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BACK ROADS BILL: The Métis Nation's history at Mica Bay

This week, Bill tells us a story that might inspire us to learn more and think critically about Canadian, Indigenous and Métis history

On Highway 17 North you drive by the picturesque shoreline of Lake Superior, there are opportunities to pull off and take in the views of the stunning natural environment.

Along the way though there is no historic ornate blue or red bronze highway plaque identifying one of the important Indigenous-settler events in Ontario’s multi-cultural history with a national impact.

The word incident means an event or occurrence but what historians call the Mica Bay Incident has far-reaching cultural and legal implications, especially for the Métis Nation of Ontario, some First Nations and levels of government.

Context

During the drive northwards (1 hr 6 min- 91.7 km) from Sault Ste. Marie (Bawating) start looking at your odometer or the onboard digital map. Mica Bay is about 10 km from Mamainse Harbour. There, the highway passes a solitary triangular rock face on the shoreline side and the highway sharply turns NE then steeply rises inland.

Water isn't visible until another 7.5 km along at the Alona Bay highway lookout. The brown binocular sign icon means it's time to pull off. Looking back SW is Pointe aux Mines, which is at the centre of the Mica Bay Incident. Here is the map for the incident.

Now let us enter the time machine pre-confederation (1867) and go back to the mid-1850s along the north shore of Lake Huron and into Lake Superior.

Tensions had been mounting between Indigenous people and settlers mining in the area.

Mining interests like Bruce Mines had become the initial colonial settlements. Named after James Bruce, who was appointed as Governor General of Canada in 1846, the town of Bruce Mines was first established that same year as a copper mining area by John Keating. The Mines employed skilled Cornish miners who had recently emigrated from England to engage in this first mineral boom.

During this early time of settlement, the beginning miners were after the easy-to-mine surficial copper.

Native surficial copper is a metal found unadulterated in nature. In its purest form had been used for thousands of years by Indigenous people along this shoreline, termed the Old Copper culture. Little to no heating of native copper was required and it was hammered into shape (called “cold working”) to form tools and spear points.

Early miners easily and quickly decimated these few native copper resources with shallow trenches and rock-blasted adits.

What happened

Karl S. Hele, of Métis origin, is a Professor at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick and has written extensively about the Mica Bay Incident. 

The university’s Canadian Studies, interdisciplinary program “teaches students to think critically about Canada, a diverse and complex settler-colonial nation-state.”

Professor Hele explained the region that is now Ontario was known as Canada West between 1841 and 1867 brought the north shore of the Upper Great Lakes under its legislative control in 1841.

“Canada West issued the first mineral exploration license in 1845. In 1846, Canada West started to survey the shore of Lake Superior, Sault Ste. Marie’s village plot, and the mineral claims to the east of the village. This included the Anishinaabeg settlement under Chief Shingwaukonse’s leadership at Garden River First Nation Reserve (Ketegaunseebee (Gitigaan-ziibi Anishbaabe in the Ojibwe language) just west of what would become Sault Ste. Marie).

He said, “Shingwaukonse confronted and questioned Alexander Vidal, the government surveyor, about the legality of surveying unsurrendered (unceded) lands. Shingwaukonse then petitioned the Governor General, insisting the Anishinaabeg share in the mineral profits. He also stated that Indigenous rights were being infringed. Shingwaukonse knew that the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and Treaty of Niagara (1764) required Canada West to negotiate a treaty before selling, leasing or surveying First Nations lands. Regardless.”

In 1846 the Quebec and Lake Superior Mining Association received a lease for the Mica Bay site from the government. The company proceeded to construct accommodations, a mine building and water-powered dressing facilities with the intention of beginning production of copper in 1848 at Pointe aux Mines.

He said, mining interests and missionaries called for a treaty because of growing tensions.

Shingwaukonse travelled to Montreal in 1848 to find a solution. Canada West’s unwillingness to negotiate was due to its use of mining leases and patents as a form of patronage and revenue generation. “By 1846, it had generated $60,000 from these sources. Once all the patents were paid, Canada West stood to gain $400,000, a huge amount of money at that time.” He was forward-thinking.

All of the following sound familiar.

There had been an increasing push from Indigenous people to be able to manage their own resources and to be compensated for the resources that were found on their lands. “The government, however, was not willing to provide compensation for valuable mining locations, nor participate in any negotiations – a refusal which flew in the face of Indigenous law and the Royal Proclamation of 1763,” he explained.

The incident

Faced with threats and inaction the Chiefs decided to act. On Nov. 1, 1849, Chiefs Shingwaukonse, Nebenaigoching, and Oshawano, alongside their lawyer Allan Macdonell and artist Wharton Metcalfe travelled to Mica Bay aboard a schooner.

The exact number is not known but they took a small cannon from the lawn of the Crown Lands Agent, Joseph Wilson, along with two six-pounders (artillery) and small arms.

“Upon arrival, the chiefs confronted mine manager John Bonner demanding payment or closure of the mine,” said Professor Hele. “Rather than negotiate with armed “insurgents,” Bonner closed the mine. Women and children left on November 10, 1849, while the men and mining equipment followed a week later.”

As people arrived in the Sault newspapers in Detroit and Toronto began to circulate rumours of an “Indian massacre” with hundreds dead.

“The rumours and demands from the owners of another mine, located at Bruce Mines, forced Canada West to dispatch 87 members of a rifle brigade on Nov. 19. Superintendent of Indian Affairs and magistrate George Ironside Jr. was ordered to meet the troops and accompany them to the Sault. The troops and Ironside arrived in the Sault on Dec. 2. The men then boarded a steamer in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, and headed for the mine site.”

Due to bad weather and damage to the ship, the soldiers ventured no farther than Whitefish Bay. A small party made it to the mine only to find everything locked and shuttered. The troops remained in the Sault until October 1850.

Professor Hele said, “The uprising’s ringleaders were arrested on Dec. 4, 1849. Shingwaukonse and Nebenaigoching were charged but never brought to trial. Their cases were dropped once a treaty was signed between their peoples and Canada West in 1850.

The actions of the chiefs forced the Canada West government to negotiate in 1850. The Robinson-Huron and Robinson-Superior Treaties legitimated the mining leases, created reserves, recognized First Nations rights, and set precedents for future treaties.

However the “half breeds” were not included in the treaty negotiations as per the government mandate of the day.

Métis Nation of Ontario

Mitch Case is a member of the Provisional Council of the Métis Nation of Ontario Regional Councillor, Huron-Superior Regional Métis Community and a historian. He has researched and written about the past and contemporary impact of the Mica Bay Incident. He provided a context and resources to this author.

He is fervent in his comments about the past transitioning to contemporary times.

“Very often, when it comes to Indigenous issues, we get more attention when in conflict situations, as opposed to having the opportunity to tell our stories in a positive and good way. The current frenzy being advanced by some denies the very existence of my Métis community—a community with constitutionally protected rights confirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada—and the other Métis communities in Ontario.

“It is appalling and unconscionable. And, it is disappointing that some media are writing articles giving voice to those that deny the very existence of Métis people and our communities without facts or balance.

“Let me be clear: we are not Anishinaabe. Nor are we anyone’s leftovers or subordinates. We are also no one’s poor cousins, beholden or subservient to anyone else’s recognition or acceptance. I reject any suggestion that we need anyone else’s permission to be a people, community, or to be proud of who we are. Our existence is rooted in our own culture, identity, collective consciousness, assertions, resilience, and inherent rights.”

It is important to note that during this historic period the term “Half-Breed” was often used to describe who we now refer to as the Métis people. This term was also used to describe our relations in Western Canada whether in the Manitoba Act, of 1870 or the “Half-Breed” scrip system established on the prairies. Those same documents talk about the “Indians” acknowledging the “Half-Breeds” as distinct (not as outsiders, settlers or as Anishinaabe, but as distinct and as their kin). The facts of history are clear that our communities were related, interacted frequently and had relation, but we were NOT the same.”

“Our oral history as well as the same historic record First Nations relied on the Restoule litigation (i.e., like the Vidal & Anderson Report) also confirms our unique existence and distinct communities, including, the style of houses we had, our River-lot land tenure system, our “bad” farming habits, our unique styles of clothing, occupations, culture, religious practices, and kinship connections between these communities. This distinctiveness is NOT of recent vintage and was readily apparent to all who came through the territory in those days.” He said the Mica Bay Incident eventually helped to define the Métis identity.

It is a complex issue to understand regarding a current parliamentary bill. Here is what some First Nations’ chiefs have to say about the Métis Nation of Ontario-First Nations relationship and a website regarding Bill C-53. It is about treaty rights and consultation.

Aftermath

Professor Hele, said, “The Mica Bay Incident was pivotal because it forced the government of Canada West to negotiate a treaty. Something that the government was reluctant to undertake. The treaty negotiations and final document served to establish a ‘treaty form/style’ that would be oft replicated during the signing of the Numbered Treaties.

In short, the 1850 negotiations and treaties established our communities as protected spaces, created an annuity that was to rise over time (currently in court), recognized our rights, created space for Métis claims, and created a constitutional relationship between Canada and the Anishinaabeg. Unfortunately Canada never fully followed what it agreed to in 1850.”

Harry Haskins also knows about the Mica Bay Incident. He served as the local executive archdeacon for the Anglican Church’s Algoma and Moosonee dioceses, the executive officer for the church in Ontario, and as the elected Prolocutor (vice-president) of the national church. He has also spent a number of years as administrator of the Shingwauk Education Trust (holding the land and assets of the former Shingwauk Indian Residential School).

Haskins pointed to the Indigenous vision at the time.

“Shingwaukonse, Nebenaigoching, (the organizing chiefs) and their allies wanted to create a political incident, not seize a piece of land in a pitched gunfight. They succeeded. Shingwaukonse and associates had met with the Governor-General, Lord Elgin, several times and pointed out that the law, as contained in the Royal Proclamation of 1763, said that the government could not issue mining licenses, like that for Mica Bay, without first having the Indigenous peoples resident on them cede the land to the Crown.

Bruce Mines was one of the first large-scale copper mines on the Great Lakes.

“If they had sought a gunfight with miners, they could have had one closer at hand at Bruce Mines with the hundred or so miners working there, and where William Benjamin Robinson of the later treaties (Robinson-Huron) was the Resident Superintendent (manager) at the time.”

He said, “That cession had not taken place. One of the results of the Mica Bay incident was the political pressure it brought on the Baldwin-Lafontaine provincial government to move to what became the Robinson-Huron and Robinson-Superior treaties of 1850."

What’s left?

In essence, the Mica Bay Incident was the precursor or a 'dry run,' a few years later, to two events, the Red River uprising and the North West resistance involving Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Louis Riel became a prominent leader during this period of Canadian history.

He led two popular Métis governments, was central in bringing Manitoba into Confederation, and was executed (Nov. 16, 1885, in Regina) for high treason for his role in the resistance to Canadian encroachment on Métis lands.

With Brian Emblin from Timmins, we recently found one of the copper mines in contention (see the map and photos), just before the foliage came out.

Back about 300 m from the shoreline it is approximately a 100 m long surficial trench about four metres wide and several metres deep leading to a tunnel adit. They were looking for surficial copper leading to underground exploration.

Then on to Mica Bay, which is isolated enough but one of those sweeping cobble-to-sand-like beaches you see on Lake Superior. It is the site of the Mica Bay Incident.

Is there any native copper remaining along the shoreline? Very little. Twenty-year rock hound, Michael Adamowicz from southern Ontario. His avocation on the back roads is finding rocks and minerals based on historical research.

He spent a week diligently poking around the Mica Bay area shorelines for copper gems. He often deploys a metal detector.

“If you find native copper in the ground it will have a green coating, from oxidation, but in the water, it will be brown.” He said he found “a few small specimens here and there. The initial commercial mining efforts took almost all of it, nothing impressive overall, slim pickins’.”

When you research and write a history piece you first explain the detailed account to yourself. Do you understand what transpired through a contemporary lens?

There remains consultation and legal sorting to do. But some organization at some time in the future may petition for a commemorative highway plaque to explain what is more than just an incident.

Back to the road trip. As you safely slow down pull off near Mica Bay and take some time for reflection.

 


Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
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