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Condo development on sacred Algonquin land

Tom Leonard

July 29, 2016

On May 10, 2016 Liberal Minister of Indigenous Affairs Carolyn Bennett announced that Canada would adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Article 32 of UNDRIP specifically commits the Canadian state to “consult and cooperate in good faith” with Indigenous peoples “in order to obtain their free and informed consent” before the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories. Testing this commitment to consultation, however, is a real estate development on islands in the Ottawa River—right in the heart of the national capital.

Chaudière Falls

The Chaudière Falls are an area of rapids and waterfalls approximately 1.5 km west of the Parliament Buildings, with three small islets—known as the Victoria, Albert and Chaudière Islands. The entire area is known as Akikodjiwan by the Algonquin, and like the rest of Ottawa and Gatineau, the territory is unceded Algonquin land. In addition, the area is considered sacred by many Algonquin.

Despite this, Akikodjiwan has been the site of substantial industrial activity since the 1800s. Since the early 20th century, the falls have been enclosed by the Ottawa River Ring Dam which captures energy for pulp, paper and power generation projects housed on Chaudière Island and in Gatineau. The last industrial activity on Chaudière Island ceased in 2007, when paper company Domtar shuttered its operation there. The dam itself, as well as the power generating stations on the island and on the Gatineau shore, is owned and operated by Hydro Ottawa, a power utility company owned by the City of Ottawa.

In December 2013, property developer Windmill Development Group announced plans to acquire 37 acres of so-called “brownfield” (i.e. contaminated) land from Domtar on Chaudière and Albert Islands. The deal was contingent on the City of Ottawa rezoning the site from parkland and open space to commercial / residential. Windmill further announced plans to create a “green” real estate development on the acquired land, comprising 1,200 condominiums, office, retail and public space. The company partnered with TSX-traded Dream Unlimited Corp. to finance the project, which is expected to cost more than $1 billion. The development is called Zibi, from the Algonquin word for river.

The developer acknowledges on its website that the land is unceded Algonquin territory and states that consultations with Algonquin leaders began in 2013, before the purchase of the Domtar lands and before the adoption of UNDRIP by the government of Canada. The website also refers to a vision for the area first articulated and developed by Algonquin elder William Commanda, OC and claims to endorse that vision, arguing that the ZIbi development will not infringe upon it.

First Nations vision

Commanda’s vision for the islands is known as Asinabka ( It was developed over a period of thirty years in conjunction with internationally renowned First Nations architect Douglas Cardinal, designer of the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau.

Asinabka calls for the development of a National Indigenous Centre comprised of “a fully inclusive city park, historical interpretive centre, conference centre and Aboriginal centre at the sacred site of Asinabka / Chaudière Falls, Chaudière and Victoria Islands,” with the lands being held in trust by Algonquin elders.

In April 2008, more than five years before the Zibi development was proposed, Commanda presented a detailed report on the Asinabka vision to the National Capital Commission, and Cardinal developed extensive concept drawings for the proposed buildings. In a recent interview with the Ottawa Citizen, Cardinal noted that “Everybody has an embassy here in Ottawa but there’s no place for First Nations and there should be.” Central to the Asinabka proposal was the removal of the Ottawa River Ring Dam and the freeing of Chaudière Falls.

Developer misrepresents

The developer’s website, however, misrepresents Commanda’s vision as involving only Victoria Island and Chaudière Falls, not Albert and Chaudière Islands. In a lengthy section devoted to the question of the sanctity of Akikodjiwan, the website quotes Commanda stating that Victoria Island was a “place of power” but does not reference the rest of the area. While Douglas Cardinal’s architectural drawings include only buildings on Victoria Island, it is quite clear from an open letter published by Commanda on February 14, 2010 that “Asinabka, the sacred heartland, a cultural landscape of national historic significance, includes the Chaudière Rapids, Chaudière Island and Victoria Island.” The website also includes a diagram of the proposed National Indigenous Centre, which clearly shows a Pow Wow ground and park on Chaudière Island.

Having framed Commanda’s vision in self-serving terms, however, the Zibi website then passes the buck, implying that because the development does not involve Victoria Island, which is owned by the National Capital Commission, nor the Falls, “or any of the land on either side of the falls, which are managed by subsidiaries of Hydro Ottawa and Hydro Québec,” that its opponents should go elsewhere for redress—as “Zibi has no ability to undam the falls, or to remove the hydro facilities on either side of the river.” As far as Chaudière Island is concerned, Zibi has simply ignored its inclusion in the original Asinabka vison, redefining this issue as not an issue.

On October 8, 2014, Ottawa city council approved the rezoning of Chaudière and Albert Islands, allowing the development to proceed, despite what the Ottawa Citizen described as “dozens of public delegations at a planning committee meeting asking the city to preserve the lands as open space.” The paper noted that the majority of the 45 public submissions were from Indigenous people, and that many of them referred to the Asinabka proposal for the area.

Legal challenges

In February 2015 a civil suit was filed in Ontario Superior Court on behalf of the Algonquin Nation, seeking to halt the Zibi development by gaining legal recognition of Indigenous title to the site. The suit was withdrawn in April 2015, a few months after being filed, with the plaintiffs’ lawyer stating that they would concentrate their efforts in the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) rather than the courts.

Four different appeals were filed with the OMB in an attempt to halt the rezoning, including one by Douglas Cardinal, who argued that the Zibi development amounted to the privatization of unceded Algonquin land, which should instead be turned over to public use. The OMB approved the rezoning, however, and the appellants filed a motion with Ontario Divisional Court for leave to appeal that decision.

First Nations opposition

In August 2015 Chiefs and Councils from four Algonquin First Nations (Wolf Lake, Timiskaming, Eagle Village and Barriere Lake) announced their opposition to the Zibi development, confirmed that they were not consulted and stated that the entirety of Akikodjiwan was a site sacred to the Algonquin.

On November 19, 2015 the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador adopted a resolution opposing the rezoning of the site and, among other demands, calling for the Zibi development to be halted unless and until the “free, prior and informed consent” of the Algonquin Nation was secured. The resolution also called on federal, provincial and municipal governments to immediately consult with the Algonquin Nation in relation to the development, and purchase any privately held lands within Akikodjiwan and return them to the Algonquin Nation.

Following this, on December 8, 2015, the Special Chiefs Assembly of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) passed a resolution also opposing the development and reiterating the demands made by the Quebec-Labrador section. The resolution noted that the Algonquin Nation was comprised of federally-recognized Bands, that these Bands had not been consulted prior to the rezoning, and stated that only these Bands were empowered to negotiate on the behalf of Algonquins.

Developer consults only with supporters

The Zibi dialogue website states that “with great respect to all opinions and voices, there is no Anishinabeg consensus as to the sacredness of the wider Chaudière Falls area, nor of the land where Zibi will be located. In our conversations with hundreds of Algonquin men and women—Elders, band members, and elected officials—very few have raised the issue with us.”

The latter claim is impossible to verify, but in regards to exactly with whom ZIbi has been consulting, the company website states that the developers are actively collaborating with only the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation (which is a federally-recognized Band) and with the Algonquins of Ontario (‘AOO’, which is not federally recognized), and have received the endorsement of the National Indigenous Council of Elders. According to the Algonquins of Ontario website, AOO is an organization of ten Algonquin communities in Ontario, one of which is Pikwakanagan. The other communities within AOO, however, are not federally-recognized Bands.

According to a report by CBC in March 2016, chiefs of a number of Iroquois and Algonquin First Nations alleged that “the “vast majority of the Algonquins of Ontario (AOO) are not actually Algonquin or even aboriginal,” being “non-indigenous people who claim a loose connection to an Algonquin ‘root ancestor.’” According to the AFN resolution of December 8, 2015, the AOO “is not a band, First Nation, Nation or entity possessed of Aboriginal title or rights, under Algonquin law, Canadian law or international law. It is a formulation of the Ontario and federal governments and as such, it does not represent the Algonquin Nation.” The AFN resolution is quite clear that only federally-recognized Bands are mandated to speak for the Algonquin Nation, and nine of these ten Bands have not been consulted and have not given their consent. The National Indigenous Council of Elders is comprised of nine elders who have previously worked as lawyers, consultants, politicians or business people. No members of this group claim Algonquin heritage, none of this group is affiliated with an Ontario-based First Nation, and only two of this group are affiliated with a Québec-based First Nation.

According to a news report for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) Windmill CEO Jeff Westeinde said the company “had extensive contact with Kitigan Zibi, an Algonquin community about 130 kilometres north of Ottawa, which is now opposing the project” and that “Windmill has also previously contacted the two tribal councils representing the Quebec Algonquin communities.” The Ottawa Citizen reported that Westeinde “said the nine councils in opposition to the project don’t wish to engage with them, and told the developers they wish to deal with the Crown instead.” APTN quoted him dismissing the idea of the Crown being involved in the negotiations, however, saying that “We are a private sector developer developing private land. The Crown or no level of government is a partner in this development. The Crown does not involve themselves in private sector developments.”

Liberal Non-Response

While the legal struggle continues, opponents of Zibi organized a Sacred Walk from Victoria Island to Parliament Hill on Saturday June 17 during the annual Pow Wow in Ottawa—an event which saw more than 500 people march to oppose the development. A group of non-Indigenous allies has formed under the name Stop Windmill (, which includes student organizations and labour unions. On June 27 Stop Windmill supporters marched on Minster of Environment and Climate Change MP Catherine McKenna’s office to deliver a letter demanding that the federal government respond positively to the AFN resolution and intervene to stop the transfer of Crown land to Windmill (there is a small amount of Crown land that will be involved in the development).

Stop Windmill returned to McKenna’s office on Monday July 18 and got a written response, which stated that “in her understanding,” the developers were indeed consulting with indigenous peoples, and that “the NCC (National Capital Commission) and the Department for Public Services and Procurement are ‘meeting regularly’ with Algonquin people in both Ontario and Quebec in relation to the project.” The Ottawa Citizen noted that “the federal government has not yet transferred land to the developers, but before the transfer takes place the NCC will consult with the Algonquin First Nations, the NCC said.”

So on one side we have a private developer building on unceded, sacred Algonquin territory who argues that the Crown has no role in their private sector project. On another, we have the Algonquin Nation, whose representatives argue that as the land is unceded and sacred this is an issue to be addressed through negotiations with the Crown, not simply a private sector transaction. And we have the Crown, which argues, in essence, that the consultations required of the developer under existing law are proceeding so what’s the problem?

Where in all of this is the commitment to “consult and cooperate in good faith” with Indigenous peoples “in order to obtain their free and informed consent” prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands? Where is the commitment to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples? Where is Justin Trudeau’s stated commitment to build a nation-to-nation relationship with the First Nations? All of these commitments are sitting somewhere behind the big steaming pile of business of usual.

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