How Thunder Bay Was Made

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Travis Hay

Thunder Bay from Animikii-waajiw (Mount McKay). P199/Wikipedia Commons

Thunder Bay, Ontario is a city well-known for a particularly explicit form of anti-Indigenous racism.[1] Unlike more southern and urban locales where anti-Indigeneity is predominantly expressed as erasure, the social structures of feeling that exist in Thunder Bay are informed by a close proximity to Fort William First Nation (FWFN) – a community located adjacently to the city. Recently, the news that FWFN has reached a $99 million land claim settlement with the federal government has stirred up racial tensions in Thunder Bay and across Canada more broadly. Predictably, complaints about ‘handouts’ and other well-worn racist tropes have frequented news media comment sections, social media debates, and the everyday conversations that make up public life in the city of Thunder Bay. In this article, I wanted to offer a brief review of the land claim settlement that situates it within its proper historical context of settler colonial dispossession. In writing this history, I am relying quite heavily on the work and research of FWFN Lands Director Ian Bannon and Chief Peter Collins. To supplement these materials (which FWFN has made widely available online) I use the scholarship of historians who have attempted to unpack the settler colonial constitution of Thunder Bay in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.[2]

The 1905 Forced Relocation

In 1905, the Fort William band was forcefully uprooted and relocated from their reserve site on the shores of the Kaministiquia River so that settlers could build a grain terminus for the Grand Trunk Pacific railway. This intervention was pursued under the auspices of the Indian Act which granted the Governor in Council the power to expropriate lands for the purposes of building public works and securing settler economic development. As historian P. Whitney Lackenbauer recalls, “when the Grand Trunk Pacific indicated that it wanted 1600 acres of prime reserve land to build terminals, and initiated expropriation plans, the Surveyor General at the DIA told the band that he wanted the entire reserve and that it would be moved elsewhere.”[3] Though the grain terminus was never actually built, the settler intervention was supposed to plug the Thunder Bay region into the prairie wheat market and resuscitate what was at that time a fledging local economy by constituting the region as an important transhipment hub.

By any measure, this dispossession was extremely violent and traumatic: the Fort William band, which had been using the land for farming purposes, was relocated to rocky and swampy land unfit for agriculture; further, members of the band were forced to exhume a graveyard located on the original reserve site that held the remains of their loved ones so that they could be buried elsewhere; what is more, the relocation split the community in two as they were redirected to two separate locations. On these points, FWFN Chief Peter Collins recollected that “about half of our members moved to Squaw Bay and the other half to the Mountain Village.”[4] Elsewhere, Collins noted that it is important

to recognize the commitments and the hardships that our members made in that time when they were removed from their homes; their loved ones were exhumed from the ground and moved from the site…this is one of the largest land-taking for rail purposes in Canada’s history.[5]

Put directly, then, the 1905 forced relocation and land expropriation was a settler colonial developmentalist schema that was violent in every way possible.

Though news media outlets have not fully erased the violent nature of the 1905 expropriation, little work has been done that situates it within the broader historical context of Thunder Bay’s settler colonial economic development in the early twentieth century. I believe that this lack of historical context has facilitated the more racist and anti-Indigenous readings of the settlement. For that reason, the remainder of this article works to situate the 1905 forced relocation within the broader history of settler colonial developmentalist schemas that were designed to bolster settler economies and marginalize FWFN at the start of the twentieth century.

Traditional Territories of Fort William First Nation, and location of Thunder Bay.

Settler Interventions Before and After the 1905 Relocation

In 1892, the annual report of the Department of Indian Affairs discussed the Fort William band and other Indigenous peoples in the region as precariously positioned on the margins of a fur trade economy. This document held that Indians in the region ought to be encouraged to discontinue hunting and trapping because of the

important consideration that when white people become more numerous, and the present hunting grounds of the Indians, which have all been ceded by them, excepting their reserves – are monopolized by settlers, the game and other animals on which they now subsist will disappear, as they have done elsewhere from similar causes, and the Indians must therefore look to the products of the soil for their subsistence.[6]

In this same year, the passing of the Ontario Fisheries Act eroded Indigenous access to fish in the region by declaring that fishing licenses had to be purchased by band members.[7]  Because a main economic lifeline for Ojibway peoples in the region had been the provision of fish to fur trading outposts, the limitations placed on fishing served to create an economic crisis for the Fort William band.[8]

Settlers at Mt. McKay, 1885. Thunder Bay Historical Society.

Ten years later, in 1902, the situation of the Fort William band was dire enough that a letter was sent to the Superintendent of Indian Affairs. It read:

We the Indians of the Fort William Band earnestly beg of you to help us, and we trust you will do so. We do not like how the white people are disturbing us for our property that we have left for ourselves. When we last sold our land to Mr. Wm. B. Robinson [of the Robinson-Superior Treaty], we had swore that we would not sell another acre, and the Indian Department had agreed, and also promised us that we would not be disturbed anymore to the last of an Indian.[9]

The 1905 forced relocation is a striking indicator of the Draconian way in which the DIA chose to respond to these concerns; however, the 1905 expropriation was not the only of its kind. For example, in 1906, settlers in the region recruited Sections 56 and 60 of the Militia Act to justify the expropriation of reserve land so that a rifle range could be built.[10] Significantly, this rifle range used a sacred mountain – Animikii-waajiw (or ‘Mount McKay’, as settlers named it) – as a stop-butt for target practice.[11]

Though the creation of the rifle range and the transfer of land involved the payment of $10,000 to the Fort William band, the conditions of this acceptance were heavily mediated by the violence of the 1905 expropriation and the acute need to rebuild community in the wake of a traumatic relocation. In 2002, moreover, the Fort William band was successful in proving that this land grab was unlawful when a $2.9 million settlement was reached with the federal government.[12] Settler confusion and a general lack of historical understanding have collapsed these two settlements to the extent that local settler citizens are currently complaining that the 1905 expropriation was already settled in 2002, thereby constructing FWFN as overcompensated for their lost land and even ‘spoiled’ by the federal government. What is missing in many of these conversations is a deeper understanding of the myriad of ways in which these settler interventions served to prevent any participation of First Nations peoples in the burgeoning national economy of the early twentieth century.

In 1907, for example, FWFN band members complained that “the white operated fishing boat ‘Macintosh’…poached on their traditional fishing grounds thus revealing yet another threat to the Ojibwa fishery.”[13] In 1908, the cost of a fishing license rose to $15 (which was prohibitively expensive for a population still dealing with the fallout from the relocation and expropriations).[14]  In 1909, a local Indian Agent reported back to the DIA: “I have told the Indians that they were allowed to kill a game for their own food – not to sell,” thus further marginalizing FWFN from the local natural resource economy.[15]  In that same year, the Department of Indian Affairs denied a request from the band to purchase a rock crushing machine that would have allowed them to participate in the booming construction business. Doubling down on the marginalization of FWFN through prevention of their economic development, the department instead granted mineral rights to three white businessmen who had already made a fortune in mining.[16] These men formed the Mount McKay Pressed Brick Company – a lucrative business that provided bricks to settlers in the region for the construction of their homes and businesses.[17] Literally and metaphorically, then, Thunder Bay was made through the dispossession of Indigenous peoples and the theft of their resources.


As is evident from the above, the 1905 forced relocation was not a singular event abstracted from the broader context of settler interventions that took place both before and after the expropriation. The evacuation of FWFN from their reserve site was a planned economic developmentalist schema that was designed to secure for the settlers of Thunder Bay a viable position in the emergent national economy. Further, the Draconian disregard for Fort William First Nation demonstrated by the carrying out of these interventions is eerily consistent with the current attitudes on display in Thunder Bay. While the $99 million is a good start, it certainly does not approach anything like economic or social justice for the forced relocation of 1905, nor does it meaningfully address the series of other interventions that continue to shape the material conditions of settlement in the Thunder Bay region today.

Travis Hay is a PhD candidate in History at York University, where he studies issues related to Treaty No. 9 territory specifically and Canadian settler colonialism more broadly.



[1]  For example, see “Dealing With Racism Against Aboriginal People in Thunder Bay”, TorStar News Service, Dec. 8th, 2015; available online at: [accessed Dec. 29th, 2016]. Also, see Wayne Rivers, “Racism a Common Theme at Thunder Bay Inquest Looking into Deaths of 7 Students”, APTN National News, Nov. 23rd, 2015; available online at: [accessed Dec. 29th, 2016].

[2] I am thinking here primarily of Steven High’s “Responding to White Encroachment: The Robinson-Superior Treaty and the Capitalist Labour Economy: 1880-1914” in Thunder Bay Historical Museum Society Papers and Records, Vol. XXII [1994]: pp. 23-39; P. Whitney Lackenbauer’s “‘Of Practically No Use to Anyone’: Situating a Rifle Range on the Fort William Indian Reserve, 1905-1915” In Thunder Bay Historical Museum Society, Vol. XXXIV [2005]: pp. 3-28; and Jayson Childs’ “Stone Construction at Old Fort William” in Thunder Bay Historical Museum Society Papers and Records, Vol. XXVII [1995]: pp: 17-33.

[3] P. Whitney Lackenbauer, “‘Of Practically No Use to Anyone’: Situating a Rifle Range on the Fort William Indian Reserve, 1905-1915” In Thunder Bay Historical Museum Society, Vol. XXXIV [2005]: p. 11.

[4] See “Fort William First Nation Offered $99 Million” in The Chronicle Journal, March 31st, 2016; available online at: [accessed Dec. 29th, 2016].

[5] Peter Collins quoted in “Fort William First Nation gets $99 million land claim offer from federal government” in CBC Up North News, April 1st, 2016; available online at: [accessed Dec. 29th, 2016].

[6] Canada, DIA, Sessional Papers, No 14 (1892), xxi.

[7] Steven High, “Responding to White Encroachment: The Robinson-Superior Treaty and the Capitalist Labour Economy: 1880-1914” in Thunder Bay Historical Museum Society Papers and Records, Vol. XXII [1994]: p. 33.

[8] See Jayson Childs, “Feeding the Fur Traders” in Thunder Bay Historical Museum Society Papers and Records, Vol. XXIII [1995]: pp. 24-39.

[9] TBHMS, Archives, G 2/5/2, Reel 17, Letterbook, December 27, 1909. Quoted in Steven High, “Responding to White Encroachment: The Robinson-Superior Treaty and the Capitalist Labour Economy: 1880-1914” in Thunder Bay Historical Museum Society Papers and Records, Vol. XXII [1994]: p. 23-39.

[10] Shockingly, settlers continued to shoot bullets into Animikii-waajiw well into the 1990s. See P. Whitney Lackenbauer, “‘Of Practically No Use to Anyone’: Situating a Rifle Range on the Fort William Indian Reserve, 1905-1915” In Thunder Bay Historical Museum Society, Vol. XXXIV [2005]: p. 11.

[11] The Ogimaa Mikana project has recently erected billboards in the city renaming and reclaiming Animikii-waajiw; see [accessed Dec. 29th, 2016].

[12] See Fort William First Nation, History Minute-Book; available online at: [accessed Dec. 29th, 2016].

[13] Steven High, “Responding to White Encroachment: The Robinson-Superior Treaty and the Capitalist Labour Economy: 1880-1914” in Thunder Bay Historical Museum Society Papers and Records, Vol. XXII [1994]: p. 33.

[14] P. Whitney Lackenbauer, “‘Of Practically No Use to Anyone’: Situating a Rifle Range on the Fort William Indian Reserve, 1905-1915” In Thunder Bay Historical Museum Society, Vol. XXXIV [2005]: p. 11.

[15] TBHMS, Archives, G 2/5/2, Reel 17, Letterbook, December 27, 1909. Quoted in High, ‘Responding to White Encroachment.’

[16] Steven High, “Responding to White Encroachment: The Robinson-Superior Treaty and the Capitalist Labour Economy: 1880-1914” in Thunder Bay Historical Museum Society Papers and Records, Vol. XXII [1994]: p. 36.

[17] P. Whitney Lackenbauer, “‘Of Practically No Use to Anyone’: Situating a Rifle Range on the Fort William Indian Reserve, 1905-1915” In Thunder Bay Historical Museum Society, Vol. XXXIV [2005]: p. 16.

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6 thoughts on “How Thunder Bay Was Made

  1. Christina Reid

    Ir is a sad story of the Thunder Bay Band. All across Canada the Indians have been placed on land that was unproductive, Some bands were lucky because they found gold, oil and other minerals on their reserves. But the Indians of Thunder Bay had no such luck. I was happy to hear of their settlement with the Feds. Hopefully some one will oversea the distribution of the funds so that each member of the Band gets an equal share.

  2. Cutter

    Those kind of practices by the government still exist,,some first nations are not even allowed to build their own roads out of their first nations,,,,,making us depended on the government funding just enough to survive but never prosper,,,,,we build a gravel road for hunting and mnr came flying in with a helicopter and a camera,,they tried telling us we need a permit to build any road,,,we told them we don’t need a f**ken permit because if we do that’s means the battle is over,,believe me the battles will be in the far north,,,,

  3. Larry

    In my opinion we need to accept the truth of our treatment as regards our indigenous Brothers and Sisters and get on with supporting their efforts to prosper among us as equals… We might start with respect and Honor the agreements they have with us. After all this time I am amazed that they are even still willing to sit at the table with us and talk… A testament to the kind of people they are!!!
    The issues are entrenched in our institutions and they need to change… I think they are slowly , recent acknowledgements like those outlined in the Truth and Reconciliation Report help! We have been complacent in allowing our governments and institutions to carry on for far to long. On a personal level I Hope the people of our city can rise above the predigests that have fostered the injustices and seek to understand the role we can have in a solution… Help our First Nation people to be a thriving part of our City . It starts by accepting the truth! That is all..

  4. Sharon Moon

    As a former resident of Thunder Bay, who lived on land that “should” have been Reservation, I am learning about the history of deceit, racism, and colonialism that I was unconsciously part of. I am most grateful for this important history lesson, and want to research more. Thank you to Travis Hay and all who have done this important research and are telling the story that has been suppressed and ignored for far too long.

  5. james Fortier

    I have deep roots in the Thunder Bay area, born in Nipigon, but grew up in Illinois at Mooseheart and then in Wheaton, so while I witnessed plenty of racism directed towards African-Americans and Mexican-Americans growing up in suburban Chicago, racism directed towards First Nations people was not really evident in suburban Chicago, not overtly anyway. We grew up knowing our deceased father was “part Indian” but we did not know much about that part of his family history and heritage through his Ojibway Finlayson/Michano mother from Long Lake area. My roots at Fort William start with my 3xgreat-grandfather John Finlayson 1823-1898, when he entered the service of the HBC at age 16 in 1839 as an apprentice cooper at the Fort Willam HBC Post. I suppose our connection to Fort William goes back even further than 1839 because John’s Scottish father Nicol Finlayson 1794-1877 and his brother Duncan Finlayson 1796-1862, both came to “Rupert’s land” in the service of the HBC in 1815. Landing at York factory, Nicol was then sent to Albany Factory or Albany Fort for his apprentice year and his brother Duncan was sent to Qu’Appelle in the Swan River Dist. After the merger of the NWC and HBC in 1821, both Duncan and Nicol were occasionally at the HBC Fort William Post, especially Duncan. Duncan, although younger, rose much more quickly in the HBC ranks and was a Chief Trader before Nicol and was Chief Factor and Gov. of Assiniboia at Fort Gary, Red River Settlement from 1839-1844. If you read the letters between HBC figures like Duncan Finlayson and Treaty Commissioner Robinson and his associates leading up to the negotiations of the Robinson-Superior 1850 Treaty signed at SSM, Duncan Finlayson played a major rule in the negotiations between the Crown’s Treaty commissioner Robinson and his associates regarding how the Treaty Annuity money would be distributed to the Treaty Indians through the HBC. Finlayson Street in Thundery Bay today is named after Duncan Finlayson, who did actually spend most of his time at the RRS. His older brother Nicol, on the other hand, while de did not physically spend as much time at Fort William as Duncan did, he was in many ways tied to Fort William more so than Duncan. Nicol’s son John Finlayson is mentioned repeatedly in Father Chone’s and then Father Ranquet’s Fort William Jesuit Mission Journals, and he is working and trading and fishing alongside Michel Shebakijick, son of the HBC-appointed Chief John Ininwayu. Michel was a headman at Fort William. Both father and son signed the 1850 RS Treaty representing Fort William along with hereditary Fort William band Chief Joseph Peau de Chat. They were cousins actually, from the Kingfisher Clan. John Finlayson was baptized Catholic (he was previously baptized Methodist as a young boy with his brother Hector when they were living with their uncle Duncan at RRS by Rev. Cochrane in 1831) by Father Chone so he could marry Angelique Ikwens Shebagijig. She had already converted and was baptized by Father Chone. She was the daughter of Michel Shebakijick (lots of different spellings in the records) and granddaughter of Chief John Ininwayu. This is the same Chief “Red Coats” whose portrait was painted by Paul Kane. There is some confusion about him, there is a website for Wawa or Michipicoten which claimed he was their Chief but that is incorrect. Their chief who signed the RS Treaty was Tootoomanni (various spellings). John Finlayson and Angelique were married at the Fort William Mission on Jan 16, 1849 according to Father Chone’s Jesuit Mission Journal entry. By this time John’s father was a Chief Factor for the HBC, in fact he was stationed at Michipicoten in 1838-39, the year John entered the service at Fort William. So it makes sense that his son John, being the son of a “Chief” would marry the granddaughter of a “Chief”. Over the 30 years or so I have been researching this history and learning as much as I can about my ancestors in Canada; French, Scottish, Cree, Oji-Cree, and Métis. In the process I have encountered plenty of overt and covert racism directed at my Indigenous ancestors, but most of that history seems to be modern history, from the post WWI period onward. For example, take a look at how John Finlayson navigated his own indigeneity in the Algoma Dist Census records from 1871 to 1891 before his death in 1898 at Mobert. He identified as “white” “Scothbreed” “Indian” and “Halfbreed.” It seems that it got to a point where he had to begin to hide his Native background and “pass as white”. He never identified as Métis, but he surely had one fot in the White HBC world and one foot in the Ojibway world. he spoke fluent Ojibway and likely spoke some Cree as well. His mother was likely Cree or Oji-Cree, named Nancy Ka-na-ka-shi-waite, the sister of three brothers identified in Mcrea’s 1897-98 Indian Affairs Report for John’s son Louis Victor Nicholas “Nick” Finlayson 1857-1931. Nick was born either at Pigeon River, a Fort William HBC Outpost near the MN border where his father John spent winters managing between 1854 and 1857, or right there at the Fort William Mission. John was moved to the Long Lake HBC Post as Postmaster at least by 1863, but possibly as early as 1857/58. John and Angelique had several children while at Fort William between 1849 and 1857 when Nick was born. They’re first born was Anne, Oct 27, 1849, 10 months after they were married, then a son named Mansey in1850 and a another daughter named Apolline on Oct 25, 1851, then another daughter named Angelique Mary Finlayson, she went by Mary, on July 3, 1853, followed by Elizabeth on July 23, 1855, and then Nick on August 21, 1857. The first three all died by 1854 and were buried presumably at the old Fort William Mission Cemetery. Elizabeth eventually married HBC Chief Trader and Clerk under her father John at Long Lake named Thomas A. Reynolds. they married at Red Rock in 1880. Daughter Angelique Mary eventually married Noel Samuel Desmoulins at Heron Bay/Pic but they both died of influenza with days of each other in May 1889 leaving behind several orphaned children. And their son Nick eventually married twice, his second wife was Jane Souliére of Michipicoten, but that family was from Garden River, and before that they were at Drummond Island Michigan and prior to that they were at LaPointe, Madeline Island, Wisconsin. The Thunder Bay area is so rich with history and cultures, both indigenous and settler, it is heartbreaking to see all this ugly racism on open display. here in the US it had gotten completely out of hand, I only pray that this insidious American racism does not creep over the border.

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