Local Group Participates in Walk to Save Indigenous Sacred Site From Condos, Office Towers and Pavement
By Melodie McCullough
Algonquin Grandmothers and Elders of the Ottawa River region, and numerous other groups, have been fighting for some time to ensure an ancient Indigenous sacred site of peaceful waterfalls and islands behind Parliament Hill will be there for generations to come – and not be destroyed by a proposed 1,200 condos, office towers and 300,000 feet of commercial and retail space.
A group of about 25 people from the Nogojiwanong/Peterborough area recently walked in support of the Elders’ mission by participating in a 600-person-strong peaceful Sacred Walk in Ottawa on June 17, 2016.
“We just decided our group would like to go to Ottawa to support the walk, so we chartered a bus and other interested people from Peterborough joined us,” said Lynne Porter, a member of the Kawartha Truth and Reconciliation Support Group, which organized the trip. “We also picked up people along the way to Ottawa. It was a beautiful day, but hot, hot, hot.”
Akikodjiwan is the Algonquin name of the unceded sacred site. The falls are known as Asinabka, which translates as Pipe Bowl Falls. The settler name is Chaudière Falls and Islands, and they lie in the Ottawa River between Ontario and Quebec.
“…they were a place of peace, ceremony and prayer.”
According to Algonquin history as outlined on the walk organizers’ website (itissacred.ca), the site was an inter-nation meeting place for people from as far away as Labrador and Mexico beginning 6,000 to 7,000 years ago. Three rivers join in the sacred falls and surrounding islands to form a natural medicine wheel. The falls are shaped like a peace pipe with mist rising like smoke, and they were a place of peace, ceremony and prayer. Samuel de Champlain witnessed peace ceremonies taking place there in 1613, and described them in his writings, the website says.
But the logging industry resulted in the building of a ring hydro dam around 1910 at the falls’ site. Industrialization of the land also occurred, and it was left in a derelict condition by a series of lumber mill owners.
About 10 years ago, Algonquin Anishinaabe Grandfather William Commanda proposed a vision for the site, which included re-naturalizing the falls and the three downstream islands, a removal of the large dam, and the creation of a park, historical interpretive centre, peace building centre and an Indigenous centre.
On National Aboriginal Day in 2006, Ottawa’s then mayor, Robert Chiarelli, presented Grandfather Commanda with the key to the city in a ceremony on one of the site’s islands, saying, “We respect the vision of Elder Commanda that this place will become a beacon for all those values that speak to protecting Mother Earth, and the philosophies and values of all First Nations peoples.”
But under the Harper government, the land was handed over to Windmill Development Group for the waterfront “Zibi Project”.
“In the context of reconciliation and nation-to-nation building, it is absolutely ridiculous that they would be developing a sacred Algonquin place — absolutely ridiculous. We need to stop the cultural genocide. Enough! Enough!,” Gehl told the crowd.
Nine out of 10 Algonquin Nation chiefs and 34 of their associates in Quebec and Labrador have issued an Assembly of First Nations resolution opposing the project.
Dr. Lynn Gehl, an Algonquin-Anishinaabe-kwe, who is a Peterborough resident and descendant of First Nations people of Pikwàkanagàn First Nation Reserve near Pembroke, was one the walk’s organizers and spoke to the gathering after the walk. She also made a 20-foot pipe and carried it in the walk to represent the sacred pipe.
“In the context of reconciliation and nation-to-nation building, it is absolutely ridiculous that they would be developing a sacred Algonquin place — absolutely ridiculous.We need to stop the cultural genocide.Enough! Enough!,” Gehl told the crowd.
In a later interview, she Gehl said the development is questionable, not just for Indigenous peoples, but also for settlers.
“They have a right to be consulted as to what happens to that land, too”, she said. “Both the Indigenous and the settlers recognize that sacred beliefs are more sustainable and rational than destruction by the economic paradigm.”
“A lot of people dismiss sacred beliefs. They think believing in the sacred is trivial. Sacred beliefs are really important. Inside them there’s a moral code,” Gehl said.
Lynne Porter said she hoped the walk would draw attention to what is happening “to the sacred site which has been there for thousands of years, so close to the Parliament Buildings in the centre of our national capital. To have a healing centre on the island seems like a beautiful use of the island.”
The Kawartha Truth and Reconciliation Support Group was formed by a group of non-Indigenous people, mainly representing different churches, and Indigenous people in the Peterborough area in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s call “to do what we can to educate each other,” said Porter. It meets the first Monday of each month.
Porter, who grew up in Peterborough, taught elementary school in Bowmanville, and then retired back to Peterborough, has been a member for a few years.
In 2013 she was one of 25 ordinary Canadians who were invited to spend time at Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) First Nation in Northern Ontario.
“The community was very, very welcoming. It was a wonderful experience to see how much they love their own community, and basically how they’ve been mistreated by the government of Canada.”
It was there she met Andrée Cazabon, a Canadian film-maker who produced the documentary Third World Canada about the living conditions at the KI reserve in 2010. Cazabon was also one of the organizers of the sacred walk, so Porter felt a personal connection.
The walk started on Victoria Island with a spiritual ceremony, and then participants walked down Wellington Street to the grounds of Parliament Hill for speeches and a closing prayer. Inter-faith groups and those of all nations and races were invited to bring their flags and traditional nations’ colours to join in unity.
Part way through the speeches, three majestic eagles soared over the Hill, Porter said.
“It was a very meaningful thing for the Aboriginal people,” she said. “Unfortunately, no one came out of the Parliament Buildings to speak to us.”
“It was a good experience,” she concluded. “It brought our group together and we met interesting people on the way. I hope it has some end result and gives a message to Mr. Trudeau and Parliament. It seems that the Trudeau government could stop it if they chose to. They could do it in a flash.”
A number of groups are continuing the fight: