Pic River First Nation

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The Pic River Band lives in a small village on the shore of the Pic River where the Pic and Black Rivers join a couple of miles north of Lake Superior. The village, now called Pic River, is a few miles south of a stop on the Canadian Pacific Railroad called Heron Bay. Heron Bay consists mostly of a hotel, a grocery store and a few other small businesses.

In 1973 the people living at Pic River were part of the Pic 50 Band of Ojibway. The other half of the band lived some miles away in an even smaller village now called Pic Mobert South. At one time, a mine operated near Mobert. The members of the band living at Pic River consist mostly of the Michano, Nabigon, Star and Desmoulin families. A smaller group recently relocated to the village from another reserve some distance to the west. The recent arrivals were fishermen. When the Lamprey ell decimated the Lake Superior fishery they moved to Pic River and joined the Pic River Band. One or two families of Cree people from northern Ontario also lived on the reserve. The Desmoulin family were descendants of a Frenchman whom the band adopted some years before.

In the early 1970s the only sources of employment was a paper mill at Marathon, some twenty-five miles west on the TransCanada Highway, the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests and the National Parks service. For many years an American paper company operated a two-mile long elevated flume used to move logs from the Black River to a wharf on Lake Superior. At the wharf the logs were loaded onto ships for transport to a paper mill in the United States. Men from the Pic River Band were employed to walk the flume and keep the logs moving from the lifting-frame on the Black River to the flume’s terminus on the lakeshore. The flume was abandoned in the 1960s. Aside from those few who found work in Marathon as millwrights and laborers or with government, the men returned to fishing, trapping and other odd jobs.

Frank Tettemer visited Pic River several times in summer of 1972 to demonstrate how to make and sell leather crafts. He and his wife, Marita, lived in a rented cottage on the Lake Superior shore a few miles from the village. The cottage was located at the mouth of the Pic River where there was a large beach and sand dunes. Frank was well received by the Pic River Band. The band impressed him as the most progressive and enterprising of all the Indian Bands he visited during the year he spent traveling around northern Ontario under contract with the Government of Canada.

Before Frank returned to Southern Ontario, the Government of Canada announced its intention to create a national park on the Lake Superior shore between Sault Saint Marie and Thunder Bay. The site chosen was a huge wilderness area just south of Pic River. The chosen land was a highland area upon which lived the southern-most herd of caribou in Ontario. The only road into the area passed through the Pic River Reserve. The Band’s young Chief, Roy Michano, convinced the Government that Native Canadians from the Band could be trained to build and operate the park. Many of the able bodied men were enrolled in a training program to survey the Park’s boundaries, build the necessary infrastructure and then operate the Park after it opened. The women enrolled in a program to learn to make and sell crafts at a facility that would be built inside the Park.

After Frank Tettemer’s contract had ended and he and Marita had returned to southern Ontario, Roy Michano wrote Frank asking him to set up a training program for the women. In October Frank passed the letter onto Philip Mullins and Mary Rauton of the Ragnarokr leather shop in Toronto. Philip and Mary already knew the principal contractor, Mr. and Mrs. Brooks. Mr. Brooks and his wife Joanne were the owners of a design firm called J&J Brooks and a retail shop on Yorkville Avenue called Pax Design. Philip had worked at Pax Design as a driver before co-founding Ragnarokr leather shop and Mary served on the Board of Director’s of the Ontario Craft Foundation with Joanne Brooks. Philip began to write the curriculum for the training program and prepare a budget. During the winter of 1973-73 he negotiated with various agencies to arrange funding and support for the project. Finally in March 1973 he and Mary left Toronto and traveled to the Heron Bay Reserve to begin the training program.

The band’s Chief, Roy Michano, arranged the training site and picked the fifteen women to participate in the program. The priest of the village’s Catholic church, Father Brennen, loaned the church basement as the classroom while the workshop was under construction. Mary and Philip rented a tiny cottage in the village for their living quarters. Mary did most of the training with Philip acting as her assistant and technician. The emphasis was upon leather craft using moose hides obtained from the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests. Attempts were made to use traditional Ojibway motifs whenever possible and the few old women who remembered traditional crafts were asked to assist. The group traveled to a Powwow in Thunder Bay to sell their crafts and meet other Indian craftsmen.

The women loved Mary and treated Philip like a brother. An older woman among the trainees, who had worked trap lines with her husband, taught Philip and Mary how to trap and snare rabbits and other small game. Philip and Mary were invited into the homes of the trainees and attended Mass, funerals, ball games and festivals in the village. When the contract ran out in August 1973, Philip and Mary left the reserve and returned to Frostpocket and the leather shop.

The workshop was moved to the new building just before the training ended in August and the women opened a small retail store there. Work on Pukaskwa National Park was postponed by the government and few visitors made their way down the long gravel road to the little village and the craft shop. The ladies kept the project going for a few years but the store was finally closed and the workshop opened only when someone had an order to fill. Philip and Mary traveled to Pic River by rail the following spring for a short visit. Roy Michano, his wife and his uncle and his uncles’s wife kept in touch with Philip and Mary for years and occasionally visited Frostpocket and the leather shop in Toronto. The Jesuit priest of the Catholic church at Pic River, Father Brennen, also stopped by South River to visit when he was in southern Ontario.

Roy Michano was the elected Chief of the Pic Band for thirty years. He continually looked for employment opportunities for members of his band. In the late 1980s the Ontario government identified a site just upstream of the old paper mill flume lifting-frame as a potential site for a small hydroelectric installation. Roy Michano was invited to sit on a review committee to consider applications to develop the site. Instead of selecting an outsider, he and the Band bid for the right to develop the generating station. In 1992 a 13.5-megawatt generating station belonging the Pic 50 Band opened at the site. The Band signed a 50-year contract to sell the power to Ontario Hydro for a fixed-price of 6.3 cents per kilowatt-hour. A few years later the Band, now known as the Pic River First Nation, built the Twin Falls Generating Station, a 5.0-megawatt station located on the Kagiano River, and the Umbata Falls Hydro Project, a 23-megawatt station located on the White River. The power stations have generated more than $1 million in profits. The income has helped the band finance a women’s crisis center, a youth center, a recreation center, cable television and high-speed Internet services for the members of the band. In 1983 the Band also began hosting an annual Powwow.

In the late 1970s the band saw an opportunity to renegotiate their treaty with Canada. The Pic Band was a party to the Robinson-Superior Treaty of 1850 and became a treaty reserve in 1914. The members of the band had been receiving “treaty goods” and a small annuity for over four generations. Some uncertainty with the treaty had arisen and Roy Michano was undecided what to do. He thought about asking for another 100 acres of land to add to the reserve in exchange for signing a new treaty with the Government of Canada. Philip Mullins reminded him that the “treaty goods” and the annuity were token payments that had lost most of their value over the years. What would his grandchildren think of him if he gave away their rights to a large chuck of Ontario in return for 100 acres? Philip never heard what Roy’s finally decision was but it is certain that his decision was beneficial for the people he represented.

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