Mattawa is a tiny town of 2000 people (2016) in Northern Ontario on the Trans-Canada Highway between North Bay and Algonquin Provincial Park. Mattawa sits at the junction of the Mattawa and Ottawa rivers and serves as a point of departure for canoeing or boating on the Ottawa River. The drive along Highway 17 is pretty in the fall when the leaves are changing colours. The area offers fishing, camping, and hiking, numerous motels, campgrounds, and retreat centres.
Mattawa means “Meeting of the Waters” in the Algonquin language.
The town’s population is about one third French-speaking.
The area was first inhabited by Indigenous people who used the Mattawa River as an important transportation corridor for many centuries. In 1610, Étienne Brûlé and in 1615, Samuel de Champlain were the first Europeans to travel through the Mattawa area. For 200 years thereafter, it was a link in the important water route leading from Montreal west to Lake Superior. Canoes travelling west up the Ottawa turned left at “the Forks” (the mouth of the Mattawa) to enter the “Petite Rivière” (“Small River”, as compared to the Ottawa), before continuing on to Lake Nipissing.
The Mattawa House was established by the Northwest Company in 1784. In the 1820s and 1830s, the Hudson’s Bay Company (after it had merged with the Northwest Company) sent canoe brigades from their Fort Coulonge Post to the Mattawa River junction in order to trade furs. In 1837, a permanent post was established, but was moved to a new site in the centre of present-day Mattawa in 1843.
In the 19th century, Mattawa became a hub for the logging industry, which would harvest large untouched stands of white pine in the area and use the Mattawa River to transport logs to sawmills. In 1881, the railway was built to Mattawa. It was mostly built by French Canadian labourers. After the railway’s completion, some of these labourers and their families settled in Mattawa (and surrounding areas), bringing with them their culture and heritage.
Logging is still an important industry in this region, and nearby provincial parks and wilderness support the camping, hunting, fishing and tourism industry in Mattawa today.
Mattawa elected Canada’s first-ever Black mayor, Firmin Monestime, in 1963. He served until his death in 1977.
Ontario Northland buses between Ottawa (4½ hours, $61-70 as of Sep 2021) and North Bay (45 min, $14-16 as of Sep 2021) stop in Mattawa