Don McKinnon Dreams of a Deep Sea Port in Moosonee for Northern Prosperity – by Gregory Reynolds (Highgrader Magazine – Fall, 2005)

This article was originally published in the Fall, 2005 issue of Highgrader Magazine . Highgrader is committed to serve the interests of northerners by bringing the issues, concerns and culture of the north to the world through the writings and art of award-winning journalists as well as talented freelance artists, writers and photographers.

Don McKinnon, a man with a vision. 45 years ago the Ontario government ordered a study on the viability of a northern port. Naturally, it has been put on the shelf. Now Don McKinnon explains why a sea port some 28 kms form Moosonee would rejuvenate the North’s economic viability for decades to come.

Northern Ontario was opened up as the result of the dream of politicians who wanted to secure it for future generations. The major communities were born as a result of men with dreams refusing to accept defeat and pursuing their ambitions beyond the bounds of logic. Iroquois Falls today is the result of entrepreneur Frank Anson’s vision. He established a mill, which, at one time was the largest pulp and paper mill on the continent.

His imagination was sparked by the reports about timber possibilities written by two students he had grubstaked in 1909 to seek gold. Anson then went north to access the potential of the frontier. Who would believe the ramifications of this man’s dream would result in the development of a modern community?

In 1910, Anson investigated the site and lumber properties. Two years later, Anson sent several experts to the Iroquois Falls mill site. Anson’s dream of creating the Abitibi Pulp and Paper Company Limited became known as ‘Anson’s Folly’ but he refused to give up.

He convinced the Ontario government to give Abitibi one million acres of land. Three communities developed, Iroquois Falls, Ansonville (named after Anson) and Montrock. Eventually they merged to become Iroquois Falls, a lasting tribute to one man’s perseverance.

Sault Ste. Marie in 1623 was originally called ‘Sault du Gaston’ in honour of the brother of the King of France. In 1669, Jesuits (missionary priests) re-named this site Sault Ste. Marie, The Rapids of St. Mary.

Growth of the community was slow over the years but eh Sault became a town in 1887. the future of the town , and the surrounding region, changed for the better in 1894 with the arrival of American industrialist France Clergue. He was looking for investment opportunities and he was considered a fool for dreaming of an industrial empire in what was considered backwoods Ontario.

He was responsible for founding a steel plant (Algoma), a power plant (Lake Superior Power) and a paper mill (St. Mary’s Paper). He eventually was to lose control of his empire and to leave the Sault but his legacy lives on.

Today, prospector and advocate for self-rule for the 10 territorial districts that comprise Northern Ontario, Don McKinnon, has revived an old cause and made it his own.

He is pushing for a seaport on the west side of James Bay. Specifically, the site is 22 miles north of the Town of Moosone, a community of 936 residents at the end of steel in Ontario but without a road link to the rest of the province.

McKinnon doesn’t argue when someone says the seaport is at Moosonee. Winning support for the concept is more important than small details with McKinnon. He has won two fortunes in the mining game but his interests range far afield from mining.

He has served on Timmins council when it was a town, run for the Ontario legislature (he lost), fought the removal of railway tracks in the north, tangled with Northern Telephone Ltd. over equalized phone rates for the entire City of Timmins (he won), appeared before royal commissions and battled the land planning process called Lands for Life.

Now he travels the North giving speeches about the need to fight back against provincial policies that are killing the economy of the north and driving its residents to southern Ontario. He has lost faith in the present generation of politicians when it comes to the huge and pressing problems facing the north. He believes residents must utilize the vast natural resources that surround them for their own good.

A seaport would provide cheap, fast transportation of both the know resources of today and those just waiting to be discovered. McKinnon has some strong supporters, Vic Power, mayor of Timmins; J.C. Caron, mayor of Kapuskasing, Rejeanne Demeules, mayor of Smooth Rock Falls and Lawrence Martin, mayor of Cochrane.

Martin is in a unique position, being the mayor of the community of 5,457 residents facing all the problems of a small municipality with a declining population, falling revenues and soaring costs and also being an aboriginal who understands the problems of his people, especially those in remote communities.

“I see development of a seaport as helping both native and non-native communities,” he said. “We are all linked and only by working together can we achieve what we all want, a better life.

Cochrane is in position to be a big winner should a seaport be created as it is the starting point for rail shipments to Moosonee, is on the trans-Canada Highway’s northern route (Highway 11) and has an airport.

Mayor Power chairs an ad hoc committee that is working to put the seaport issue on the provincial and national agenda.

“This is a huge undertaking but the possibilities are endless,” he said. “Look what the St. Lawrence Seaway did for the industrial heartlands of Canada and the U.S.A.”

He seized an opportunity in July when Rime Minister Paul Martin visited Timmins with Andy Mitchell, the federal minister in charge of Fednor, to get the federal government’s attention. The first concrete step would be a feasibility study and the seaport supporters are hoping the money comes through Fednor, an initiative of the Government of Canada aiming to address the economic development needs of Northern Ontario.

Seaports come under the federal government but the Ontario government must be involved as well as it needs to finance a railway line from Moosonee to the proposed seaport site.

Power says all the appropriate federal and provincial agencies have been contacted and he is hopeful the response will be positive.

“There are problems facing all the communities of Northern Ontario but we merely have to look at what faced the pioneers who opened up the north to realize all problems can be solve,” he said.  “We have faith in each other and form a common front when dealing with senior governments.”

McKinnon points out that there is iron ore near Fraserdale China clay, fire clay and silica near Smokey Falls, limestone near Coral Rapids, lignite (coal with a high water content) near Onakawana, gypsum near Moose River, phosphate near Calstock, diamonds near Attawapiskat and the possibility of more gold, copper and zinc.

As well, exploration for oil has been going on for years in the James Bay Lowlands.

“We have known about these natural resources for decades but development and transportation costs have been a barrier,” he said. “The next world super powers will be China and India and they need our resources. As well, Europe continues to demand our imports to fuel its booming economy.

“The key to the future of Northern Ontario lies in creating jobs for our young people and generating the economic strength to make us self-sufficient.”

He sees the seaport as more than a facility. “It will be symbol of our determination to escape the economic bondage imposed by those who sit in the offices of the financial institutions in Toronto and Montreal,” he said.

The seaport dream has a long history. McKinnon praises the farsighted members of the Ontario Legislature who in 1900 decided to build a railway north form North Bay to open up Northern Ontario. In 1912, the board of commissioners of the railway voted to extend the railway from Cochrane to James Bay and discussed the possibility of a seaport.

The First World War and the Great Depression of 1929-39 dashed their hopes but the Timiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway reached Moosonee in 1932.

The dream of a seaport was put on hold. Then in 1959, William N. Nickle, Ontario Minister of Planning and Development, ordered a study on The Possible Effects of a Seaport at Moosonee on the Economy of northeastern Ontario.

It found the concept both feasible and desirable. As do so many government reports, it went on the shelf to gather dust.

No one is going to put McKinnon on a shelf and no one has ever found a way to silence him when he has adopted a cause.