Research: The Steel Company and the 1,184 acres stolen from Aamjiwnaang

The backstory

I never planned on spending months of my life behind a microfilm machine researching land swindles.

In June of 2005, I was hired to produce and direct The Ipperwash Park Film Project, which was intended to be an educational documentary on the history of the land that became Ipperwash Provincial Park. Our focus was the beachfront that ran across the top of the Stony Point Reserve on Lake Huron. Research on Sarnia’s “Chemical Valley” was not in the original film budget. But in 1928 (the year of the sale of the Stony Point beachfront to the Mayor of Sarnia) it appears that the First Nations communities at Stony Point, Kettle Point, Walpole Island and Sarnia all shared something in common – an Indian Agent.

While I spent time trying to find out as much as I could about Thomas Paul, the Indian Agent for the Sarnia Agency from 1918 to 1930, a common story kept popping up in old microfilm reels for the local newspaper. The story was that of a steel factory that had been built on land surrendered by the Chippewas of Sarnia in 1919. Something seemed “off” about this story, and over the course of the next couple of years I ended up spending almost 2,000 hours researching the combined stories of Ipperwash and Sarnia’s “Chemical Valley.”

The story of the 1,184 acre surrender to the Steel Company ended up growing so large that I hope to make it into its own film (which of course takes funding, meaning it may sit on the backburner for a while until I can finish my two documentaries on Ipperwash). However, I’m still quite proud of this research.

Over the Christmas holidays in 2012, as the Idle No More movement gained momentum and a blockade of the CN Rail line at Sarnia was in full swing, we decided to share this research with the Aamjiwnaang community and the public at large in the hopes that it would help educate people as to some of the issues behind the movement. The story never did make its way into the media, but I’ve copied the Backgrounder and Timeline of Events below for anyone interesting in reading about what I was up to for all of those years.



As the Canadian colonial government in Toronto (then called York) became aware of the riches of what is now southwestern Ontario in the early 1800’s, the government decided it wanted to settle those fertile soils with farmers from Britain.  But the colonial governors knew very well that First Nations tribes owned and lived on those lands, and they remembered Pontiac’s War of fifty years earlier.  At that time the First Nations of North America had fought back against British colonialists, had captured almost all of the British military forts in the interior, and had almost driven the British from the central continent.

So the British colony of what is now Canada made sure that it negotiated with the First Nations of what is now southwestern Ontario, and eventually signed the Treaty of 1827, in which the First Nations chiefs agreed to allow some settlement, and in return the British King promised and agreed that some of the lands of southwestern Ontario would remain exclusively native lands forever (“at all times hereafter”).  One such tract of permanent native-controlled land consisted of approximately 10,000 acres on the St. Clair River, near the site of the future City of Sarnia.

Many decades later the small village of Sarnia located next to those native lands had grown into a city, and the leaders of Sarnia began pressuring the government of Canada in Ottawa to break its Treaty agreement with the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, and to use the government’s political power, and the threat of force, to take away the lands which the King had guaranteed to the Indians would be theirs in perpetuity, so that those lands could be used for development of the City.


In response to pressures from Sarnia businessmen, the Sarnia Chamber of Commerce, Sarnia City Council and the local newspaper, the Department of Indian Affairs began lobbying the Aamjiwnaang First Nation in the early 1900’s to give up its 10,000 acres of valuable land.  Twice, the Department organized First Nation votes on proposals put forward by the Department to give up their land.  Twice, the community voted against the proposals.

Then, in March, 1919, the Department began pursuing the lands with a plan to simply take the lands, whether the Indians agreed or not.  This would break the King’s written Treaty agreement with the First Nation, but the Department didn’t care.  The Inspector of Indian Agencies stated the plan in an internal memo:  “if the Indians insist on no compromise [ie, on keeping their Treaty-guaranteed lands] …”, the Inspector wrote, the matter could be dealt with by expropriating the Treaty lands using section 49a of the Indian Act (which purported to allow the government to break Treaties and seize Indian lands).  “It is my opinion … that they [the Indians] will eventually find out that some practical action on their part is essential [ie “voluntarily” agreeing to give up some of their Treaty-guaranteed lands] if they would remain in the vicinity of Sarnia as a band [ie if they want to avoid total expropriation].”

The First Nation, knowing that the Department could use and intended to use the (questionable) law in section 49a of the Indian Act to break the Treaty agreement, and impose its will by force of arms if necessary, unless the Indians “agreed” to give up some of their land, voted in December of 1919 to give up part of its reserve land, to appease the government and preserve the rest of their land from seizure.

In an internal report after the December 10, 1919 vote, a senior DIA official wrote:

In the course of the discussion [before the vote] the Indians wanted a pledge that the provisions of 49A of the Indian Act, known by them as the ‘Oliver Act’, would not be enforced against the Sarnia band [in the future]. … I pointed out that … the Department had shown no disposition to enforce the provisions of this section against the Sarnia band since they had shown willingness to surrender necessary land [emphasis added]  … They insisted, however, that some provision should be inserted in the surrender to prevent the ‘Oliver Act’ being operated against them [in the future].

In the end, the Department of Indian Affairs, acting at the prodding of the businesses of Sarnia, got its way, and through threats of total expropriation, took away large portions of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation’s lands, which had been guaranteed to them forever under the Treaty with the King.


Although Aamjiwnaang First Nation members had voted in December of 1919 to give up a large portion of their Treaty-guaranteed lands — under threat that if they didn’t “agree”, the government would seize all their land — the written land transfer that the First Nation had approved contained other conditions, including that the land be developed for a specific steel industry project, which would have produced side benefits for the First Nation.  But the steel company never came through, and the land sat empty.

Rather than returning the land to the First Nation (to restore its Treaty–guaranteed status), the Department of Indian Affairs proposed to the First Nation in 1922 that the land be developed for a different purpose by a different company.  The problem for the Department was that this required a change to the original land transfer, to which the First Nation would have to agree.

When the Department proposed the change to the First Nation for the required vote on October 4, 1922, the First Nation representatives were smart.   They had been burned several times.   This time, the company had promised that payment for the change could happen immediately, so the First Nation voted to approve the amendment, but only on the specific condition, written into the approval, that the full purchase price be paid within three days.

Once again, the condition was broken.  The company did not make payment within three days.

But that didn’t stop senior Department of Indian Affairs officials.  In a report to the Privy Council, whose final approval was legally required and was being sought in order for the amendment to be valid, Duncan Campbell Scott, the most senior DIA official, certified that “the total purchase price has been paid by the corporation within the stipulated time.”  However, documents show that Mr. Scott, who handled the details of the payment issue himself personally, knew full well, when he certified to the Privy Council that payment had been received, that in fact payment had not been received.  The Privy Council approved the amendment based on this misrepresentation, knowingly made by the head of Indian Affairs, at a time when payment had not been received, as required by the agreement.

In the end, the legality of the industrial use of a large portion of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation’s land rested on a lie by the most senior official of the Department of Indian Affairs.

Murray Klippenstein
Monica Virtue
January 2013

Timeline of Events

The Treaty:

  • During 1826, the boundaries of the Sarnia Indian Reserve (Aamjiwnaang First Nation) are first laid out and contain within it 10,280 acres.
  • On July 10, 1827, the final draft of the Huron Tract Treaty is signed. Superintendent George Ironside takes the confirming cession at Amherstburg from 18 chiefs. This land agreement between the chiefs and the Crown promises to share 2.1 million acres, while reserving four parcels of land for the First Nations at Sarnia (10,280 acres), Kettle Point (2,446 acres), the mouth of the River Aux Sable, aka Stony Point (2,650 acres) and Moore Twp. (2,575 acres).

The Oliver Act:

  • On May 19, 1911, with the consent of the Senate and House of Commons, section 49 of the Indian Act (regarding surrenders) is officially amended to allow the government to take reserve land without consent, where the reserve is in or near a town of over 8,000 people, or where the land is needed for public purposes. The later clause, Section 49a, is subsequently known as the “Oliver Act.”
  • Following WWI, the President of the Sarnia Board of Trade writes Duncan Campbell Scott (Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs), asking for the Oliver Act to be used to open the remainder of the Sarnia reserve to agriculture.
  • The City of Sarnia files a resolution asking for the Reserve to be opened.
  • The Sarnia Chamber of Commerce also begins applying pressure on the Department of Indian Affairs in Ottawa.
  • A deputation from Sarnia travels to Ottawa to meet with officials from the Department.
  • Duncan Campbell Scott writes to Chief Menass (Chief of Aamjiwnaang First Nation), threatening to use the Oliver Act to expropriate the entire Sarnia Reserve and forcibly move the community to another location.

Three Surrender Votes:

  • In February 1919, the Band votes on a surrender of the north half of the reserve. The vote is split. (All the male members over the age of 21 at Sarnia, Kettle Point and Stony Point vote, since they are considered by the Department to be one Band.)
  • The Department splits the Bands. The Chippewas of Sarnia become their own Band, while the Chippewas of Kettle Point and Stoney Point are lumped together into a separate Band.
  • The Department holds an enfranchisement vote with the Sarnia Band. It is not successful.
  • In the coming months, the Oliver Act is again discussed between Department officials and the Indian Agent.
  • In June 1919, a second surrender vote is successful. 222 acres on the riverfront are surrendered to Childe Harold Wills, who has recently left the Ford Motor Co. to start his own car company called the Wills-Ste. Claire Motor Company.
  • The surrender documents state that, “the Sarnia Band further request that the Department take into consideration this surrender as evidence of their good faith and as a reason for the Department not entertaining the present agitation by the Chamber of Commerce of Sarnia for the surrender of their Reserve.”
  • In December 1919, a steel company shows interest in locating on Sarnia Reserve. The steel factory is to employ 4,000 men.
  • In December 1919, the Band votes in favour of a surrender of 1,184 acres to “certain steel interests.” The land is to be used to build a steel factory and to build houses for the company’s 4,000 workers.
  • The surrender documents state that $20,000.00 is to be held by the Department of Indian Affairs as security if building operations in a substantial way are not commenced within one year from date of patent. The clause is meant to prevent the land from being purchased for speculative purposes.
  • The Band agrees to the surrender on the condition, “That this surrender is given on the distinct understanding that the Superintendent General of Indian Affairs will not enforce section 49A of the Indian Act, known as the “Oliver Act” against the Sarnia Band for five years from the date of this surrender…”

Waiting On Payment:

  • The patent to the steel company is not immediately issued. Several years elapse as company waits for hydro lines to be brought in from London to power the factory’s electric furnaces.
  • In 1921 R.V. LeSeuer becomes the Member of Parliament for Lambton West.
  • In 1922, frustration by Band members is high due to lack of payment. The Department begins to pressure the steel company to follow through with the terms of the surrender.
  • In October 1922, the $20,000 “guarantee of payment” condition is removed following a vote of all the men of the reserve. The $20,000 payment is removed on the condition that all monies for the land are paid to the Department of Indian Affairs “within three days.”
  • The removal of the $20,000 condition is approved by Duncan Campbell Scott (Superintendent General of Indian Affairs), Charles Stewart (Minister of Indian Affairs) and the Privy Council.
  • The money is not paid within three days. Instead, three cheques from three separate sources arrive at the Department within several weeks; this money is to pay for a 950 acre chunk of the surrendered land (see map).
  • A $75,000 note for six months is given for the remaining 234 acres, on which the steel factory is to be built (see map).
  • In October 1923, South Sarnia Properties is incorporated. It is composed of President Fred W. Warner (former general manager of the Oakland Car Division at General Motors), Vice-President Stuart A. Howard (financial manager of Dominion Alloy steel) and Secretary-Treasurer W.H. Kenny (local grocer and former President of the Sarnia Board of Trade). The directors of the company are employees of the law firm owned by R.V. LeSeuer, the local Member of Parliament.
  • Around this time, a second company is incorporated under the name “Dominion Alloy Steel.” This company’s directors include Childe Harold Wills (formerly of the Ford Motor Company),  and R.V. LeSeuer (Member of Parliament).
  • In November 1923, W.H. Kenny is named as a director of the “new” steel company. By this time, neither the old or “new” steel company has made a single payment on the note; only a $2,250 payment on interest has been made. The $2,250 interest payment is being made on behalf of the “new” steel company.
  • The Department of Indian Affairs claims to be unaware that two steel companies have been incorporated. Confusion between the two companies becomes a source of a large amount of paperwork within the Department, lasting for many years.
  • In March 1924, sod is broken on construction of the steel factory.
  • From the time it opens, the steel factory employs approximately 75 men – a far cry from the 4,000 that was originally promised.
  • The Wills-Ste Claire car factory has not yet been built (and in fact, is never built. The company files for bankruptcy in 1927).
  • From this point onwards, the steel company renews its note every six months, making only small payments.

Land Speculation:

  • In September 1924, South Sarnia Properties creates a, “Plan for Street System and Lot Subdivision of South Sarnia.” The plan shows the lands in “Schedule A” as being divided into housing subdivisions.
  • In October 1924, fully aware that the 950 acres is going to South Sarnia Properties, the Department of Indian Affairs issues a patent to one Mary Oxenham. Ms. Oxenham is the accountant for R.V. LeSeuer’s law firm.
  • A week later, Ms. Oxenham grants the land to “South Sarnia Properties.”
  • From September 1924 to December 1925, an aggressive sales campaign is launched to sell lots in the subdivision. The 1,400 lots that are sold do not go to factory workers, but are instead sold to the general public.
  • South Sarnia Properties soon finds itself caught up in multiple legal actions. According to one document, “The lots that were sold, were sold by these ‘high-pressure’ salesmen by means of false and fraudulent misrepresentations. They stated at the time that the Imperial Oil Company were employing 7,000 men; whereas in fact they were employing approximately 2,000. that the population of the City of Sarnia was 30,000; whereas it was about 16,000; that the steel plant was already operating; that fifty houses had been built on the property and that is [sic] was building up fast…As a matter of fact nothing has been done with this property at all. There is not a building on the land, now has [sic] there ever been a building on it. Kenny was the man with the money in South Sarnia Properties…The salesmen got a list of all shareholders of Dominion Alloy Steel and called them first, apparently concentrating on the widows. The whole thing is a scheme by which Kenny and his associates were to sell this worthless land at a tremendous profit to themselves. The scheme had been tried out by some others in Goderich a short time before. The same procedure was gone through, – a lot of property was purchased and a steel plant was going to be erected, and then the property was sold off. In that case no attempt was ever made to erect a steel plant and no building was ever put up at all. The chap who engineered the Goderich performance came down here and started this one.”
  • In 1930, South Sarnia Properties is dissolved. “…It was speculated that the Depression (1929-1930), as well as talk of a coming war, might have been the cause. It was also said that there was some disagreement among the investors.”

Chemical Valley:

  • In 1931, the law firm of LeSueur, LeSueur & Dawson writes to Indian Agent Peter Gardiner in Sarnia. “Recently Chief Menass of the Sarnia Indian Reservation made a complaint to Imperial Oil Limited respecting some oil which had escaped into the Vidal Street Drain…On investigation following the pipe line break, it was found that the line had become corroded apparently as a result of the acid content contained in the water coming from the property of the Dominion Alloy Steel Corporation…the acid in the water killed fish which come up the stream in the Spring Season and that some cattle had died after drinking the water…”
  • In January 1936, the Land Abstracts show that the Sheriff sells all of the land once owned by South Sarnia Properties Ltd. to Thomas Dixon, Accountant, on behalf of Joseph W. Simpson, for the sum of $2,200. Simpson is the highest bidder at public auction.
  • In 1940, Dominion Alloy Steel is forced to close due to supplies being cut off due to WWII. By this point, the company still owes almost $24,000 on its note issued in 1922. The land still belongs to the Chippewas of Sarnia.
  • In 1942, Polymer is constructed to produce artificial rubber for the war effort. The creation of Polymer is the first step in establishing Sarnia as a major petrochemical centre.
  • In 1943, the construction of homes in the Village of Bluewater starts. Bluewater consists of 233 acres (sold at $5,000 an acre). It is located on the south-west corner of the 950 acres purchased by “South Sarnia Properties.”
  • By September 1943, those involved in the “old” steel company have taken over for the “new” steel company. The company tells the government, “We may have and opportunity of disposing of two or three small parcels of our property…The Polymer Company are looking for some swamp land to put a heavy substance which comes form the Dow Chemical plant…It is about 7 or 8 acres, lying in a V shape outside the main highway at the south-east corner…”
  • In January 1944, Privy Council accepts the sale of 9.342 acres of land to the Polymer Corporation.

The Patent is Issued:

  • In November 1944, the steel company has still not fulfilled other terms of the December 1919 surrender, including the moving of the Council House, a church and a manse. “In addition to the above there is of course the matter of final settlement of the purchase price, which remains to be met by the Company together with interest and costs. The total amount is in the neighborhood of $28,000.00.”
  • In March 1945, following all terms in the December 1919 surrender being fulfilled, a Crown patent is issued to Dominion Alloy Steel for the land the factory sits on. The 109.89 acres is sold to Dow Chemical.
  • In March 1947, the Department of Indian Affairs issues a patent to the Dominion Alloy Steel Company for the last 118.5 acres of land that was surrendered in December 1919. The land is sold to Polymer (via the Sun Oil Company).

Project: The Ipperwash Park Film Project
Scene: Surrender to the Steel Company
Client: Klippensteins Barristers & Solicitors

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