The history of the Chi-Cheemaun ferry

Chi-Cheemaun ferry in Tobermory Photo by Sketchart/Shutterstock

During a typical May, the Chi-Cheemaun ferry sails from its winter exile in Owen Sound to its dock in Tobermory, where it provides seasonal service to South Baymouth on Manitoulin Island. During that journey, it blows its horn while passing the Neyaashiinigmiing Lighthouse at Cape Croker. This gesture is a tribute to Donald Keeshig, a member of the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation, who named the ferry when it began service in 1974.

Keeshig, a construction worker and industrial painter, and his family were deeply involved in community life on the Neyaashiinigmiing 27 reserve. Keeshig promoted the preservation of the Ojibwe language, bringing together a group of elders to speak it and spread its use. He coached hockey and organized a Boy Scout troop. On Christmas Eve, he visited families as Santa Claus. His wife, Keitha, served as a band councillor and school trustee. Unlike most of Keeshig’s siblings, he was not sent to a residential school—according to the family, he was hidden away with his grandmother to avoid this fate.

Keeshig’s family attracted media attention during the summer of 1968 when they participated in a 40-km walk from Cape Croker, Ontario, to Hepworth to raise funds to hire a recreation director for the reserve. While around 200 people from the reserve and Owen Sound participated in the walkathon, the press focused on Keeshig’s eight-year-old son Nathan, who insisted on walking the whole route despite blisters and swollen feet. The walkers raised $5,500 in pledges, which covered activities ranging from recreational hockey to a drama club.

By the early 1970s, a larger ferry was commissioned by the provincial government to replace two smaller ships, the Norgoma and Norisle. When a contest to name the new ship was announced, Keeshig contemplated submitting an Ojibwe term. He felt “Chi-Cheemaun,” which translates to “big canoe,” was a surefire winner. 

Keeshig gathered his family members to discuss his idea, hoping one of them would enter the contest. According to his’s daughter, Lenore, when Keeshig discovered nobody had entered, he was upset—he believed they were blowing a chance to win the $100 prize. Lenore combined discussions with her father and drafts her siblings wrote at the family home to complete a contest requirement of an essay describing why the Tobermory ferry should receive the submitted name.

When Keeshig learned he won, he initially thought he was being telephoned about a 50/50 draw. He sailed on the ferry’s first trip to Manitoulin. When the Chi-Cheemaun celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1999, he served as grand marshal of a celebratory parade in Tobermory. 

When the ferry’s 2015 season began on a foggy day in May, it deviated from its usual route. It passed by a lighthouse, blowing its horn twice. Keeshig was in failing health and the family prearranged the meaningful gesture for him. Keeshig appreciated the horn salute and would recount the events of that day to his caregivers until his death in January 2016.

In the 2016/17 annual report for current Chi-Cheemaun operator Owen Sound Transportation Company, president and CEO Susan Schrempf noted that each year, on its annual journey from its winter home in Owen Sound to the dock in Tobermory, the ferry would turn its bow to where Keeshig last viewed the ship and blow its horn “in honour of Donald and his gift of wisdom, reminding us always of our responsibility to care for the Big Canoe and the people who ride within her.”

Heading to Tobermory to take a look at the Chi-Cheemaun? Why not scuba dive while you’re there?

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