Great Northern Characters


196 pages
Contains Photos
ISBN 0-919431-92-5
DDC 971.9'009'9




Reviewed by Michael Payne

Michael Payne is head of the research and publications program, Historic
Sites and

Archives Service, Alberta Community Development, and co-author of A
Narrative History of Fort Dunvegan.


Michael Barnes suggests that the North “has always had its share of
individualists, people who stand out from the crowd and lodge in the
common memory” and that this may be a product either of northern
climate and terrain or of some sort of self-selection process. Readers
who pick up this book expecting a discussion of the interaction of
character and environment, however, may be disappointed. The book
contains 25 six-to-ten-page biographical sketches of northern
“characters,” most of whom are associated not with the Canadian
Arctic but with Northern Ontario and the old mining and lumbering areas
between Sault Ste. Marie and Temiscaming.

Barnes’s subjects range from such well-known business magnates and
mining promoters as Viola MacMillan, Harry Oakes, and Roy Thomson to
local notables and eccentrics like Roza Brown, who ran a bakery in
Cobalt and made a sizable sum in Kirkland Lake real estate, and Charlie
Chow, who started as a cook in the gold camps and eventually owned
Charlie’s Hotel in Kirkland Lake. Some of these lesser-known
individuals provide the best moments in the book, though in a few cases
the connection to the North seems a little strained. Buffalo Child Long
Lance is included because he made a movie in Temagami; J.R. Booth, Harry
Oakes, and James Hamet Dunn are included because they all had extensive
business interests in Northern Ontario—they lived in more temperate
climes. Most of Barnes’s biographical sketches emphasize the virtues
of hard work and astute investment, and he does not linger over the more
sensational aspects of the careers of Oakes, MacMillan, or even Grey

Many, perhaps most, readers will be satisfied with these genial
thumbnail biographies, but it is unfortunate that the author has not
included references to the more substantial biographies that exist for
many of these characters. In addition to acknowledging an obvious debt
to these other writers, such a list might lead those with an interest in
Buffalo Child Long Lance to Donald Smith’s biography or encourage a
few readers to read J.B. Tyrell’s books on other famous Northerners
like Samuel Hearne and David Thompson.


Barnes, Michael., “Great Northern Characters,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 14, 2024,