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A colourful sunrise illuminates the river and forest along Highway 17 between Thunder Bay and Dryden.

MELISSA RENWICK/The Globe and Mail

Ernie Epp is a professor emeritus of history at Lakehead University, and a member of Parliament for Thunder Bay-Nipigon from 1984 to 1988.

Millenniums ago, as an Ice Age ended and glaciers melted, Mother Earth came to life again in the lands we now call Northern Ontario. The gifts of the creator – fish in the waters, geese in their annual migrations, animals that offered themselves for nourishment and clothing, trees that provided shelter – drew Indigenous people into these territories. In time, Europeans came, too, seeking the animal pelts they could sell in Europe.

This push-and-pull over resources – occasionally fruitful, but often fraught – is the story of Thunder Bay’s economy. It is a narrative of partnerships and rivalries that have shaped the tense relationships between Indigenous people and settlers that exist here to this day.

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At its best, the fur trade was a partnership in which cast-off furs – “greasy beaver” – were exchanged for manufactured items such as clothing, knives and guns. European gentlemen bought felt hats made from the inner hair of the beaver pelts, and Indigenous people obtained warmer clothing, superior tools and more effective means of hunting. Indigenous people also worked as traders and transporters, carrying those manufactured goods into the interior while bringing furs to posts on the coast.

However, the fur trade was always an extraction of resources that violated the symbiotic relationship between Indigenous people and their environment. The “beaver frontier” was one such consequence, as Euro-Canadian traders moved inland in a hungry search for the best furs, with little regard for the people with whom they traded and the areas they left depleted.

New possibilities appeared in the middle of the 19th century, but the power imbalance intensified. Shingwauk, the chief of Garden River First Nation, sought a role for his people around mining in Lake Superior, but the response of Canada’s new Responsible Government was to deny any such partnership. The treaties made in 1850 appeared to protect traditional activities, but only where newcomers were not using lands cleared of Aboriginal title.

And even those traditional activities were not safe when the province of Ontario asserted control over hunting. When the Hudson’s Bay Co. sought to maintain its fur trade in the 20th century, the Ontario Court of Appeal refused to hear the case, presumably knowing but refusing to recognize that the province was violating treaties made with the First Nations. It all formed a precedent that seems to survive to this day: that provincial control of resources trumps any treaty rights conceded by Canada.

As pulp and paper mills were established across Northern Ontario to exploit the forest wealth, cutting in the pulpwood limits became the work of Euro-Canadians living in bush camps established by the companies. However, an industrial partnership developed after Chief Tim Esquega of the Gull Bay First Nation north of Thunder Bay incorporated the Kiashke River Development Co. in 1974 and was able, with the aid of forester John Blair, to obtain a third-party agreement with Great Lakes Paper and the right to cut pulpwood on a nearby area of forest.

Mining saw another kind of partnership develop 20 years later. Bob Rae’s Ontario NDP government had declared a nation-to-nation relationship with Ontario’s First Nations, and it expected the companies mining gold at Musselwhite to provide benefits for First Nations in the territory. The Shibogama First Nations Council obtained the right to fly miners in and out of the camp, and the Windigo First Nations Council obtained the right to provide bunkhouse and dining-hall services. The First Nations provided some of the miners, too. In its second agreement with the councils, Placer Dome conceded a share in revenue whenever the price of gold topped US$300 an ounce (as it mostly has, over the past 15 years).

When Platinex asserted a “right” to develop a mine in 2007, despite the resistance of the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation, Justice Patrick Smith imprisoned Chief Donny Morris and five other KI members for contempt of court. Then the Court of Appeal overturned his judgment, and the province compensated the company for the losses it had suffered.

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Thunder Bay is too often in the news for grim reasons, reflecting a systemic problem of imbalanced power. The history of this imbalance is long, and centred around resources. A new chapter can begin if we start to recognize, in the words of lawyer Bill Gallagher, that the First Nations have become “resource rulers” – and that the prosperity of the entire Northern Ontario region requires genuine partnerships between the Indigenous people and settler folk.

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Editor’s note: (Dec. 23, 2019): A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Bill Gallagher, the author of the book "Resource Rulers."

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