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Selling Off Sacred Algonquin Land For Condos Not 'Reconciliation'

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There is currently a battle brewing over the proposed construction of a massive condo, office and retail project on the Chaudière Falls and Islands, located on the Ottawa river behind Parliament Hill.

The project, dubbed "Zibi" (the Algonquin word for river) and led by Windmill Developments with financial support from Dream Corporation, seeks to create a high-density district on the islands. It has received support from the cities of Ottawa and Gatineau as well as praise from various local, green-oriented organizations.

There is one problem, though: the falls and islands are sacred, unceded Algonquin territory.

And opposition to Windmill's Zibi is clear enough. In November 2015, the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador (AFN-QL), which represents 43 Aboriginal Communities, passed a resolution opposing the project. And then in December, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) passed its own resolution opposing the project at its Special Chiefs Assembly. Of the 10 federally recognized Algonquin First Nations in the Ottawa River watershed, nine are officially opposed to Zibi. Certainly, there is nothing even close to consensus amongst Algonquin First Nations when it comes to putting up condo and office buildings on what they recognize as a sacred site.

There is also considerable opposition to Windmill's plans from non-indigenous organizations. Concerned citizens' group such as Free the Falls and Stop Windmill have been organizing in support of the opposing Algonquin Nations. And several unions, including CUPE's Aboriginal Peoples' Council, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers and the Public Service Alliance of Canada-National Capital Region, which is my union, have expressed solidarity with the opposing Algonquin First Nations.

Meanwhile, the national capital region Greenspace Alliance has stated that: "The Chaudière and Albert Islands are in the core of the national capital. Their rededication as a natural area, in recognition of indigenous claims, would be a powerful act of Reconciliation."

To be sure, the above-mentioned Algonquin-sponsored resolutions are very clear in support of an alternative vision -- namely, the installation of an Algonquin Nation Cultural Park and Historic Commemoration Site under the care of an Algonquin-controlled institution. This echoes the vision of the late William "Grandfather" Commanda, the Algonquin Elder who long advocated for "Asinabka" -- the restoration of the falls and islands to nature. And of course, to make such as project a reality would require critical support from the federal government, which has been very vocal recently about supporting reconciliation with Canada's indigenous people.

"I find it unconscionable that our capital city, to this day, does not have an institution of national significance dedicated to Canada's indigenous people."

As Algonquin Elder Albert Dumont has written, "We are told over and over again in recent times that a 'new relationship of honour and mutual respect is at hand' between us, the First Nations and the settler communities. If Canadians are OK with a sacred site such as Asinabka (Akikodjiwan) being violated in the most despicable manner by the construction of highrise buildings upon it, then their warped definition of 'reconciliation' is very different than mine."

The Chaudière Islands would, in fact, be the ideal location for an Algonquin Nation Cultural Park and Historic Commemoration Site. Situated between the cities of Ottawa and Gatineau, the islands are surrounded by national institutions, including the Parliament of Canada, the Supreme Court, the National Gallery, the Museum of History, the War Museum and a complex of federal office buildings that is home to the department responsible for Canada' indigenous peoples. The islands are are also across from Nepean Point, that wonderful bluff overlooking Ottawa and Gatineau with the statue of French explorer Samuel de Champlain, who himself witnessed Algonquins in ceremony at the falls in 1613.

As it turns out, there is already an existing design based on Grandfather Commanda's vision, produced by none other than the renowned indigenous Canadian architect Douglas Cardinal, perhaps best known for designing the stunning Museum of History (formerly the Museum of Civilization) just across from the Chaudière Islands.

In an interview with the Canadian Geographic in April, Mr. Cardinal was very critical of Windmill's Aboriginal outreach over the Zibi project, stating: "It's a sham. It's like they're stealing your car, but doing it while saying 'We love you, We're with you, We're on board with your vision.'"

The Commanda-Cardinal vision is available on the City of Ottawa website, and envisions significant greening of the islands, the removal of hydro dams from the falls, and the creation of an Indigenous cultural centre and meeting place.

How can civic or political leaders stand indifferently when sacred Algonquin territory is being sold off as condos?

It's grand and bold, and can undoubtedly serve as a guide for the alternative vision for the islands being advocated by Algonquin First Nations. Indeed, contrast renderings for Cardinal's plans with the "little Manhattan" Windmill is proposing for the islands -- the differences are stunning.

Furthermore, as a settler, a denizen of Ottawa and a federal public service worker, I find it unconscionable that our capital city, to this day, does not have an institution of national significance dedicated to Canada's indigenous people. It's 2016, after all.

How can civic or political leaders state at the beginning of so many meetings and conferences held in Ottawa these days that "we acknowledge we are standing on unceded Algonquin territory," yet stand indifferently when sacred Algonquin territory is being sold off as condos?

Either one understands that a people's land is sacred, or one doesn't. Sacredness is not for sale, not for development, period. If someone wants to make a bundle of profits, no matter how green the project, at least take if off sacred land. The sacred Chaudières site, which has been abused by industry for over a century, is in need of remediation, not redevelopment for private profit.

The only question is: will the new federal government work with Algonquins to turn this vision into a reality?

One hopes that with Justin Trudeau's commitment to changing Canada's relationship with indigenous peoples and his recent vow to fully support the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the federal government will stop private developers from grabbing sacred indigenous territories without their prior consent and move toward implementing a bold vision for the Chaudière Islands instead.

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