Ever since the St. Clair Indian Reserve was officially created in 1827, it appears to have shared something in common with every other First Nation in Canada – it has been coveted by European settlers.
The St. Clair reserve is located in Southwestern Ontario at the mouth of the St. Clair River near the rapids – a beautiful location for the First Nations people who call it home, and an ideal spot for agriculture and industry due to access to Great Lakes shipping. At a size of over 10,000 acres, the St. Clair reserve (or Sarnia reserve, today known as the Aamjiwnaang First Nation) was initially quite large. However, not long after the Huron Tract Treaty was signed in 1827, settlers began building on land next to the First Nation. Soon, the area came to be known as Port Sarnia. Eventually, the Port become a Town. Little by little, the First Nation surrendered reserve land to the Crown for it to be sold to the encroaching Town, and before long the Town became the City of Sarnia.
Just two months after Sarnia officially became a city in 1914, the world found itself pulled into the First World War. The war brought everyone together to fight for a common goal, and during that time changes were made to the Indian Act to allow “uncultivated” and “idle” reserve lands to be leased to European farmers to create food for the war effort. These changes to the law were known as the “Greater Production Scheme.” A local grocer from Sarnia and his business partners took advantage of the opportunity and created a company called “Indian Farm Lands Ltd.” The company was successful in leasing a tract of land on the north-west end of the Sarnia reserve, and for at least one summer was able to farm the land that belonged to Aamjiwnaang.
The grocer was also the President of the Sarnia Board of Trade, and his “Greater Production farm” clearly gave the businessmen of Sarnia big ideas. During the late summer and early autumn of 1918, the grocer wrote on Board of Trade letterhead to the head of the Department of Indian Affairs, Duncan Campbell Scott, to suggest that the entire north half of the Sarnia reserve be opened to agriculture. During discussions with Duncan Campbell Scott, the grocer suggested that several different Indian Act laws could be used to obtain the land. Scott in turn wrote to the Chief of Aamjiwnaang, and threatened to use the Indian Act laws (such as enfranchisement and the Oliver Act) to take the land by force.
An alternative, Scott suggested to the Chief, was for the Sarnia Band of Indians to vote on voluntarily surrendering the land to the Crown. The Crown would then sell the north half of the reserve to European settlers looking to turn “uncultivated” lands into “cultivated” lands.
The “idle” land was to become “idle no more.”
From there the story becomes even more fascinating – especially because the lessons learned by the local Indian Agent during his first few years on the job (1918 to 1923) appear to have been replicated 10 years later at Ipperwash to obtain beachfront land from the Kettle & Stony Point First Nation.
Because of the connection to Ipperwash, I decided to shoot a recreation of the grocer inspecting the land at Aamjiwnaang for use in the Ipperwash Park Film Project. For this recreation I’ve again recruited my father. I created the wardrobe and props myself, and shot the scene in the potato fields behind Klondyke Trailer Park near Grand Bend. This flat, expansive location appears to have the same feel as aerial photos of Aamjiwnaang that I’d unearthed at Collections Canada that dated back to 1919.
Project: The Ipperwash Park Film Project
Scene: The Grocer and Indian Farm Lands Ltd.
Client: Klippensteins Barristers & Solicitors