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Opinion: Dave Dale, North Bay history an interesting distraction

I’m not sure what’s being planned to celebrate the city’s centennial in 2025 but it’s still not too late to mark the 130th anniversary of electing it’s first mayor or the 140th anniversary for the Township of Widdifield in 2022.
yellow leaf
Ever feel like the last leaf to fall from a branch? Hang in there, October tends to amplify that sensation.

Debating the benefits of vaccination and the responsibilities of individuals to control viral spread during a pandemic isn’t as fun as it sounds.

It was a relief to bury my head in a few history books in preparation for a talk entitled “North Bay In the Rear View Mirror” for Third Age Nipissing last week. It was part of a fall series of talks with Norm Dokis sharing Lake Nipissing gems during a Chief Commanda Cruise last month. On October 21, country music singer and songwriter Cory Marks will conclude the series with a presentation about his music and life as an artist.

For my presentation, I wanted to compare the issues of importance when the town of North Bay elected its first mayor, John Bourke, in 1891 and then became incorporated as a city in 1925 to what is going on now a century later. For such a young community, there’s a lot of documented history available. I’m not sure what’s being planned to celebrate the city’s centennial in 2025 but it’s still not too late to mark the 130th anniversary of electing it’s first mayor or the 140th anniversary for the Township of Widdifield in 2022.

One of the books that caught my attention was simply entitled “North Bay” by W.K.P. Kennedy. It was published in 1961 shortly after his passing. Chapter 5 piqued my interest most as it described the early grappling between free market politics and social needs. It noted that in 1891, G.W. Briggs offered to build a tannery and shoemaking establishment for the estimated cost of $900, with a $500 bonus if the employ of 20 tanners and 20 shoemakers came to fruition. “The proposition was not approved and the bonusing of industry to locate in North Bay has never been looked on with favour by succeeding councils and time would seem to have proven this to be a wise policy,” Kennedy wrote. Worth noting was the poor health of national leaders at the time. It was 1891 when John A. MacDonald was elected Prime Minister for the last time with a Conservative platform supporting free trade with the United States. He died shortly within months of his mandate, replaced by John Abbot whose most famous quote was: “I hate politics.” Poor health cut short his tenure and John Sparrow David Thompson became Prime Minister the next year in 1892, a heart attack promptly taking him to the promised land.

Giving breaks to existing businesses, however, has always been and continues to be an acceptable economic socialism. Just a year later in 1892, it’s noted that Murray Bros. sawmill and sash and doorway operation at the end of Timmins street was granted an exemption from taxes for five years “providing they are kept running.”

But I’ve always thought there’s much more to the area’s foundations than the records of colonization. And I believe Mr. Kennedy agreed because the first chapter was credited to Archibald Freeman, who rose from stenographer of a fledgling regional railway to the general manager of the Ontario Northland Railway in 1947. His work, The Nipissing Passageway, provides background, describing the area’s Indigenous peoples and then the first wave Europeans. There was 300 years of relations before the Township of Widdifield was created with the arrival of the Canada Pacific Railway in 1882.

My intent was to start even earlier with the hope of weaving a tapestry of historical threads that covered this area’s geological transformation over the millennia before getting into the minutes of corporate meetings. I had visions of the ancient beginnings of the Atlantic Ocean spilling violently through this way to the Great Lakes as a starting point. Eons would pass before it drained this part of the continent with the flow going the opposite west to east direction as the last glaciers receded, the loss of their immense weight allowing the Canadian Shield to rise in its wake. If my budget ever allows, there would be a light show of thunderous proportions as the last trickle of Nipissing spilled into Trout Lake to make its way through the Mattawa and Ottawa Valleys. I’ve always thought there should be a monument straddling where the new height of land decides which puddles flow west through the French River and which travel east.

And to set the stage for North Bay’s development I reached back to the archeological record of human habitation in this area dating back more than 9,000 years. I skipped a few centuries before referring to European explorers such as Brule, Champlain and Cartier reaching the Nipissings some 400 years ago.

I felt it was important to understand how the history of trade and allied relationships between Europeans and local Indigenous peoples eventually led to the Robinson Huron Treaty of 1850, which set the stage for North Bay’s opportunistic development.

Among the documents assisting me was Randy Sawyer’s “1927” publication that highlighted the photographs taken of Nipissing people by A. Irving Hallowell that year. He cited numerous other works, including Murray Leatherdale’s Nipissing from Brule to Booth. Some people embrace the notion there were only 200 Nipissing people here, as referenced in a few articles, partly because that’s how many often wintered with the Hurons. But Champlain was greeted here by as many as 2,000 of the Nipissing peoples on one visit.

I suggested that perhaps a future lecture series include a presentation specific to Indigenous history in this area by one of the many local Indigenous story tellers.

In hindsight, I probably should have stuck to the contrast and commonality of the issues dealt with by successive North Bay councils until today.

J.H. McDonald, for example, was elected mayor in 1925, the first year of incorporation as a city. Big events were the Old Boys Reunion and the finance committee recommended that the mayor be paid a salary of $1,000 and the councillors $200. The water rate for the Township of West Ferris corrected to read 18 cents per 1,000 gallons.

I was, of course, intrigued by the method of making big bylaw decisions through a vote by citizens. On the ballot was a motion to change the annual election date and there were 1,516 votes for and 568 against.

It would be interesting to review that option for issues today. Referendums of any kind tend to raise concern about leaving the lofty issues up to voters. There is a fear the common plebes can be swayed too easily by charm and conspiracy faster than fact and prudence. I can only imagine that perception won’t change soon based on recent history.   

Dave Dale is a veteran journalist and columnist who has covered the North Bay area for more than 30 years. Reader responses related to his work can be sent to [email protected]. To contact the writer directly, email: [email protected] or check out his website