By Matt Cicero
It was on a cold autumn Saturday at the end of October that close to a hundred people came together for a panel discussion named “Reconciliation: Remembering Creator’s Sacred Pipe.”
The discussion aimed to show why settler construction companies are building condominiums at Akikodjiwan (Chaudière Falls), an Algonquin sacred site.
There were four speakers on the panel: Algonquin faith leader Albert Dumont and Algonquin intellectual Lynn Gehl, as well as white settlers Lindsay Lambert, a historian, and Randy Boswell, a professor of journalism.
Nobody’s going to go to another house of worship and knock it down
Two construction companies, Dream and Theia Partners, want to build condominiums on Albert and Chaudière Islands next to the Chaudière Falls. The area, like all of Ottawa, is stolen Algonquin land, but the falls and surrounding islands are also a sacred Algonquin site. In 2007 Domtar closed the last pulp mill on the islands, clearing the way for Dream and Theia Partners to buy the land.
Albert Dumont clearly underlined the racism of the plans to destroy the sacred site. “Nobody’s going to go to another house of worship and knock it down,” he said.
The panel happened in a large hall in the brown brick building of the Alexander Community Centre. The hall was functional, with an off-white linoleum floor lit by large fluorescent lights. Participants sat in black plastic chairs around close to twenty long plastic tables covered in plastic tablecloths. It’s a scene familiar to anyone accustomed to activism in Ottawa.
If the setting was cold, the people brought warmth. The event was organized by grassroots activists – more than a dozen volunteers set up tables, brought food and water, and collected tickets.
Two Algonquin women affiliated with Theai Partners and Dream also attended. The construction companies have gained the support of three Algonquin band councils – Pikwàkanagàn, Timiskaming and Long Point First Nations. These band councils have given their approval for the condominiums, and in exchange for this support the corporations have promised to “create opportunities in the region for their members, [and] raise awareness about their people and culture”.
When the panel had finished, one of these Algonquin women accused the panellists of lying because they had described the apartments being sold as condos rather than “One World Zero Carbon Living Spaces.” They are described as condos on the company website.
Lindsay Lambert has made defending the sacred site a part-time job. He’s a antiquarian by trade, but has made it his business to dig up everything he can about the land title to the area. According to Lambert, Windmill and Dream Unlimited, as well as the previous occupant, Domtar, don’t have a legal deed to the property. If this is true then they don’t legally own the property.
“They’re breaking their own laws. They’re stealing [Akikodjiwan] from everybody,” Lambert said.
There are two separate issues when it comes to ownership of the area. The most fundamental is that Ottawa, and the Ottawa river watershed are the stolen land of the Algonquin nation. The Algonquin Anishinaabe have never ceded or surrendered any part of their territory.
The second is that, according to Lambert, the municipal, provincial and federal governments are ignoring an act of parliament – An Act Respecting Certain Works on the Ottawa River (1870). This act states that any works “in the channel or waters” of the Kitchi Zibi (Ottawa river) “shall be subject to the exclusive legislative authority of the Parliament of Canada.”
Lambert also says that the National Capital Commission (NCC) breached its mandate by not acquiring the area when it became available in 2007 since the falls and islands were designated as a National Interest Land Mass by the NCC and the Treasury Board in 1988.
Algonquin Elder William Commanda, who died in 2011, worked for years to have the sacred site returned to the Algonquin. According to the archaeological record, Akikodjiwan has been used as a sacred site for 6,000-8,000 years.
According to Gehl, settler plans to build high-end condominiums in and around an Algonquin sacred site are only the latest chapter of colonial efforts to dispossess the Algonquin Anishinaabe. The Algonquin Anishinaabe nation, whose territory was once defined by the Kitchi Zibi (Ottawa river), is now divided in two by the provincial boundaries along the river that once united them.
In 1839 Upper Canada (Ontario) passed the racist Crown Lands Protection Act, which declared all lands to be British and subject to British administration. Algonquins were not considered to be civilized enough to own their own lands.
Large tracts of land were given to lumber companies, and the 1853 the Public Lands Act provided land grants of a hundred acres of Algonquin land to settlers for free. The 1868 Free Grant and Homestead Act again provided free land to settlers. In both cases Algonquin were prevented from acquiring land through these government policies.
For Gehl, it is essential to recognize the history of colonial land theft in order understand why some Algonquin are consenting to condominium construction on a sacred site: “It’s quite similar to a mother who’s trying to feed her kids, and she has some furniture. And you come in and offer her 10% of what it’s worth and she has to take it because she has to feed her kids. It’s not really legitimate, or fair, or just.”
Although construction at Akikodjiwan has begun, activists concerned with protecting the site haven’t given up yet.
This summer the annual spirit walk led by Albert Dumont brought out close to two hundred people. One month later a wampum ceremony was conducted at Victoria island.
A constitutional challenge has been filed to appeal the decisions by the Ontario Municipal Board and the Motion Judge of the Divisional Court’s refusal to consider Algonquin rights and title when they approved the construction of condominiums on Akikodjiwan.