While hiking the trails of Georgian Bay Islands National Park, the visitor with a keen eye and vivid imagination is awestruck by the vast stretches of time taken to shape the natural history of the park. What appears to be only a hill may actually be a glacial deposit or a shoreline dating back thousands of years, and the exposed Canadian Shield rock that is today so familiar to park visitors was in fact formed many millions of years ago.
Figure 1: Otter Creek projectile made from Onondaga chert, Middle Archaic period, 7,000 years ago© Parks Canada/ Collection GBINP
What is less apparent is the fact that Georgian Bay Islands National Park also preserves human cultural history as well as the more obvious natural history. Long before Beausoleil Island was a haven for tourists, it was visited and inhabited by many distinct Aboriginal peoples. Artifacts from as far back as the Middle Archaic period, 7,000 years ago, have been found, such as an Otter Creek projectile made from Onondaga chert (See Figure 1). The remains of ancient pottery, tools, and hunting implements that have been found on Beausoleil have enabled archaeologists to determine that the island was, in all probability, used as a summer camp by early hunting and gathering cultures. These include primarily a Middle Woodland site occupied by the Point Peninsula and Saugeen groups (2,400-1,300 years ago), and the Algonkian speaking Odawa (or Ottawa) of the Late Woodland Period (600-400 years ago). Several other cultures have also left evidence of their occupation on the island.
Algonkian and Wendat (Huron) people of the Georgian Bay area first experienced actual European contact in the early 1600s following Champlain's historic voyage of 1615. The first mention of one of the park's islands was made by Gabriel Sagard in 1624 describing a visit to an Algonkian village on what is believed to have been Beausoleil Island. Following European contact, the Native people experienced social turbulence and a disruption of their way of life, as a result of repeated relocation and encroachment by Europeans. New diseases were often present in communities long before the actual presence of a white man arrived. The Algonkian people returned to their traditional land farther east and finally, French missionary activity led to an encounter between the Wendat and Iroquois Confederacy which resulted in the dispersal and migration of the Wendat Nation to Quebec and to the southern United States. Most recently, however, the Wendat were welcomed back to their original territory in a ceremony after 350 years of absence by the Ojibwa nations, who now occupy the area.
The Ojibwa from the Great Lakes arrived in the Georgian Bay area in the early 18th century. Being hunters and gatherers, they had sound knowledge of the land, the medicines, and the animals. The Ojibwa became a major economic force in the fur trade and played a major role in the military force during the War of 1812. Fearing attack from the south, there was pressure on the Ojibwa to be removed from certain areas to strategically allow for routes of defence, eliminating access to their traditional travelling routes. The introduction of colonization began to change everything for the Ojibwa. In time, the Ojibwa surrendered more and more of their land until they had the rights to only a fraction of their former holdings.
By the beginning of the 19th century they had been localized in Reserves where they were encouraged to adopt the ways of "civilized" man. Written documents from the period show that politicians and religious leaders of the time wanted to "save" the Ojibwa from their traditional lifestyle of hunting and gathering by teaching them the ways of the Christian farmer. An "experiment" was set up in 1830 at Coldwater in order to promote the lifestyle of the Bible and the plough. Eventually, the experiment failed due to inferior equipment, incompetent staff, and factional infighting among the missionaries. In 1836, the people were divided under three principle chiefs and moved to different locations. One group under Chief John Assance settled on Beausoleil Island. The other two groups settled in Mnjikaning (Rama) along the shores of Lake Couchiching and Georgina Island in southern Lake Simcoe.
OJIBWA RESERVE (1836 - 1856)
On Beausoleil Island, under the leadership of Chief John Assance, the band continued to pursue an agricultural lifestyle and a Christian education. Settling at what is now Cedar Spring, a cleared meadow that is visible from the water is all that remains of the fields that were tilled here more than a century and a half ago. The settlement included 16 log houses, a church, two barns and more than 80 hectares of land cleared for growing corn and potatoes.
Life was very difficult for the Beausoleil Band. The island proved to be quite difficult for farming; the sandy barren soil caused repeated crop failures despite their efforts. Although the fishing was very plentiful, they could not sustain themselves there, and the once independent band was forced to rely on the government for staples such as flour and pork. In 1856, the band moved west to another island in Georgian Bay, Christian Island, bringing with them the name Beausoleil First Nation. Today, Beausoleil First Nation continues to flourish as a community that has endured displacement and colonization.
A few settlers did remain on Beausoleil, eking out a life with a determined spirit.
"About these harsh barren islands there is an undeniable fascination..."
- A.Y. Jackson, Group of Seven
Although the majority of the band moved, some chose to remain on Beausoleil Island and continue their lives. Initially the settlers were all Ojibwa, but in time, homesteaders from other origins drifted to the island: French voyageurs, Scottish immigrants and people of the Pottawatomie Nation from the United States.
Some remained in the original village, but as the houses fell into disrepair, more and more of them built shacks and cabins in the bush where it was sheltered from the fierce winter winds. Many names in the park, Tonch Point, Tobey Dock come from the families who originally lived there. They were a tough breed of men and women who managed to squeeze a living out of this barren yet hauntingly beautiful land. They were the type of people who would walk 165 km to Toronto; who would spend the entire winter away from their families at logging camps; who would risk the unpredictable bay in canoes or haul a sled load of furs across the ice to Penetanguishene.
Among those who lived on Beausoleil Island was Joe Corbière, a French voyageur. A lilac bush still grows on the shores of Frying Pan Bay, at the spot where Joe and his wife Susan lived. Joe was a well-educated man who could read three languages: French, Ojibwa and English. Years later when he became deaf, he learned to lip-read in all three languages. According to government records, the Corbières had, in the year 1929, "a fairly good log house with a frame lean-to and a log barn. Three cows, one pig and some chickens." The Corbières also kept a large garden where they grew corn, potatoes, oats and strawberries. Joe trapped, sold furs and filled icehouses for the ever-increasing number of visitors and residents to the area.
Gradually, the homesteaders moved away. In the few years preceding the formation of the park, only three families remained: the Corbières, Tonches and the Tobeys.
The end of the independent life of the homesteaders on Beausoleil Island was foreshadowed by extension of the railroad to Collingwood, a nearby harbour town. With the railway came a new influx of settlers, and rich summer tourists. Lumber mills sprouted out of nowhere, tearing at the guts of the forests with no regard for their majestic beauty. Beausoleil Island was not left untouched by this turmoil. Timber licenses were issued between 1864 and 1921. Sand and gravel, used to build such structures as the Midland dock and the Port McNicoll grain elevators, were quarried from several sites on the island. A trestle or tramway was built to facilitate the transfer of sand from the quarry near Cedar Spring (site of the old incinerator).
There is a silver lining in every cloud even if it comes in an unlikely form. Beausoleil Island was eyed as a potential resort site at the turn of the century, but the plan was never realized because the company, which held the timber rights, had the right to refuse permission for such development.
Thus this island was saved from private interests, eventually to be set-aside for the people of Canada as a national park. When the park was established in 1929, the few families remaining on the island were supported financially in their move off the island so they could re-establish their homes elsewhere. Many chose to live in Honey Harbour, while others preferred the nearby islands. Today, many of their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren still visit or work at the park.
It is announced that the Dominion Government has secured twenty-nine islands in the Georgian Bay, which are to be set aside for national park purposes. These islands ... are of rare beauty and of varying sizes ... it will be a consoling thought to the public to know that they are to have retained for their use some portion of Northern Ontario's earthly paradise.
-The Globe, Jan. 8, 1930
And so it was in 1929 that Eastern Canada's third National Park was formed in what was one of the fastest-growing vacation spots in Canada. Wealthy tourists had been buying up islands in the Georgian Bay at an alarming rate and by the 1920s; Beausoleil Island was the last large island available in the Thirty Thousand Islands. Local residents, who saw the danger in total private ownership of these islands, petitioned the federal government to set aside Beausoleil as a national park. In preparation for the opening of the Park, the three remaining families were compensated and moved off the island.
Today there are more than 59 islands in the Park. Despite this seemingly large number, the total area is a mere 12 square kilometres.
Although the Park is relatively young, it has seen many changes. With the convenience of today it is easy to forget that in the 1930s going for supplies meant rowing to Penetanguishene or that two horses were listed in the inventory as Park equipment.
There have been deeper changes as well. In early Park days, firewood was cut from within the Park; wolves and porcupines were shot; mosquitoes and weeds were heavily sprayed. Today, none of these things are done, reflecting a growing recognition that if these islands are to remain places of natural beauty for years to come, there must be as little interference with natural cycles as possible.
"Wisdom is not a knowledge of many things, but the perception of the underlying unrelated facts."
- John Burnet