In November 1849, a force of Anishinaabeg (see Ojibwe) and Métis warriors, led by Chiefs Oshawano, Shingwaukonse and Nebenaigoching, forced the Quebec and Lake Superior Mining Association to stop operating at Pointe aux Mines, Mica Bay, Lake Superior. Mica Bay is approximately 100 km northwest of Sault Ste. Marie (by road) on Lake Superior. The closure of the mine and the reaction of the Canada West authorities are known as the Mica Bay Incident.
Mica Bay mine site.
Michigan geologist Douglass Houghton’s 1841 report on the mineral potential of Lake Superior’s south shore sparked a mineral boom in Northern Michigan. Thousands of people passed through Sault Ste. Marie into Michigan’s copper country. Also, some illegally crossed into Canada searching for minerals.
Aware of Michigan’s mineral boom, Canada West (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. After the provincial geologist William Logan speculated about the north shore’s mineral potential, a Crown Lands Agent (Joseph Wilson) was appointed in 1843. Next, 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 Shingwaukonse’s leadership at Garden River First Nation Reserve.
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.
Aware of growing tensions, mining interests and missionaries called for a treaty. As well, 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.
Nebenaigoching (Nabunagoging), Shingwaukonse (Chingwackonce) and Menissinowenninne.
Government Inaction and Threats
By 1849, it appeared that Canada West was unwilling to act. This prompted chiefs Shingwaukonse, Nebenaigoching and Menissinowennin, with Allan Macdonell, to visit Governor General Lord Elgin in Montreal in July. The text of the chiefs’ petition was carried by newspapers like the Montreal Gazette and The Colonial Intelligencer; or, Aborigines Friend. The petition questioned Canada West’s rights and British intentions, while vowing to drive off the miners if a treaty was not negotiated.
While the three chiefs were in Montreal, Chief Peau de Chat of Fort William travelled to Mica Bay with his warriors and spoke with mine manager John Bonner. He informed Bonner that without a treaty the miners needed to leave. After the chiefs returned to the Sault, Allan Macdonell told Peau de Chat about a forthcoming treaty. Peau de Chat then returned to Fort William.
Instead of creating a treaty commission, Canada West chose Alexander Vidal and T.G. Anderson to investigate Anishinaabeg claims. Their investigation from September to October 1849 resulted in the commissioners failing to meet with First Nations who had moved inland to their winter hunting territories (although some bands intentionally avoided meeting the commissioners). At Fort William, they met with Chief Peau de Chat, who repeated Anishinaabeg claims. In response, the commissioners informed the Chief that should he refuse a treaty, his band would be forced from their lands without compensation.
When the commissioners arrived in Sault Ste. Marie, they met with Shingwaukonse and Nebenaigoching, as well as their advisor and lawyer, Allan Macdonell. During the contentious meeting that followed, Vidal threatened both Shingwaukonse and Nebenaigoching with exclusion from any future treaty. Following the meeting, Shingwaukonse’s son, Ogista, spoke with Vidal and Anderson about a treaty. Both commissioners viewed this meeting as an opportunity to divide the bands rather than as a way to engage with the chiefs. After the meeting with Ogista, the commissioners departed.
Mica Bay Incident, 1849
Faced with threats and inaction the Chiefs decided to act. On 1 November 1849, Shingwaukonse, Nebenaigoching, and Oshawano, alongside their lawyer Allan Macdonell and artist Wharton Metcalfe, as well as several hundred Métis and Anishinaabeg (see Ojibwe) travelled to Mica Bay aboard a schooner. They took a small cannon from the lawn of the Crown Lands Agent, Joseph Wilson, along with two six-pounders (artillery) and small arms supplied by Pierre Barbeau, a local merchant and friend of Macdonell and the Métis. Upon arrival, the chiefs confronted mine manager John Bonner demanding payment or closure of the mine. Rather than negotiate with armed “insurgents,” Bonner closed the mine. Women and children left on 10 November 1849 while the men and mining equipment followed a week later.
As people arrived in the Sault (Sault Ste. Marie), 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 under the command of Captain Ashley P. Cooper on 19 November. 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 2 December. 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.
The uprising’s “ringleaders” were arrested on 4 December 1849. Wharton Metcalfe managed to escape custody twice, eventually making his way to England via the United States. 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.
Impact and Legacy
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 (see Robinson Treaties of 1850).
Each treaty also contained annuities (annual payments) for the bands along with an “escalator clause.” The escalator clause was designed to raise the annuities as profits from the extractions of resources increased. The failure of the Crown (see Federal Government) to follow the escalator clause has led to a claim that is currently before the courts. Importantly, the treaties did not surrender mineral rights.
In response to the Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe) and Métis actions, Crown Lands Agent Joseph Wilson formed a militia company to defend against future Indigenous uprisings. That militia company is the forerunner of the 49th Field Regiment of Sault Ste. Marie.
In response to Mica Bay, Canada West passed An Act to Make Better Provision for the Administration of Justice in the Unorganized Tracts of Country in Upper Canada. The Act was partially designed to prevent individuals such as Allan Macdonell from “inciting” Indigenous resistance to government actions. It received royal assent in 1853, making it illegal to encourage First Nations to defend their rights.
Finally, the Point aux Mines site on Mica Bay was abandoned by 1853. The Quebec-Superior Mining Association failed in the same year.