Established in 1980, Northern Ontario Business provides Canadians and international investors with relevant, current and insightful editorial content and business news information about Ontario’s vibrant and resource-rich North. This article is from the November, 2010 issue.
Chronicled the North’s Facinating History and Folklore
Humility and hard work has kept one Ontario author’s pen to the parchment.
Michael Barnes, a prolific Haliburton-based writer and author of several Canadian bestsellers, describes himself as a middle-rank writer that people don’t remember. Yet he has produced more than 50 books, the majority of them about the history of Northern Ontario.
“I’m one of those people that fill up bookshelves in libraries,” he said.
Even though people may not remember his name, they recognize him as the fellow who writes mining books. “That doesn’t bother me. I would rather have the guy up the hydro pole shout down and say: ‘I just read your latest book.’… I want them in the hands of the average person.”
His written contribution to preserving the history of Ontario’s North was recognized by the Canadian government when he was named a Member of the Order of Canada in 1994.
Despite the accolades, Barnes maintains a humble and matter-of-fact view of himself as a commercial writer who produces “popular” books at a one-per-year pace – a fairly quick turnaround.
However, Barnes didn’t start out as a writer.
In 1956, he emigrated to Canada from England and began teaching in a one-room schoolhouse with no running water, located in the northeastern Ontario bush near Chapleau.
“I went from the frying pan, after the war in England, into the fire, because I came to a place called Biscotasing,” he said, a whistle stop on the Canadian Pacific Railway of nearly 100 people.
He moved around the North, during which time he met his wife in Sudbury and obtained the required educational degrees to promote him to school principal. While at Moose Factory, he began writing as a Northern correspondent for the Globe and Mail, marking the start of his writing career.
“I was a freelancer, which was stretching it a bit, but I said I could give them the eastern Arctic,” he explained, relaying the disbelief in the night editor’s voice after boasting his claim. However, Barnes assured him he could get his information through gossip from bush pilots.
“If you help a pilot tie up and he says he saw something, you wait a half-hour for the next guy that comes in. If he says the same thing, it’s got to be true. I got that job and was able to dine out on that for years.”
In addition to his freelancing work, Barnes began writing children’s books, some of which are still in use in the region. Several were quite progressive for the time, such as Lady Teacher, written in 1970. It was about a boy who had a female teacher from New Zealand. Although the boy preferred a male teacher, he discovered this woman did everything the men did, such as the polar bear dip, sliding, skating and even hockey. At the end,the boy admitted: “Not bad for a lady teacher.”
Barnes said the Federation of Women Teachers’ Associations of Ontario picked it up and used it in their school kits to show what women do. “Today it seems old hat, but it wasn’t old hat then.”
In 1980, he got his big start when Scholastic Canada accepted a book called Police Story. Over the next 30 years, he wrote seven books about the Ontario Provincial Police and eventually was made an honorary inspector.
In 1973, he and his family moved to Kirkland Lake where he resided for 26 years.
During that time, he wrote columns for five regional newspapers, including the Sudbury Star, North Bay Nugget, and the Timmins Daily Press. He also did some broadcasts for CBC radio, many on mining.
He retired from teaching in 1989 and has continued to write during his 21 years of retirement.
“I always tell people I never made any money doing this,” he said. “The reason is that I didn’t get any support from anyone. The money I received from royalties, which dribs and drabs in, I used for the expenses of the next book.”
He added that full-time writers in Canada have an average annual income less than $10,000. Therefore, they have to have another source of income to survive, which begs the question: why write?
For Barnes, it was fun. “I got to do a lot of travelling and meet a lot of fine people. I’ve been underground in many mines and have poured gold at Macassa Mine in Kirkland Lake,” considered an honour in the gold mining industry, he said.
It has only been within the last four or five years that he has actually received a decent commission from a private funder for his writing.
Barnes gives presentations about writing and mining. More recently, he tweaked the interest of the Royal Ontario Museum to take his collection of books for a private library, which will be part of a new series of earth sciences galleries thanks to a generous $10-million gift by Teck Cominco Ltd.
Some of his more notable books are Fortunes in the Ground, a book about the three great mines in northeastern Ontario; The Scholarly Prospector, the biography of Don MacKinnon; and More Than Free Gold, a book that chronicles Canadian mining from 1946 to the present, written somewhat as a continuation of Arnold Hoffman’s Free Gold.
His most recent book published this past spring is Fortunes Found – Canadian Mining Success, about the Red Lake mining camp. Currently, he is working on Gold in Kirkland Lake, which will be launched in February 2011.