Written by: Justin Brett
Sometimes it isn’t a single person that becomes noteworthy in History, but an entire event in and of itself. There are many examples of these causing great change throughout the years, even if they happen to be a footnote for greater news. What came to be known as the Chicora Incident is one such case.
To fully explain the Incident one must go back a short while before it, to something that affected Canada as a whole in its early years: The Red River Rebellion. This refers to an incident where the Metis people, led by leader Louis Riel, formed an uprising against the Canadian government over land that would come to be known as our province of Manitoba. The land, then known as Rupert’s Land after the governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, had been purchased from the company by Canada in 1869.
However, the Metis people were not happy with newly-appointed governor William McDougall due to him only speaking English, rather than French as the Metis did. They also did not seem pleased to suddenly be apart of this new Government based off a deal they had no say in. When McDougall attempted to move into the territory and establish order, the Metis blocked him from doing so.
To make a long story short, eventually an agreement was negotiated that allowed the land, now known as Manitoba, to officially join the Canadian confederation as a Province. This wasn’t the end of it, however, as a military expedition was sent to the new province, which came to be known as the Wolseley Expedition after its leader, Garnet Wolseley. Its purpose was to enforce order and possibly to arrest Louis Riel himself, as in the period before the agreement was established he and the Metis had arrested several people and executed one, Thomas Scott.
One must wonder what all this has to do with Sault Ste. Marie. While the city existed at this point and was part of Canada, it was hundreds of kilometers away from the situation. Its connection to the rebellion had to do with the Chicora steamer, the ship transporting the Wolseley Expedition, which had to go through Sault Saint Marie’s Canal to reach its destination.
These weren’t the locks we know today however, and they were under the control of the United States, who refused entry to the Chicora under the grounds it contained a foreign military force. It is also possible the ship itself was part of the cause, as the SS Chicora had seen use in the American Civil War as a blockade runner. Whatever the specific reason was for it being held up, the Chicora had no choice but to have the military disembark and portage part of the remaining distance. Even then, the Chicora ended up being delayed for two weeks until British Ambassador Edward Thornton intervened on its behalf.
Ultimately there were no dire consequences from this incident, besides Louis Riel being able to escape from arrest for a time. What it did cause was a realization of just how reliant Canada was on a foreign-owned canal for a crucial area like the Great Lakes. Ultimately it was decided to build a canal in Canadian waters, to avoid something like this happening again. This is what came to be known as the Soo Locks today. The Chicora Incident is one example of how history can make plenty of ripples: no event is entirely isolated, and at times you can find consequences in the most unlikely of places.