How Thunder Bay Was Made

Travis Hay

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.


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