie, Batchawana, Bruce Mines, Manitoulin Island, Spanish River, Killarney and Lake Timiskaming.

The ethnic breakdown looked like this: more than half were First Nations people, more than 30 per cent British and 15 per cent French-Canadian.

The decision to build the Canadian Pacific Railway on an all-Canadian route led to the birth and growth of more lumbering and mining industries and communities like North Bay, Sudbury and Dryden. In Sudbury, discoveries of nickel and copper established a mineral industry of hitherto unknown proportions.

At the turn of the century, the Ontario Government’s Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway (TNO — later Ontario Northland), forged north of North Bay. Agriculture and lumbering flourished in the New Liskeard and the Clay Belt area. More importantly, the TNO led to the discovery of silver at Cobalt and gold in Timmins.

Resources Bring A Diverse Population

As roads, rail and bush planes opened Northern Ontario, the development of natural resources lured people. The promise of work, freedom, and a new life brought French-Canadians from Quebec as well as Ukrainians, Finns, Italians and a host of other Europeans conferring an ethnic diversity that still defines northern communities.

Periodic waves of British and European immigration rolled into Northern Ontario over the next century. More than anything, however, population growth was dictated by resource development. It remains so today.

The largest single population increase in the history of Northern Ontario occurred in the 1950s during a period of unprecedented economic prosperity. The boom, mostly in the mining sector, pushed the population from 536,000 in 1951 to 722,000 in 1961.

Currently, more than 800,000 people call Northern Ontario home, about eight per cent of the provincial total.

More than half of that number live in Thunder Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, Sudbury, North Bay and Timmins.

Old and New, North and South

In the course of history, a north-south division manifested itself and grew.

At the turn of the century, regionalism had found a place in the lexicon of the day. The south was commonly called Old Ontario, the north, New Ontario.

New Ontario or Northern Ontario was the hinterland, ethnically-diverse, resource dependent, and disaffected with the political and economical power wielded in Toronto.

Old Ontario or Southern Ontario (Toronto) was cosmopolitan, the seat of political and economic power, with an urban view of the hinterland, unacquainted with social and political values of the frontier.

It may be difficult to relate to isolation in today’s world of automotive and information superhighways. In 1900, there were no highways to speak of in Northern Ontario. Travel anywhere was either by rail or boat. A trip to Toronto was measured not in hours but in days.

With vastly different needs, political decisions made in the remote provincial capital often ran contrary to northern views of what was good for them.

Passions were inflamed to the point of sparking periodic outbursts of secessionism in Northern Ontario, the people’s desire to have their own province.

In fact, that notion was first proposed in 1875 by Simon James Dawson, who represented the riding of Algoma, then the only northern seat in the Ontario legislature.

He argued that the government in Toronto was too distant to oversee the North and that it should be given territorial government until such time as development and population warranted provincial status.

In 1891, secessionism was popular in Sudbury where it was offered in protest to proposed legislation taxing mine properties. The creation of two new provinces in 1905, Alberta and Saskatchewan, really fanned the flames for a Northern Ontario province.

World wars and economic depressions did much to squelch secessionism.

Less virulent strains of secessionist fever flared after World War II and during the 1970s.

All this to say, that forces — geographic, climatic, economic, demographic, political, historic — have conspired to create a unique region. Driven by that sense of distinctiveness, Northern Ontarians have sought to express it the political context.

Provincial Government and Northern Ontario

Essentially, the role of the provincial government from the time it gained control of Northern Ontario from the federal government was resource development through the construction of railroads and highways, the promotion of settlement, and the adoption of resource development policies.

The importance of Northern Ontario was formally recognized by the provincial government of Premier James Whitney. Previous administrations certainly appreciated the importance of the region as they derived about 25 percent of their revenues from the area. During this time, the first cabinet minister from Northern Ontario was appointed, Sudbury’s Frank Cochrane. He served as the provincial minister of lands, forests and mines from 1905 to 1911.

The Northern Development Branch (NDB) in the Department of Lands, Forests and Mines was created to administer the Northern and Northwestern Ontario Development Acts of 1912 and 1915.

Separate funds were created for the construction of roads, bridges, the advancement of settlement and colonization and the assistance of settlers in Northern Ontario.

By 1926, NDB became the Department of Northern Development (DND), a separate portfolio from Lands and Forests although answering to the same minister.
A decade later, during the Great Depression, DND was merged into Department of Highways with a mandate to build and maintain roads and bridges in Northern Ontario. There it resided until the 1970s.

The Genesis of MNDM

In 1970, in response to Northerners’ concerns about the lack of access to provincial government information, the Department of Mines and Northern Affairs was created. Twenty-four Northern Affairs Offices were established throughout Northern Ontario to bring the Ontario government to northerners.

Two years later, in a major government restructuring, departments become ministries. Mines and Northern Affairs amalgamated with Lands and Forests to become the Ministry of Natural Resources.

By 1977, again in response to northern needs, the Ministry of Northern Affairs was created as a separate ministry.

The next major step in the evolution of this portfolio came in 1985, when, under the Executive Council Act, the responsibility for mines and minerals was transferred from the Ministry of Natural Resources to the Ministry of Northern Affairs to form the new Ministry of Northern Affairs and Mines.

Later that year, the government changed “Affairs” to “Development” to emphasize a commitment to greater social and economic development in the North and to promote its new role in encouraging and regulating the orderly development and use of the province’s mineral resources.

For the “Top Ten Mining Events in Northern Ontario History”, click here: