Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek (Sand Point First Nation) is a relatively new reserve located on the shores of Lake Nipigon, and currently has a registered population of 250 members. The community was originally located on the east shore of Pijitiwaabik Bay of Lake Nipigon. The community’s reserve lands are located in the area formerly occupied by the Lake Nipigon Provincial Park, with the community of Beardmore located 17 km to the north, and Biinjitiwaabik Zaaging Anishinaabek (Rocky Bay First Nation) bordering BNA to the south. The Junction of Hwy 11 and 17, as well as the Red Rock Indian Band and the community of Nipigon, is located approximately 50 km further south. The entire reserve boundary is 3,372.3 acres (984.6 hectares), and spans both sides of the TransCanada Hwy. The TransCanada pipeline is located just outside of the reserve boundary to the east of the community.
The people of Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek are descendants of Ojibway ancestors dating back since time immemorial. When contact was made by Europeans in the 1620s, one prominent feature of the Ojibway was their totemic clan system, where individuals organized themselves into bands that were made up of memberships that descended through the male line, and individuals of the same totem were forbidden from marriage, as they were considered to be close relatives. While these bands existed as autonomous hunting groups, European contact and the importance of the fur trade led to the creation of “trading post bands”, where settlements sprung up as a consequence of the new industry. Following the negotiations of Treaties in northern Ontario, many of the former trading post bands simply became treaty bands as we know them today. The greatest social change came to those First Nation people who moved from the bush to settlements located along railway lines. Inter-marriage between native and non-native peoples occurred on a more regular basis, which altered the social fabric of First Nation livelihood that had existed for hundreds and thousands of years.
While an 1849 government report indicates that Chief Mishemuckquaw’s “Nepigon Band” on the Gull River was made up of 357 people, which was 40% of the Lake Superior Indians in that year, the Lake Nipigon First Nations were actually made up of 6 distinct bands, including Sand Point. Their collective knowledge of the land allowed a fur trading industry to flourish, and even provided critical information about the land to the new settlers as they built the railway. Jack Fitzback constructed the Sand Point Hudson’s Bay Post, an independent Trading Post, in 1890.
One Sand Point Elder has described the relations between the First Nations and the trading posts. The people of Sand Point would go to Nipigon House, Jackfish Island on the west side of Lake Nipigon, to sell their whitefish to the Hudson Bay Company. They would generally go in the fall, just in time for the whitefish spawn, and trade for goods and food for their dog teams. The grandfather of a Sand Point Elder built a house on Dog Island, near Nipigon House. Once the post closed in the 1930s, the Elder’s grandfather moved up to Mud River. The house that he built on Dog Island was still visible in the early 1950s, but became less and less visible over the years until it sunk into Lake Nipigon altogether.
The Early 20th Century
While the people of Sand Point had been occupying the land for many years, the first “public” record that indicates a community of First Nation people living in Sand Point was an August 9th, 1917 letter from J.D. McLean, Assistant Deputy and Secretary of Indian Affairs, to Albert Grigg, the Ontario Deputy Minister of Lands and Forests. In the letter, McLean informs Grigg that at least fifteen families, numbering between 60 and 75 people, were living at Sand Point and had been for 50 years, in the area that “the Indians desire a reserve for themselves”. Further letters by the Chief Fire Ranger in 1917 describe “13 houses, with 11 families living there all the time. The 11 families are made up of 51 Indians, with 26 children of a school age”. The letter describes log homes, with 12 to 15 acres cleared, and land that “will grow almost anything that our northern Ontario will produce”. Indeed, in 1918, Indian Affairs directed the surveying of the Sand Point Indian Reserve on Lake Nipigon.
Unfortunately, Grigg refused McLean’s offer to sell the land for the purposes of creating a reserve, and instead recommended a “License of Occupation” for those living at Sand Point. Ontario government officials were opposed to allowing the people of Sand Point to determine their own destiny. In fact, following the survey of 200-300 acres in Sand Point in 1918, Grigg wrote to McLean at Indian Affairs, complaining as to why Sand Point Indians “require such a large area of land”, and ranting about errors in the Sand Point survey. Nevertheless, the Licence of Occupation for 236 acres of land, with a $10 annual rental fee, was granted for Sand Point through an Ontario Order-in-Council in October 1919. The licence could be revoked at any time.
The Flooding of Sand Point
Throughout the twentieth century, Ontario Power Generation’s predecessors, the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario (HEPC), and Ontario Hydro, built several facilities on the Nipigon River, including the hydroelectric generation facilities of Cameron Falls, Alexander Falls, and Pine Portage, as well as the now de-commissioned Virgin Falls Dam. Their work continued with the Ogoki Diversion in 1943, which saw the building of Waboose and Summit Control Dams. In June of 1927, Indian Agent Burk wrote to the Superintendent of HEPC complaining of high water-levels on Lake Nipigon, and attached a written complaint signed by 30 members of the Gull Bay Band and “28 members of the Sand Point Indian Reserve” regarding damage from high water levels caused by the Virgin Falls Dam. All of Sand Point’s docks were washed away from this dam, as well as cellars flooded, gardens flooded out and eroded, cabins undermined, and most disturbingly, the Indian Graveyard was impacted. In a 1927 letter, HEPC Chief Engineer Hogg felt that a settlement of $1,000 for the damages at Sand Point should suffice. Indian Affairs approved the recommendation that the individuals who suffered damage should be paid in food rather than cash, and the fall of 1928 saw tenders, vouchers, and shipping orders for food and supplies.
In October 1943, Reverend Rolland wrote to the HEPC, claiming that as a result of the flooding, 5 or 6 families “were obliged to leave [Sand Point] because they were near the water and could not have use of their cellars. You will have noticed that beyond the actual shoreline, there is a depression in the land – so it was the Hydro’s action which caused the evacuation of Sand Point”. Indeed, upon an inspection by HEPC on April 27th, 1945, Sand Point was reported as deserted. The school house had been moved to Grand Bay in 1933, and the church had been moved to MacDiarmid. Interviewee claimed that the reserve had been deserted since 1938, and there are differing perspectives as to who was the last family to leave the community.
The Cancellation of the Sand Point License of Occupation #748
Beginning in 1950, internal Indian Affairs correspondence demonstrated a willingness to investigate the possibility of a land purchase at Sand Point in order to establish a permanent reserve. Another survey was even arranged for Sand Point, as the title could not be transferred without it. However, when the Province’s Department of Lands and Forests valued the timber and land at Sand Point and White Sand at $16,765.31, Indian Affairs complained that the sum was too high. Therefore, Indian Affairs recommended that the License of Occupation continue “for a few more years” (with the full consultation of the Sand Point Indians), as they believed the land was only being used for a few months each summer for fishing. Indeed, BNA members were continuing to make improvements on the land, bulldozing a road from their development to the highway, and setting up plans to develop a timber processing operation on their reserve during the summer months.
In April 1957, Indian Affairs discouraged some Sand Point, Gull Bay, and Red Rock Indians from placing homes upon the Sand Point reserve, and refused to assist with the moving of people and infrastructure back to the land. The Province then wrote to Indian Affairs on June 9, 1958, complaining that the only suitable place for a provincial park on Lake Nipigon was in Sand Point, but it was under a License of Occupation by Indian Affairs. The District Forester for the provincial Department of Lands and Forests asked the federal department of Indian Affairs if it would cancel the Licence of Occupation. An Indian Affairs official wrote back:
“In line with general Departmental policy we should have an expression of opinion from the Indians concerned. Although they have never used the land it is to be expected that they will object to letting it revert to Ontario. Irrespective of their probable objections I think the lease should be cancelled”.
On October 1st, 1958, the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests cancelled License of Occupation #748. Sand Point would now become the new Blacksand Provincial Park for the Province of Ontario.
A BNA Elder has confirmed that the houses of the people of both Sand Point and Farlinger were burned down by the Forest Rangers in the 1950s. The Elder has also claimed that one of the Rangers who did this is still alive and living in northwestern Ontario. BNA staff has arranged to speak with this individual in order to continue documenting the historical record of Sand Point.
Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek: Recent History, and the Path Ahead
The 20th Century was clearly not kind to the people of Bingwi Neyaashi. Their livelihood and land were destroyed by outside forces: First due to the flooding from the activities of the Hydro-electric Power Commission of Ontario (Cameron Falls, Alexander Falls, Pine Portage, Virgin Falls Dam, and the Ogoki Diversion), and then at the hands of the Federal and Provincial governments, who chose to cancel Sand Point’s License of Occupation, discourage individuals from returning to their land, burn down their houses, and turn the reserve into a park. Whole families fled Sand Point. Some joined other First Nations around the Lake, and others moved out of the region all together. In either case, the knowledge, cultural traditions, and history of the Community were badly damaged. The displacement of the people of Sand Point is part of a disgraceful legacy by governments and industry at all levels.
However, as determined as ever before, Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek continues to move ahead. First, the settlement by Ontario Power Generation for their predecessor’s damage to Lake Nipigon was a first step in re-building the trust that had been lost after generations of activities without consultation and adequate compensation. And most importantly, in April 2010, an Order-in-Council was passed which finally created a Reserve for the people of Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek. BNA is now in a position to forge ahead with the development of the community that has been a distant memory for some, and a vision and a dream for many others. The people of Sand Point continue their journey, and are now at the stage where they are planning to return to the land that their Elders once called home.