Manitoba History: Developing a Better Model: Aboriginal Employment and the Resource Community of Leaf Rapids, Manitoba (1971-1977)

by Sarah Ramsden
Department of History, University of Manitoba

Number 68, Spring 2012

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Built to service the operations of the Sherritt Gordon Mining Company and the Ruttan minesite, Leaf Rapids was a highly planned urban centre commonly represented as a departure from the past and distinguished by attempts to bring modern comforts to the north and implement a new degree of social equality. [1] Constructed between 1971 and 1974 and located 950 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, Leaf Rapids was described as innovative instead of historical, primarily due to the town’s close connection with Manitoba’s (as well as Canada’s) first New Democratic Party and its subsequent politicization. The involvement of the Schreyer administration (1969–1977) in Leaf Rapids was triggered by objections to Sherritt Gordon’s plan to use the traditional “bulldozer” method when clearing a site for the town. [2] In addition to calling for a more enlightened design that would preserve elements of the natural environment, the Planning and Priorities Committee, which reviewed the company’s proposal, saw in Leaf Rapids the opportunity to implement the new government’s strategy for northern development and demonstrate its commitment to democratic socialism. The re-examination of the resource town model by the NDP government led to the replacement of the company by a crown corporation, the Leaf Rapids Development Corporation (LRDC), as the primary developer of the community giving Leaf Rapids such descriptions as the “baby of Manitoba” and the “great democratic socialist experiment in the North.” [3] The close association between the NDP and Leaf Rapids has been noted by academics who usually identify the formal changes made to the resource town model when assessing the significance of Leaf Rapids. [4]

Boreal forest surrounded the growing town of Leaf Rapids in this aerial view from 1974.
Source: University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, Tribune Collection, PC18, Box 48, 3298-10.

This article explores the overlap between the political agenda pursued by the Schreyer administration in the north and the discussion of racial integration in relation to the Leaf Rapids. That the discussion of racial integration was a key part of the Leaf Rapids project is undeniable. The objectives for the town, outlined by the LRDC, announced the intention to create a “multi-cultural town” and “to increase local, northern employment and manpower programs.” [5] The commitment to racial equality and the local Aboriginal population [6] was made even more explicitly in the town’s first bylaw, which stated that developers sought to create “[a] community which will encourage human development by way of employment and recreational opportunities for a diversity of people including native northerners.” [7] The myriad of actions inspired by these goals and their underlying sentiments included using Cree words when naming streets, celebrating aspects of Aboriginal culture at local events and the Leaf Rapids Exhibition Centre, as well as efforts to modify the education curriculum for Aboriginal students. This essay will partly discuss the Tawow program in the Ruttan mine because it shows the connections between Schreyer’s northern development strategy, which advocated for the modernization and development of the north by northerners, and an emerging discourse of liberal pluralism that shaped Aboriginal policy at the local, provincial, and national level. A critical examination of the Leaf Rapids project and these work programs will, therefore, illustrate the homogenizing effects of modernity and the ethnocentric methods associated with the particular push towards integration and racial equality guided by representatives of the Schreyer administration. It will additionally demonstrate how attempts to include Aboriginal people in the wage economy and make them participants in the Leaf Rapids project were motivated, animated, and legitimized by the political pragmatism of the NDP, the interventionist philosophies of a social democratic government, and a liberal pluralist discourse that attempted to erase the racial hierarchy between white and Aboriginal populations, which had historically developed in this region.

One of the advantages of putting a model town, whose designs and practices were imported and exported on a global scale, at the centre of this study is that it draws together different historical forces operating on Leaf Rapids. [8] The purpose of this article is not to abstract these forces and make far-reaching claims about the nature of colonialism or racism, however, but to investigate their manifestations and the subsequent limitations placed on raced individuals in Leaf Rapids. That being said, there will be a focus on how the Leaf Rapids project and labour program were framed within the language of modernity, social progress and liberal pluralism. To find descriptions of these topics that unearth this language, a wide variety of sources was consulted. These sources include the records of the Leaf Rapids Corporation and the Northern Manpower Corporation currently held at the Archives of Manitoba and records held at the Leaf Rapids Community Archives. [9] Other sources include newspapers, The Forum (Leaf Rapids) and the Winnipeg Free Press (WFP), and reports created by the Centre for Settlement Studies at the University of Manitoba. Established in 1966, this Centre took up the subject of planning northern resource communities and discussed strategies for the creation of stable settlements in this region. The production of these studies signifies the professionalization of town planning and demonstrates the renewed interest in the north that dates back to the fifties, which saw the establishment of the Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources (1953) and the creation of Diefenbaker’s northern vision. [10]

In a speech made at the official opening of the Leaf Rapids Town Centre, Schreyer expressed his commitment to the north and the Leaf Rapids project declaring, “It is considered improper, if not politically unwise for a person in public life to admit to having a love affair. But I have just such a love affair: and it is with northern Manitoba.” [11] He went on to describe Leaf Rapids as “a jewel of the north” and later acknowledged the role of Sherritt Gordon saying, “If I have been speaking almost entirely of the Manitoba government role in this project, it is because of our special interest in it. But we have not been alone in this venture. I must make it very clear that all of this would have been very different if not impossible were it not for the enlightened position and cooperation of Sherritt.” [12] This paper engages with the work of the economist John Loxley who interprets the town and the actions of Sherritt Gordon much differently than Schreyer. According to Loxley, “The building of Leaf Rapids townsite, a reformist move to the extent that miners benefited from unusually comfortable living conditions, represented in essence a subsidization of multi-national mining capital.” [13] Established in 1927, Sherritt Gordon was a Canadian company that had its beginnings in Manitoba. [14] By the time of the Leaf Rapids project, the company had expanded overseas with ventures in Western Australia, the Philippines and Indonesia. According to its 1969 annual report, it was also in negotiations with Klockner & Co. of Duisburg, Germany to “explore a low-grade nickel prospect in Africa.” [15]

The 211,000-square-foot Leaf Rapids Town Centre, built at a cost of $8.5 million and opened in September 1974, brought under one roof the town’s school, hospital, hotel, bar, department store, supermarket, bank, and municipal offices.
Source: UM Archives & Special Collections, Tribune Collection, PC18, Box 48, 3298-6.

The election of a democratic socialist party had symbolic significance in the eyes of Manitobans and, as such, certain expectations, including a shift in policy and a move towards the left, accompanied the Schreyer administration into the provincial legislature. The objectives of this administration were clearly outlined in the Guidelines for the Seventies, which was, according to Avrum Regenstreif, “probably the most comprehensive outline of social and economic objectives ever presented to the electorate by a provincial government in Canada.” [16] The four major goals this document identified were: a stay option, greater equality of the human condition, maximizing the well-being of Manitobans and increasing local participation. [17] Even though the NDP’s eight-year period in the legislature was certainly defined by a flurry of activity that saw tax and labour reform, the extension of provincial welfare and social services, the creation of a public auto insurance scheme, and regional development programs, the successful translation of these goals into effective programs proved difficult. [18] Citing the growth in government spending that characterized the Roblin administration (1959–1968), failed projects, and the protection of capital interests, academics have further shown that the NDP largely continued the policies of previous governments and practised a “mild form of social democracy.” [19]

Although the province of Manitoba was active in its northern region even before securing control over resources in 1930, Nelson Wiseman claims that, “the NDP devoted more energy and attention to the area than any government or party in the past.” [20] The policies the government pursued in northern Manitoba were largely in keeping with the objectives identified in Guidelines for the Seventies. The Northern Strategy for Development stressed the importance of regional development associated with the stay option and emphasized the human element by privileging local needs over domestic markets and participatory approaches to development. [21] Loxley has criticized this “socially minded” approach, however, asking, “why should a capitalist state wish to reverse the process of underdevelopment … [considering] the contribution of the state to this process? Why then was the exercise attempted in the first place?” [22] In a critique of state policy and economic strategies, Loxley posited that even though greater efforts were made by the province to halt the economic exploitation of the north, listen to the demands of workers, and create greater social equality, the Schreyer administration did not fully implement this new development model and failed to realize the entrenchment of capitalism in the north. [23] The reality of the situation did not, however, stop the Schreyer administration or its supporters from presenting the government’s involvement in this region as a success story in which public welfare operatives, and consulting with local people. The tagline for this ad aptly read: “The north is now being developed by northerners. It didn’t just happen.” [24]

Leaf Rapids became a northern success story told by the Schreyer administration and was a direct product of this government’s northern strategy. Commenting on the replacement of the company by the LRDC, one NDP candidate identified the town’s symbolic importance saying, “The government’s actions in going into mineral exploration and building the first non-company mining town at Leaf Rapids will bring closer the day when it will be we, and not the multinational corporations, who will control our economic destiny.” [25] In addition to being understood as an intrusion on business and a $30-million investment, Leaf Rapids was described, in the words of a member of the opposition, as “pie in the eye little-boy socialism.” [26] The presence of the government and its influence in Leaf Rapids is further evident in its organization. Although construction of the townsite began in 1971, it was part of a local government district until 1976 when Leaf Rapids achieved official town status. [27] This legal arrangement allowed the LRDC to act as “controller and manager” in lieu of an elected town council. [28] The LRDC was primarily responsible for the building of all facilities (residential, commercial, and recreational) and the establishment of a social development program. Under the Ruttan Townsite Agreement, Sherritt Gordon officially became a taxpayer—an arrangement that designated a new kind of corporate citizenship. [29] In keeping with the principles of participatory democracy, however, Leaf Rapids was supposed to be a “people place” instead of a company or government town. [30] Formed to increase public participation and advocate for the betterment of people’s general living conditions then, the Citizen’s Committee was established by local residents in February 1972. [31]

In tandem with the NDP’s economic and political objectives in the north, Leaf Rapids was promoted to the public and in such spaces as the UN Habitat Conference as “the image of the modern north in Manitoba” and “the modern realization of the potential qualify of life attainable in the North.” [32] This stress on modernization echoes a recurring dream of the north as an integrated region within Manitoba with a booming industrial core, a vision that dates as far back as the Bracken administration (1922–1943). [33] Signifying the increased emphasis on permanence were attempts to diversify the local economy. Whereas 70 per cent of people worked for the mine in most resource towns, planners aimed for 60 per cent in Leaf Rapids and expressed the desire to encourage other economic activities such as tourism and fish processing. [34] This measure was supposed to lessen its dependence on one industry as well as secure the government’s investment by minimizing the likelihood that Leaf Rapids would become a ghost town. While such activities sought to provide the structural foundation for stability, the establishment of modern conveniences and southern comforts in the north was considered a necessary precondition for the long-term relocation of residents.

The planning of Leaf Rapids shows why new considerations, such as “people, nature, and the commonwealth,” were made in the context of post-war community development approaches and how the NDP and Sherritt Gordon continued to follow previous models and old strategies that typify the history of resource community planning. [35] Private consultants were mostly responsible for the physical planning of Leaf Rapids. Firms in Winnipeg, including Gary Hilderman and Associates and W. L. Wardrop and Associates, were guided by the design philosophy of centralization and integration. [36] Leaf Rapids was removed from the industrial area in order to “avoid noise, noxious fumes, dirt, heavy traffic and unsightly buildings.” [37] There was a central system of walkways constructed to minimize the use of vehicles and, in doing so, further protect the “beautiful natural environment.” [38] Houses were available in a number of styles all patterned on southern models and were arranged in a bay street system. [39] In order to accommodate the target population of 3500, firms planned for 218 single-family detached houses, 63 duplexes, and 119 townhouses (stage one development). [40] Epitomizing the design philosophy more than any other space, however, was the town centre, which received the Vincent Massey Award for Excellence in Urban Environment. [41] At 220,000 square feet, the town centre was divided into four basic quadrants that converged at the “town square.” [42] This intersecting mall system included the hospital, school, library, post office, hotel, shopping complex, restaurants and recreational facilities. The only room with no public entrance from the interior was the beverage room. In addition to being practical and cost-efficient, the design was supposed to promote socializing among residents and the creation of an active community. [43]

The separation between living and working spaces reflects capitalist routines that demarcate and structure time along with space—a strategy that brings to mind David Harvey’s work on Fordism and the “search to forge a particular kind of worker.” [44] When analyzing some of the other designs, additional strategies used to mould workers and citizens become even more clear. Sherritt Gordon’s hiring policy, which favoured married men, was the determining factor in the decision to privilege the single-family home and minimize the number of rental units available. The rationale in this instance was that residents who had families and a mortgage were more likely to stay because they had invested in the community and could not move as freely as the transient workers of the past. [45] Another method aimed at prolonging residence was the forging of affective ties. For example, just like the town centre, the bay street system, which created neighbourhoods by enclosing and organizing space, was supposed to bring individuals from different backgrounds together into a social space that would encourage feelings of kinship and belonging. [46]

Performing a similar function were community recreation programs and public events. [47] A Recreation Commission was established to organize evening activities for adults and teenagers alike as well as bingo games, movie nights twice a week, cross-country skiing trips, and square dances. [48] The annual winter carnival was also created with the aim of fostering social cohesion. Winter carnival events included power toboggan races, cross-country skiing, log-splitting, hockey, figure skating, tea boiling, snow-sculpture contests, as well as arts and crafts. [49] Additionally, the title of Kechi-Mahekun (Cree for Big Wolf) was given to the person who could best demonstrate such northern skills as flour-packing, goose- and moose-calling, trap-setting, muskrat-skinning and bannock-baking. [50] The festival also held demonstrations and booths that spotlighted parts of the community thereby creating a panorama that allowed “Leaf Rapids [to] look at itself.” [51] While the winter carnival was very much a celebration of northern living then, it should be noted that organizations that were popular in the rural south—like the Order of the Royal Purple and the Elks—were established in Leaf Rapids further exemplifying the importance of southern links.

One of the ways that people identified Leaf Rapids was by defining it against the mining towns of the past. The replacement of the single-male, immigrant radical historically associated with resource communities with the stable family man, for instance, shows the increasing importance placed on the nuclear family. [52] Indeed, Sherritt Gordon actually advertised in rural newspapers for the type of family man who was already “a hard-luck, hard-working farmer.” [53] A campaign ad in The Forum spotlighted the new man of the north as well. It featured Lester Osland, “Les,” and portrayed him as the model citizen (married, six children, veteran, deep social commitment to the wage-earner, and sensitive to Aboriginal exploitation—there is even a note written in Cree). [54] The status of the family in this modern town was also signified by the establishment of annual family days and further demonstrated in the early editions of The Forum, which had a weekly segment that featured different families from the community. There was even an official ceremony held when the first family of Leaf Rapids, Robert and Diane Harrington and their two daughters, moved into their home on 21 December 1971. [55] Present at this ceremony were W. F. Clarke, a representative of Sherritt Gordon Mines, and Al Plaskett from the United Steelworkers Union.

As a family town that was highly critical of the social problems that had plagued bachelor communities in the past, the community of Leaf Rapids was incredibly reflective and intent on the idea of providing opportunities for women outside the home and creating a suitable environment for a child’s development. Women, including “native women, professionals, unmarried women and home makers with children,” according to The Forum, met to discuss and in effect define women’s issues in Leaf Rapids. [56] Sometimes their concerns were locally specific as they talked about boredom, which they linked to northern isolation and lack of employment opportunities. To give greater credibility to their concerns, they used the universalizing languages of social needs and liberal feminism. Referring to stress and breakdown in mental health, solutions proposed at these meetings included working with the Department of Health and Social Welfare to establish a daycare centre in which “groups [would] not be restricted to the traditional sex-orientated activities, but that girls would be able to learn wood work and boys cooking, if they should so desire.” [57]

Sid Green, Manitoba Minister of Mines and Natural Resources, opened a bridge at Leaf Rapids, 1971.
Source: UM Archives & Special Collections, Tribune Collection, PC18, Box 48, 3298-1.

Another grievance voiced by women was the absence of the arts and high culture in Leaf Rapids, whereby “the end result [was] a psychosis which develops endemically and manifests itself in alcoholism and depression.” [58] At Women’s Week held in honour of International Women’s Year (1975), there was, in response to this specific concern, a workshop on how to make handicrafts, a display from the Winnipeg Art Gallery featuring the work of a female photographer, and a special exhibit from the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature entitled “Changing Women’s Roles.” [59] This exhibit “explored the traditional roles of native women, immigrant women and the Victorian women…. [and] [c]ontemporary female roles such as mine worker and bus driver.” [60] Other workshops at this event, which was organized by local community members in co-operation with the Secretary of State’s Office in Winnipeg, included Budgeting in 1975, Skin Care, Exercising with Housework, Women in the Labour Force, and Family Life Education—a list that shows the mixture of “progressive” views and gendered assumptions continuing to operate in Leaf Rapids. [61] Overall, the evaluation of this event session was positive. [62] Nevertheless, even though invitations were extended to women in the nearby reserves of Nelson House, South Indian Lake and Pukatawagan, one criticism identified during the evaluation session was that there should have been “more native involvement.” [63]

Weller argues that, before the Second World War, the importance of the provincial north “was largely historic and symbolic rather than economic.” [64] The economies that typified the north prior to the war—including native activities like hunting, fishing, and trapping, as well as frontier-type development—were complex and constantly changing but rarely required a significant white population or large amounts of capital. [65] Due to economic underdevelopment and the absence of a well-established political presence, northern Manitoba was continually seen as peripheral from the perspective of a white southern majority. Post-war economic growth, nation- and province-building projects, and advancements in technologies, however, ultimately led capital interests to re-evaluate the economic potential of this area. [66] The megaprojects that were launched during this more aggressive stage of development, marked by the rise of industrial capitalism and global integration, brought with them an influx of capital, white settlers, and technology as well as a developmental paradigm that identified economies and assessed their value on the basis of capital growth. [67] Whereas money, technology, and white settlers (re)configured a hegemonic colonial presence in the north by further linking this region with the south, the developmental paradigm saw a fundamental tension existing between a “white” society defined by an expanding resource economy and an “Aboriginal” society distinguished by primitive accumulation. [68]

Unlike other northern economies, such as the fur trade and the fisheries in which Aboriginal skills and labour were needed then, industrial capitalist ventures like mining operations saw the exclusion of Aboriginal people by northern developers. [69] While local Aboriginal labour was commonly used in the first stage of production that involved clearing the land to make way for such activity as mining operations, the importance of securing a stable workforce—a defining feature of capitalist ventures—and assumptions about the natural capacity of different races to work consequently privileged white labour over Aboriginal labour. [70] These assumptions proved persistent as the following comment made by a shift boss overseeing a work program exemplifies: “The Eskimo are better than the half Indians and the latter are better than the pure Indians. Among the half Indians some are good and some are bad depending on whether they are more like the whites or the Indians. The pure Indians are unteachable.” [71] In addition to demonstrating how race operated in an unspecified northern Manitoba mining community during the sixties, this quotation illustrates the belief that the timeless “Indian” could not be assimilated. Few Aboriginal people benefitted from this stage of development, which interrupted patterns of land use and was further marked by the destruction of Native land and their means of subsistence. [72] Individuals in “white” and “Aboriginal” societies had little contact with each other, and until the early seventies, indigenous people from northern Manitoba made up less than three percent of the total work force in northern mining communities. [73]

The Province of Manitoba further established a dual presence in the north by creating the infrastructure that extended and supported a white southern hegemony. [74] Beginning with Duff Roblin’s administration, the Manitoba government solidified its presence in the north by expanding its “capacity … to respond to and resolve social and economic issues.” [75] Commenting on the growth of government bureaucracy and the increased service networks that accompanied the rise of the welfare state, one report produced by the Centre for Settlement Studies concluded that, “There does not … appear to be a particular northern flavour about the system. The social welfare service network, in all senses, appears to be a southern transplant!” [76] The administering of health, education, financial assistance and other services requiring the presence of government agents as well as social networks helped to usher in a new era whereby an exploitative capitalist system was legitimized by the presence of a benevolent state. [77] This political presence increased divisions between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people by institutionalizing their differences and categorizing them as dependent and independent populations. This situation reinforced the presence of two economies and societies in the north, a reality that ultimately gave rise to a new theoretical rationalization known as dualism. According to Loxley, “This approach argue[d] that alongside a modern industrialized white society, which enjoys the good Canadian life, there is a Native society characterized by drunkenness, an inability to adapt, a lack of reliability and an inability to participate in industrial society which becomes racist in its connotations.” [78]

Modernity in the form of capitalist progress, material comforts, and integration within provincial, national, and global networks made possible the establishment of resource communities that were essentially white microcosms of the south (also referred to as “wilderness suburbs” by Robson). [79] These settlements excluded Aboriginal people allowing resource and reserve communities to develop alongside one another. The poverty of the latter eventually forced the federal and provincial governments to address this situation, however, and led to the modernization of some reserve communities (better housing, new public buildings and infrastructural improvements), the extension of the social welfare system, and attempts to create a self-sustaining population through its entry into the capitalist wage economy. [80] Some modernization efforts that date to this period were particularly disastrous and tragic as the story of Island Falls and Sandy Bay exemplifies. These were neighbouring communities in Saskatchewan that supplied hydroelectric power to Flin Flon, Manitoba in the fifties. Whereas Island Falls was a prosperous, white community with modern conveniences, the latter was populated by Aboriginal people who lived in deplorable conditions, worked menial jobs and—rather ironically—did not even have access to electricity. [81]

Writing on the subject of diversity in resource communities, L. B. Siemens said, “we are nowadays increasingly concerned about enlarging the range of opportunities for Canada’s citizens and tend to view segregation, whether along racial, ethnic or socio-economic lines, as something to be deplored or something which it is possible to avoid through orderly development and planning …. Thus the possibility of planning for greater social integration, if we desire to do so, seems greater at this time.” [82] That the community of Leaf Rapids was supposed to be “multi-cultural” demonstrates the importance of context and the influence of contemporary theories of liberal pluralism as well as popular discourses on the Canadian mosaic. While it is hard not to draw a parallel between the objectives of the LRDC and the federal policy of multiculturalism that had its origins in 1971—the same year that the town was established and the LRDC identified its objectives, [83] it should also be noted that the Manitoba government did not have a multicultural statute until 1992. [84] This absence, however, does not indicate the extent to which the Schreyer administration was influenced by the language of racial and ethnic pluralism. Schreyer himself was given the title of Honourary Chief White Eagle and his non-Anglo-Saxon status was identified as a distinguishing mark and asset during the campaigns of 1969 and 1973. [85] The social aims of the Manitoba NDP, which were captured by the slogan “humanity first” and further outlined in the Guidelines of the Seventies, stressed both “equality of opportunity” and “equality of condition.”

Following the symbolic win for the movement towards social equality, the Manitoba Government committed itself to “the gainful placement in employment of native northern people.” [86] This commitment was largely directed by the newly created Northern Manpower Corporation. Established in July 1971 and composed of a directorate with members from various provincial departments, the NMPC was guided both by the new development strategy as well as the social platform that expressed concern for the betterment of the human condition and equality of opportunity. Commenting on the social purpose of the NMPC and the potential of this body, Schreyer said, “There are many underemployed and unemployed northerners, most of them of Indian ancestry who with the right kind of information, training and orientation programs, would be willing to take up the northern jobs that became available. To see that this happens is one of the high priority policies of the Manitoba Government.” [87] It is then with this particular arm of government that the Schreyer administration launched a series of programs aimed at increasing the number of northerners in northern jobs.

After calling previous Aboriginal employment programs “complete failures,” Ed Schreyer went on to say in an article published in the WFP that, “The natives … simply couldn’t make the transition from the remote reserves to a white man’s kind of community and a permanent job and went back to the reserves after failing to adjust.” [88] This article, titled “Indian Miners Goal of Plan,” appeared on 13 May 1972—a day after the Tawow program was announced. The Tawow program, meaning “you are welcome” or “(come in) there is room for you” in Cree, was developed by the NMPC and co-sponsored by Sherritt Gordon Mines Ltd. (an agreement was reached in 1972). [89] Although participants were required to start at entry-level positions, performing such jobs as mill labourer, truck driver, and dozer/loader operator, the program promised that upward mobility based on merit was possible within this system. The stated objectives were to have fifty residents of northern Manitoba “supported in meaningful employment at the Sherritt Gordon Ruttan Lake mine” and “to develop and evaluate a continuing program of recruitment and job development in the mining industry with particular reference to Sherritt Gordon Mines and Ruttan Lake.” [90] Another objective was “to determine the best way of helping northern people take the step from the small remote communities where seasonal fishing and trapping is the way of life, to the northern urban communities where the jobs are industrial … helping the men and their families to make the tremendous psychological and social adjustment to their urban environment.” [91]

Distinguishing this program from others was its approach, which was comprehensive and aimed at helping native participants and their families adjust to an industrial way of life. Prospective participants were identified by distributing brochures and showing videos—both containing information on the mine and community life—on reserves after attaining band approval. When an individual expressed interest, he was provided with more information including a tour of Leaf Rapids and, if he agreed to move there with his family, was given assistance finding housing and “intensive counseling” upon arrival. [92] Other services included vocational counselling, orientation, occupational training and visits to native workers and their families in the new homes. The family presence was important for reasons previously stated. In the case of Aboriginal people, however, who were often seen as lacking proper family values, the emphasis was placed on the relocation of families to prevent “Indian men from deserting their wives.” [93] The husband or wage earner was not the only one to receive advice or be embraced by the ever-expanding reach of the state. An advertisement in the WFP for the position of Home Visitor with the Tawow program stipulated that the applicant “have budgeting and domestic home social development.” [94] In this totalizing and “socially minded” approach then, the new wage earner learned how to book off work for holidays as the new homemaker was taught how to operate a dishwasher. Organizers of Tawow acknowledged that the success of the program did not entirely rest on Aboriginal participants. Further attempts were made to “orient the southerners among the mining staff to the special needs and problems of the Tawow employees.” [95] On the subject of advisory support, the creators of Tawow also agreed that certain departments and groups like Indian Affairs, the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood, and the Manitoba Métis Federation should be consulted through the duration of the program and called for continual evaluation. These approaches proved somewhat successful as the program boasted a sixty-six per cent success rate. Nonetheless, Tawow never achieved its unofficial goal of having Aboriginal employees compose one-third of the workforce. [96]

Comments made by both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in respect to the Tawow program reveal racial stereotypes that continued to shape views of Aboriginal people and indicate the ethnocentric ideas behind socialization. The “success story” of Peter and Ellen Mekish, which appeared in the WFP, 6 June 1975, is an extremely dense record containing many voices that—at least on the surface—seem to agree on certain key issues, such as what the natural habits of “the Indian” were as well as the necessary steps for group advancement.

The Mekishes were a married couple who worked alongside each other in the Ruttan mine. While the article does give background information on these two individuals, Bob Lowery, its author, was primarily concerned with outlining the significance of the Tawow program and therefore used quotations that made generalized statements about Aboriginal people as a group within and outside the mine. For example, Ken Bear, the Sherritt Gordon Co-Director of the Tawow program, was quoted as saying, “At first people don’t recognize the value of their job.… After a while they begin to see what the medical, dental and other benefits mean to their families and future.” [97] Bear later went on to say that counselling was an important service because “Indians don’t normally push themselves forward.” [98] Born on the John Smith Indian Reserve in Saskatchewan, Bear’s comments speak to the difficult transitions made by Tawow participants who left their communities in an attempt to better their lives.

The Mekish article further shows how the language of liberal pluralism worked to conceal a colonial presence in the north and the power imbalance between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. Near the end of the article, Lowery wrote:

The Polish born Mr. Korski [manager of the Ruttan mine] says that having been part of a so-called minority group himself he can appreciate what the Indian people are up against in making their way through numerous intrenched [sic] attitudes. He thinks that the trend will be towards the Indian being part of an integrated Canadian mosaic, as has happened over the centuries in Europe. Setting Indian people up on reservations, in his view, has set this process back a hundred years. [99]

While there is some sensitivity to the challenges that Aboriginal people faced, the equation of Polish and Aboriginal peoples flattens out a racial hierarchy that had been (re)constructed throughout the history of northern Manitoba. The curious and ahistorical comparison between Canada and Europe has a similar effect. While the former analogy signals diversity, both of them erase the historical circumstances that shaped the (re)creation of racial categories in the north and fail to recognize the “racial domination … at the very heart of Canadian nationhood.” [100]

Even though the picture shown of the Mekishes’ experiences was shaped by the article’s narrative structure and the author’s desire to tell an uplifting story about the progress made by Aboriginal people as a direct result of their inclusion in a morally just society, there is some personal information to be gleaned from the brief descriptions of these experiences. Ellen Mekish, for example, indicates that she chose to move to Leaf Rapids with her family because of the opportunity for “better pay and more adventure.” [101] In addition to working in the mine, Ellen Mekish taught Cree at a night class, a task she took great pride in. She and her husband achieved a comfortable standard of living (defined by modern norms) and were further able to buy a house and adequately provide for a family of four. This picture of a happy, modern family also included a German Shepherd named Toby. [102] Those writing on the Tawow project and the interested parties emphasized the role of choice to explain these “transformations.” Such arguments, however, failed to mention or provide any description of the conditions on reserves or the destruction of Aboriginal land as a result of hydroelectric projects.

When Sterling Lyon and the Progressive Conservatives rode into the Legislature on a platform of fiscal responsibility, the government terminated employment programs and community projects, cut back social services, and reduced taxes on mining companies. [103] With the construction process over and no need to justify the expenditure to taxpayers, the Schreyer administration’s hopeful forecasts for the future of Leaf Rapids quickly faded from the historical record. Nevertheless, people familiar with the community continued to talk about the town, mentioning its community spirit and the progressive stance towards the environment. It should come as no surprise then that in March 2007, Leaf Rapids made headlines once again by becoming the first town in North America to pass a bylaw banning plastic bags.

During the period in between headlining stories, the community of Leaf Rapids changed significantly. Although some developers predicted that Leaf Rapids would reach a population of 12,000–15,000 when construction began, it peaked at around 3,500 and eventually dwindled to 500 after the 2002 closing of the mine. [104] At present, the majority of the population of Leaf Rapids is Aboriginal, and the former resource community has become known as a “welfare town.” The rows of empty bungalows so reminiscent of the seventies in their styles testify to the impermanence of the NDP’s northern vision then, which fundamentally contrasts with the strong and permanent Aboriginal presence in this region.

The current scholarship on Leaf Rapids does not identify the various formal and informal consequences of its politicization, probe the dimensions of this process, or even discuss the town to any considerable extent. This article by contrast has looked at Leaf Rapids to see how the Schreyer administration, the LRDC, and residents responded to the challenge of creating a new community in the north. The excitement and optimism surrounding the town suggest both planners and residents wanted an enlightened design that would reflect the politics of a social democratic government and incorporate progressive social and environmental ideas. By examining the discussion of racial integration and Aboriginal participation in Leaf Rapids, this article has sought to uncover the limitations of the design and the reluctance to break with the past in order to implement a new model of development.


1. This paper is a version of a cognate essay written in 2009 in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts, Department of History, Queen’s University. The opinions and conclusions expressed in this paper are the author’s and have not been endorsed or approved by the Government of Manitoba. The author acknowledges financial assistance of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and her Research Agreement with the Government of Manitoba. The author thanks her supervisor Barrington Walker and second reader Karen Dubinsky for their feedback. Many helping hands were given during the completion of this essay and the author would like to acknowledge the community of Leaf Rapids including Chuck Stensgard and the Leaf Rapids Public Library, the Archives of Manitoba, Tom Mitchell, Jim Mochoruk, Alison R. Marshall, and James Naylor.

2. University of Winnipeg, The Planning and Development of the Township of Leaf Rapids, seminar project report, 1972–1973, public administration 2326-1, Winnipeg: University of Winnipeg, 1973, p. 15.

3. Rick Neufeld cited in “Leaf Rapids Crowd Applauds Rick Neufeld,” WFP, 5 October 1973, p. 28. Whereas Neufeld called Leaf Rapids the “baby of Manitoba,” Martin O’Malley called Leaf Rapids the “great democratic socialist experiment in northern Manitoba.” Leaf Rapids Community Archives (hereafter LRCA), File 33-112, “Press Releases,” newspaper clipping, “Social Experiment with a Song,” Globe and Mail, 2 June 1972.

4. See Nelson Wiseman, Social Democracy in Manitoba: A History of the CCF-NDP, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1983, p. 144; Robert Robson, “Manitoba’s Resource Towns: the Twentieth-Century Frontier,” Manitoba History, No. 16 (1988), pp. 12-14; John Loxley, “The ‘Great Northern’ Plan,” Studies in Political Economy, No. 6 (Autumn 1981), p. 172; Oiva W. Saarinen, “Single-Sector Communities in Northern Ontario: the Creation and Planning of Dependent Towns,” in Power and Place: Canadian Urban Development in the North American Context, Gilbert A. Stelter and Alan F. J. Artibise, eds. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1986, p. 254; Gilbert A. Stelter and Alan F. J. Artibise, “Canadian Resource Towns in Historical Perspective,” Little Communities & Big Industries, Roy T. Bowles, ed., Toronto: Butterworths, 1982, p. 56; Gerald Friesen, “Northern Manitoba 1870–1970—An Historical Outline,” People & Land in Northern Manitoba, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba, 1992, p. 47.

5. The official objectives of the LRDC are cited by Robson, “Manitoba’s Resource Towns,” p. 13.

6. While the use of the term “Aboriginal” refers to status and non-status Indians as well as Metis people, I recognize that lumping these groups together is problematic. This problem is partially the result of the sources, which, although exhibiting sensitivity towards these populations, fails to make distinctions between them when referring to the “Indian problem” and the racial dualism of the north.

7. Local Government District of Leaf Rapids and the Province of Manitoba, The Leaf Rapids Planning Scheme, By-law 1 for the LGD of Leaf Rapids (7 December 1971), p. 38. Property of Chuck Stensgard.

8. The design model relied heavily on the ideas of British architect Ralph Erskine including integrated planning and subarctic design—ideas associated with his Svappavaara project, Archives of Manitoba (hereafter AM), EC0044/GR4048/P-16-5-8, Planning and Priorities Committee of Cabinet Departmental and Subject Files, Leaf Rapids: New Town, report by Dr. Krisno Nimpuno, “Leaf Rapids, A New Town in the Remote North,” July 1976, p. 3.

9. Local newspapers, press releases, a community history book, photos and scrapbooks located at the community archives in Leaf Rapids and belonging to previous and current residents of the town were also examined. The documents housed in the community archives were mostly uncatalogued and collections were sometimes incomplete but fortunately the majority of The Forum [Leaf Rapids] was housed at the Manitoba Legislative Library. This newspaper describes the progress of the community’s early construction as well as its social ambitions.

10. David Neufeld, “Parks Canada and the Commemoration of the North,” in Northern Visions: New Perspectives on the North in Canadian History, Kerry Abel and Ken S. Coates, eds. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2001, p. 49. Also see F. Abele, “Canadian Contradictions: Forty Years of Northern Political Development,” Arctic, Vol. 40, No. 4 (December, 1987), p. 312.

11. AM, EC0030/GR6792/Q027492, Premier’s Speeches, “Leaf Rapids Town Centre Opening,” 21 September 1974, p. 2.

12. Ibid., p. 3.

13. Loxley, “The ‘Great Northern’ Plan,” p. 172.

14. For more on Sherritt Gordon see, “A New Mine – Another Milestone: Sherritt Gordon Opens Ruttan Mine,” Manitoba: Canada’s Number One Sun, Vol. 29, No. 5 (September–October 1974), Seven A – Eight A.

15. Manitoba Legislative Library. Sherritt Gordon Mines Limited, Annual Report 1969, Toronto, 1970, p. 8.

16. Avrum Regenstreif, Assistant Secretary, Housing and Urban Development, Government of Manitoba, Leaf Rapids, Manitoba: A Case Study in Planning for a Contemporary Resource Based Community, presentation to the Canadian Association for American Studies, 30th Annual Conference (McMaster University: 1977), p. 2.

17. Office of the Premier, Guidelines for the Seventies (Manitoba, 1973), pp. 57-58.

18. Keith Brownsey and Michael Howlett, The Provincial State in Canada, Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2001, pp. 218-219.

19. Ibid. Also see Loxley, “The ‘Great Northern Plan,’ p. 172, and “Manitoba: the Dynamics of North-South Relationships,” in People & Land, pp. 59-61; James A. McAllister, The Government of Edward Schreyer, Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1984, pp. 20-87.

20. Wiseman, Social Democracy, p. 130.

21. Loxley, “The ‘Great Northern’ Plan,” pp. 163-166.

22. Ibid., p. 166.

23. Ibid., p. 172. Also see Loxley, “Manitoba: North-South Relations,” p. 61.

24. LRCA, uncatalogued collection, NDP campaign ad, The Northern Breeze, 14 September 1977, p. 8.

25. Vic Schroeder cited in “NDP candidate is Schroeder,” WFP, 4 February 1972, p. 2.

26. J. Frank Johnson as cited by Katie Fitzrandolph, “Leaf Rapids Plan Hit By Johnson,” WFP, 18 May 1973, p. 7.

27. Bob Lowery, “Leaf Rapids Makes Official Town Status,” WFP, 24 September 1976, p. 6.

28. Jo Ann Greisman, “The Leaf Rapids Project,” The Forum, 29 March 1972, p. 4.

29. This Agreement was between the Province and Sherritt Gordon. The term “corporate citizenship” was used by Roger Newman, “Avoiding ‘Company Town’ Atmosphere: Whatever Withers Leaf Rapids Will Live,” 11 July 1972, p. 39.

30. Leaf Rapids Development Corporation, Ltd. Leaf Rapids, Manitoba: A Bold New Concept for Community Development, Winnipeg: Manitoba, 1972, p. 3.

31. Carole Bowman (co-ordinator), Leaf Rapids: A Local History, 1970-1989, Leaf Rapids, Manitoba: Leaf Rapids Education Centre, 1989, p. 14.

32. AM, EC0044/GR6788/Q26867, Planning and Priorities Committee of Cabinet Departmental and Subject Files, Leaf Rapids Corporation - General, Box 19, Province of Manitoba, “Leaf Rapids Public Relations Document,” 15 August 1975, p. 2.

33. Jim Mochoruk, Formidable Heritage: Manitoba’s North and the Cost of Development, 1870–1930, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2004, pp. 298 and 379.

34. Roger Newman, “Avoiding ‘Company Town’ Atmosphere: Whatever Withers Leaf Rapids Will Live,” WFP, 11 July 1972, p. 39.

35. LRDC, A Bold New Concept, p. 3.

36. H. D. Linn and J. C. Stabler, Economic, Social and Planning Requirements for Northern Communities, Regina: Saskatchewan: Department of Mineral Resources, 1978, p. 579; Bob Lowery, “Big Community Centre Complex Being Built at Leaf Rapids,” WFP, 15 November 1973, p. 62.

37. University of Winnipeg, The Planning and Development of the Township of Leaf Rapids, p. 19.

38. Ibid., p. 17.

39. Linn and Stabler, Economic, Social and Planning Requirements, p. 5-24.

40. Ibid., p. 5-29.

41. AM, EC0044/GR6788/Q26867, Planning and Priorities Committee of Cabinet Departmental and Subject Files, Leaf Rapids Corporation - General, Box 19, news release, “Leaf Rapids Town Centre Wins ‘Excellence Award.’”

42. Bob Lowery, “Big Community Centre Complex Being Built at Leaf Rapids,” WFP, 15 November 1973, p. 62.

43. University of Winnipeg, The Planning and Development of the Township of Leaf Rapids, p. 12.

44. David Harvey, Fordism, Kingston: Queen’s University, 2008, pp. 125-126.

45. University of Winnipeg, The Planning and Development of the Township of Leaf Rapids, p. 14.

46. Ibid., pp. 18-19.

47. Work that provides an insightful look at this aspect of resource community planning include Robert Robson, “Flin Flon: A Study of Company-Community Relations in a Single Enterprise Community,” Urban History, Vol. 12 (February 1984), pp. 29-44; Rex Lucas, Minetown, Milltown, Railtown: Life in Canadian Communities of Single Industry, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971.

48. “Rec Commission,” The Forum, 23 February 1973, p. 6.

49. “Festival!” The Forum, 23 February 1973, p. 1.

50. “Marvin Cooks wins Leaf Rapids derby for third time,” WFP, 18 March 1976, p. 28.

51. Bob Lowery, “Leaf Rapids festival eye opener for many,” WFP, 27 November 1973, p. 48.

52. Robert Rutherdale, “Approaches to Community Formation and the Family in the Provincial North: Prince George and British Columbia’s Central Interior,” BC Studies, 104 (1994–1995), pp. 124-125.

53. The University of Winnipeg, The Planning and Development of the Township of Leaf Rapids, p. 14.

54. “A Man Committed to the Future of the North,” The Forum, 22 June 1973, p. 21.

55. Bowman, Leaf Rapids: A Local History, p. 12. [Update (14 December 2007): Karen Harrington reports that her father Robert Charles Harrington was killed in an automobile accident in 1994.]

56. “Women Meet,” The Forum, 26 January 1973, p. 14.

57. Ibid.

58. The Forum, 12 January 1973, p. 8.

59. Other cultural events were sponsored by federal and provincial grants and included festivals like Women & Film. Brought to Leaf Rapids in June 1973, this event explored traditional and alternative images of women in films like Christmas at Moose Factory, “Film Festival,” The Forum, 8 June 1973, pp. 1, 3.

60. LRCA, uncatalogued collection, Report on Women’s Week, 4-8 November 1975, p. 23.

61. For a compelling argument about the value of a gender analysis in the study of resource communities see Nancy M. Forestell, “Women, Gender, and the Provincial North,” in Northern Visions, pp. 107-116.

62. The report on Women’s Week says that ten people attended the evaluation session. Report on Women’s Week, p. 20.

63. Ibid., pp. 20, 24.

64. G. R. Weller, “Managing Canada’s North: The Case of the Provincial North,” Canadian Public Administration, Vol. 27, No. 2 (Summer 1984), p. 198.

65. For an economic history of Aboriginal people in northern Manitoba see Frank Tough, As their Natural Resources Fail: Native Peoples and the Economic History of Northern Manitoba, 1870–1930, Vancouver: UBC Press, 1996.

66. David Quiring, Colonialism in Saskatchewan: Battling Parish Priests, Bootleggers, and Fur Sharks, Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004 xi; Kenneth Coates and William Morrison, The Forgotten North: A History of Canada’s Provincial Norths, Toronto: Lorimer, 1992, pp. 85-112.

67. Friesen, “Northern Manitoba 1870–1970,” p. 46; also see Weller “Managing Canada’s North,” p. 201. Weller says there is a “basic contradiction in northern development because of the incompatibility of these two economies.”

68. Quiring, Colonialism in Saskatchewan, p. 64.

69. Tough, As their Natural Resources Fail, pp. 15, 188; and Mochoruk, Formidable Heritage, p. 370.

70. Helen Buckley, From Wooden Ploughs to Welfare: Why Indian Policy Failed in the Prairie Provinces, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1992, p. 72; Alex Himelfarb, “The Social Characteristics of One-Industry Towns in Canada,” in Little Communities, p. 21.

71. Shift boss as cited by Andrew Friedman, Market Factors Affecting the Viability of Four Single-Enterprise Communities in Manitoba, University of Manitoba, Centre for Settlement Studies, 1970, p. 40.

72. Coates and Morrison, The Forgotten North, p. 84.

73. Avrum Regenstreif, A Case Study in Planning for a Contemporary Resource Based Community, p. 18.

74. Eva Mackey, House of Difference: Cultural Politics and National Identity in Canada, London: Routledge, 1999, p. 28.

75. R. A. Young, Philippe Faucher, and André Blais, “The Concept of Province-Building: A Critique,” Canadian Journal of Political Science, Vol. 17, No. 4 (December 1984), p. 800. The quotation is a summation of work by Chandler and Chandler.

76. L. B. Spearman, Comparison of Social Welfare Needs with Service Network in Two Northern Manitoba Communities, Winnipeg: Centre for Settlement Studies, University of Manitoba, 1975, p. 71.

77. Coates and Morrison, The Forgotten North, 104; and Mackey, House of Difference, p. 62.

78. Loxley, “Manitoba: North-South Relations,” p. 60.

79. Robson cited by Friesen, “Northern Manitoba 1870–1970,” p. 46. Quiring, Colonialism in Saskatchewan, p. 59. Here, Quiring refers to the creation of “a white, prosperous microcosm of the south.”

80. Robert Robson, “Modernization in the Manitoba North: the Housing Initiative,” p. 106. For contemporary economic approaches to the “Indian Problem” see P. Deprez and G. Sigurdson, The Economic Status of the Canadian Indian: A Re-examination (Winnipeg: Centre for Settlement Studies, University of Manitoba, 1969; and Deprez, “Education and Economic Development: the Case of Indian Reserves in Canada,” in Two Papers on Canadian Indians, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba, Centre for Settlement Studies, 1973.

81. Bill Waiser, Saskatchewan: A New History, Calgary: Fifth House, 2005, p. 360; also see R. Bothwell, Eldorado: Canada’s National Uranium Company, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984, pp. 68-69.

82. L. B. Siemens, “Planning Communities for the North: Some Social and Psychological Influences,” in Market Factors, pp. 68-69.

83. Robert Harney, “So Great a Heritage as Ours:” Immigration and the Survival of the Canadian Policy,” Daedalus, Vol. 117, No. 4 (1988), p. 65.

84. Joseph Garcea, “Provincial Multiculturalism Policies in Canada, 1974–2004: A Content Analysis,” Canadian Ethnic Studies, Vol. 38, No. 3 (2006), pp. 1-19.

85. Brian Dewalt, Challenge and Achievement: the Manitoba New Democratic Party, Winnipeg: Manitoba New Democratic Party, 1987, pp. 11-12.

86. AM. EC0044/GR0167/Q26230, Planning and Priorities Committee of Cabinet Departmental and Subject Files, Northern Manpower Corporations – Leaf Rapids, 1971–1972, Temporary box 3, Agreements, Leaf Rapids Local Involvement, Department of Agriculture, “Background Leaf Rapids/Lynn Lake Strategy Plan,” p. 2.

87. LRCA, uncatalogued collection, newspaper clipping, Ed Schryer as cited in, “Northern Manpower Corps: A New Approach to Northern Employment,” Miskamok News, 6 March 1973, p. 1.

88. Egon Frech, “Indian Miners Goal of Plan,” WFP, 13 May 1972, p. 1.

89. Bowman, Leaf Rapids, p. 33.

90. AM. EC 0044, Planning and Priorities Committee of Cabinet Departmental and Subject Files, Q026230, temporary box 3, “Agreements,” “Memorandum of agreement pertaining to the provision of project management services to the Northern Manpower Corps–Sherritt Gordon Employment Project at Ruttan Lake-Leaf Rapids,” June 1972, pp. 1-2.

91. Ibid., new file, “Leaf Rapids Corporation,” Government of Manitoba, Leaf Rapids: New Town, p. 19.

92. Linn and Stabler, Economic, Social and Planning Requirements, p. 5-32.

93. Bob Lowery, “Indian Couple Earns $1,200 Monthly as Native Training Program Pays Off, WFP, 6 June 1975, p. 18.

94. WFP, 2 November 1974, p. 39. The practice of teaching Aboriginal women domestic skills was by no means unprecedented. F. Abele cites programs aiming to teach housekeeping skills to these women in “Canadian Contradictions,” p. 313.

95. Linn and Stabler, Economic, Social and Planning Requirements, p. 5-32.

96. This unofficial goal was cited by Lowery, “Indian Couple Earns $1,200 Monthly,” p. 18.

97. Ken Bear as cited by Lowery, “Indian Couple Earns $1,200 Monthly,” p. 18.

98. Ibid.

99. Lowery, “Indian Couple Earns $1,200 Monthly,” p. 18.

100. Sunera Thobani, Exalted Subjects: Studies in the Making of Race and Nation in Canada, Toronto, Buffalo, and London: University of Toronto Press, 2007, p. 18.

101. Ellen Mekish as cited by Lowery, “Indian Couple Earns $1,200 Monthly,” p. 18.

102. Ibid.

103. John Loxley, “The ‘Great Northern’ Plan,” p. 173.

104. “The Leaf Rapids Project,” The Forum, 29 March 1972, p. 1; also see (accessed 30 April 2009).

Page revised: 30 July 2020