Editor’s Note: This is the fifth post in the Northern Borders and Boundaries series. You can read other posts in this series here.
As the British empire expanded its control of land, resources, and people in their colonies in the nineteenth century, colonial institutions for the natural sciences supported these efforts and benefited from them. Botanical gardens, zoos, and agricultural experimental stations were all scientific institutions tied to colonization in places across the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia. In the global north, the Dominion Experimental Farms was established in Canada in 1884 in this fashion, with the British-Canadian agriculturalist, pharmacologist, and entomologist, William Saunders, placed at its head. These institutions required land to exist and experiment, and the labour to transform the land into sites for advancing colonial science, commodity production, and settlement. With settlements already underway in temperate regions of the new nation-state, Canadian officials sought to colonize northern zones and create an agrarian north at the turn of the twentieth century. A short history of the formation of an Experimental Farm in Ontario’s north, as part of one of these schemes, illuminates this site’s reliance on imposed colonial boundaries, including geographical markers etched into treaties, landscapes of confinement, divisive labour, and ruptured Indigenous land relations.
‘Northern’ settlement schemes were promoted by the Ontario government at the close of the nineteenth century, to expand white settlement and industrial capitalist resource development on this land, reifying a spatial boundary distinguishing the north and south of the province. The Omushkegowuk Cree and Ojibwe Anishinaabe peoples long inhabited and cared for the stretches of land in what is now called northeastern Ontario. Here, the land lies in the midst of boreal forest, holds richly fertile tracts and swampy, acidic soil, and is enlaced with several rivers flowing into the James Bay. Treaty 9 first formed in 1905 and 1906, and it concerned the part of the region northeast of Treaty 3 and the Robinson Treaties. In the written treaty, the commissioners identified certain provisions on determining how land would be allocated for reserves for Indigenous people:
‘…where they will not in any way interfere with railway development or the future commercial interests of the country.’
‘…no valuable water-powers are included within the allotments.’
‘…that no site suitable for the development of water-power exceeding 500 horse-power shall be included within the boundaries of any reserve.’
Land was measured by its potential to be transformed into resources, or its access to networks to enable capital accumulation. Water was measured by its potential energy to do technological work. Reserve land was demarcated by what it was, as much as by what it was not to the colonial settler state.
While Indigenous people were becoming increasingly restricted in their use and access to the territory, state expansion schemes looked to house colonial science in the north. In the early twentieth century, a government official proposed to establish one of the new Dominion Experimental Farm research institutions in Kapuskasing, to scientifically study the region’s capacity for farming, and to facilitate northern settlement. The vision was to mimic farming settlements in the southern provincial regions, and acclimatize crop schemes to the north. But first, the town became a site of an internment camp during the First World War, holding over a thousand Austro-Hungarian and Turkish prisoners by 1915. Internment camps were built across Canada under the War Measures Act, and people who had previously arrived from the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, Bulgaria, and Germany were now considered threats, labelled ‘enemy aliens’ and rescinded of civil liberties, pointing to the tenuous political, racial, and ethnic boundaries of enfranchisement into a burgeoning white national identity.
‘Alien’ prisoners of war – both adults and children – were often used as cheap labour for large projects in mining and logging, and in Kapuskasing, they were the primary labour for building the new scientific site. ‘The 1300 Austrians and Turks that are confined at the camp are busy clearing the land…which will be the location of the Experimental Farm,’ one reporter stated. They also worked on building new government roads to facilitate anticipated future settlement. Prisoners were incensed with their conditions, and in 1916, hundreds of people at the camp rebelled. But they were quickly repressed, and even when the war ended in 1918, many remained interned and labouring. They planted crops like oats, wheat, and string beans, and formal employees of the farm tracked information like frosts, crop rotations, and soil drainage, giving form to the new Experimental Farm.
With the end of the war, government authorities sought to repatriate returning soldiers, and were determined to combine this with settling the north. Many soldiers arrived in Kapuskasing in 1918 to form a ‘soldier colony,’ across the river from the Experimental Farm. The conditions were trying. Former soldiers soon found they could barely manage sufficient farm yields to feed their families and animals. The challenging labour during the short farming seasons in this subarctic Clay Belt region, and the lack of employment during the long winters, left many in debt to the local government store. Furthermore, many soldiers considered themselves superior to interned people. They became perturbed for reasons like the perceived ‘preferential treatment…given to foreigners and outsiders in the matter of wages,’ and accused them of cutting the ‘best timber’ on their lot, under the instruction of the Experimental Farm’s Superintendent, Simon Ballantyne. Little of the state knowledge or practices from the Experimental Farm was shared with the soldiers at this time. Instead, the much higher yields of the Experimental Farm were used as evidence by government officials to maintain that the land was agriculturally viable for their intended crops, and the soldiers’ ‘inexperience,’ ‘temperamental and physical disabilities,’ and being ‘the wrong type of pioneer,’ were to blame for their struggles.
Resigned, most soldiers abandoned the site by 1920. The interment camp closed then, too. By July, a Globe and Mail article announced that the Ontario government and the paper products company Kimberly & Clarke of Neenah, Wisconsin, were finalizing the latter’s acquisition of timber rights to land in Kapuskasing, as well as access to ‘waterpower and a spur [railway] line.’ A pulp mill was slated to be placed ‘right in the centre of the soldier colony,’ marking the shift from northern agrarian hopes to industrial capitalist prospects. With Indigenous people dispossessed to reserves, the government’s objective to now transform this freshly curated land towards industrial production based on forests was apparent with its new designation of Kapuskasing as a ‘resource town.’ War veterans and interned people, hostile to each other, carried out the physical work of building, planting, clearing, towing, sowing, and harvesting, towards the government promoted vision of a new colonial site. This northern place now transcended national borders, and was charted into the supply chains of the expanding United States capitalist strongholds of the early twentieth century.
The installed infrastructure of colonial science depended first on the removal of Indigenous people to carefully bounded reserve land. Moreover, the socio-ecological transformation of this land into an experimental site for colonial objectives, where interned and veteran labour was used to carry this out, also depended on callously rupturing Omushkegowun Cree and Ojibwe land relations, which were also their livelihood and knowledge systems. In 1920, the Kapuskasing colonial settlement scheme was considered a failure. That this failure entailed Indigenous dispossession, vast clearance of over one thousand acres of dense forests into a scientifically managed farm, and the exploitation of veteran and prison labour was, for the colonial government, only a part of advancing the colonization of this northern land.