Venue of Ottawa Bluesfest is a contemporary colonial conquest

Zibi development at sacred site poses questions of responsibility for all who attend events there

The Bluesfest drive-in promo logo beside a photo of the Zibi sign and island development

Article and multimedia by Greg Macdougall — updated August 13, 2020 — license: CC-BY-SA-ND

These first two August weekends, the RBC Bluesfest Ottawa drive-in concerts – livestreamed online with #CanadaPerforms, a federal program to support artists during the COVID pandemic – are being hosted at a venue that may raise eyebrows to anyone supporting the current protests against racism and monuments to a racist-colonial past.

The ‘Zibi’ development-in-construction is situated at a sacred site – the area at what is known in English as the Chaudière Falls, on the river between Ottawa and Gatineau, an area named Akikodjiwan or Asinabka in the Algonquin language Anishinabemowin.

This development of condominiums and commercial space has proceeded without the proper consent of the Algonquin Nation since being announced in 2013. This is in violation of principles included in rulings by the Supreme Court of Canada, and in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Previously, some local organizations and events have taken action to honour the complexity of this issue:

  • Five years ago, in 2015, organizers of the local Arboretum music festival paused their plans when they learned about the problems with the island venue they’d booked. They did eventually go ahead with it there, but with the addition of two panel discussions of Algonquins speaking on the issues (though only one of the selected speakers was actively opposed to the development).
  • That same year, Ottawa Riverkeeper had their annual fundraising gala at the island site sponsored by the developers – but based on pressure at the time, have not returned since (though they do continue to accept the developers’ sponsorship funding, and a board member is married to one of the developers).
  • Ecology Ottawa chose to stop taking sponsorship money from the development company in 2015, to maintain a clear distance from the developer.

While different grassroots Algonquin, other Indigenous, and settler peoples took positions (and action) against the development earlier, it was in the second half of 2015 that the chiefs of the nine status Algonquin communities based in Quebec – representing the vast majority of the Algonquin Nation – backed formal resolutions against development of the sacred site (read the Assembly of First Nations resolution).

The resolutions asked all levels of government to protect the site by (A) stopping development, and (B) entering into discussions to return the area to Algonquin stewardship. They referred to the pre-existing Asinabka vision for the site that had been led by the late Algonquin Elder and leader William Commanda, that had widespread support before the developers put forward their plans.

However, governments at all levels ignored these requests, and development has proceeded.

Earlier in 2015, the developers did enter into a benefits agreement with one status Algonquin community, Pikwakanagan, and then with the associated “Algonquins of Ontario” (AOO) entity that consists of Pikwakanagan and nine non-status communities, that was formed in the 2000s to engage in the contested Eastern Ontario land claim process.

There is more complexity to the differing positions within the Algonquin Nation than the above description, but that is the 2-minute version that illustrates how:

  • There is not only one position from the Algonquin Nation on this situation.
  • There was strong Algonquin opposition to the development, and an Algonquin-led alternative proposed.
  • There has not been any comprehensive Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC), yet the development has proceeded regardless.

Since then:

  • The NCC (National Capital Commission), representing the federal government, began a series of meetings including the ten status chiefs (Pikwakanagan and the nine opposed) in 2016 – though this process has been publicly characterized by a number of the chiefs, including Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation Tribal Council Grand Chief Verna Polson, as inadequate for consultation purposes.
  • In late 2016, the Kitigan Zibi chief and council filed a site-specific land title claim for the area from Parliament Hill east to Lebreton Flats (coincidentally, the regular home of Bluesfest). This included the islands of Zibi development, but not the Quebec side: it is a legal challenge to the legitimacy of the Ontario land claim.
  • In spring 2017, two of the Quebec-based status communities under new leadership followed Pikwakanagan in entering into benefits agreements with the developers. This was only after construction was already underway in Gatineau, and the government had demonstrated lack of interest in honouring the Algonquin’s Indigenous rights.
  • For almost all of August 2017, the Gatineau Zibi site hosted Cirque de Soleil’s Volta performance, with more attendees than there are members of the Algonquin Nation. Along with contributing $300,000 to Zibi for the ‘Place des Festivals’ venue, Gatineau’s mayor said, “We have always viewed Zibi as a cultural and economic partner for our revitalized downtown – [this] cements this role.” The Algonquin opposition to the development was invisibilized.
  • In fall 2017, A Tribe Called Red withdrew their music from the sound and light show ‘Miwate’ at the falls (though this was not at Zibi, but at the Hydro Ottawa section of Chaudière Island, and ATCR said it was because they didn’t want to be part of a Canada150 event).
  • In late 2018 and early 2019, residents of the first Gatineau Zibi condominium building began to take occupancy. Residents have since also moved into the first building on the islands. The full development is still a number of years from being completed.

Public awareness and understanding of this situation – of the sacred site, the associated Indigenous rights, the development project, and the differing positions of the Algonquin people – is less than adequate.

The developer-friendly media, the company’s own PR, and divide-and-conquer dynamics have served to quiet or confuse and misinform many, and keep the issue from the prominence it deserves.

The two centuries of dispossession of the Algonquin and other Indigenous Nations who used the site – a sacred heart of one of the primary pre-colonial transportation corridors of the continent, with the waterfalls comparable in stature to Niagara Falls before being dammed – by historical figures like Philemon Wright, JR Booth, EB Eddy, and others, has also contributed to a diminished significance in the eyes of many. Otherwise, the Akikodjiwan-Asinabka-Chaudière Falls situation might be recognized by many more people in and outside of the region.

The danger of events like Bluesfest at Zibi, is that they can legitimize to the general population the re-colonization of the site that is happening, by pushing the issue out of consciousness and providing non-qualified endorsement of the development. In this instance it is to a national audience, with the government partnership of the National Arts Centre with #CanadaPerforms.

Acknowledging the full situation is necessary, and it goes beyond land acknowledgements.

The late Wolf Lake Chief Harry St. Denis referred to the problem with land acknowledgements in the face of this situation, in a 2017 presentation to committee at Parliament. He also speaks to the need for all Algonquin to have a say at this site, and problems with the larger land claim. Video 2min20s

Then-Chief of Kitigan Zibi, Gilbert Whiteduck, also spoke of the difference between ceremonial inclusion and material inclusion, in 2014 when the city of Ottawa decided to rezone the islands for development after ignoring Kitigan Zibi’s request to postpone the city council vote in order to have dialogue first. He also discusses Elder William Commanda’s vision for the site and approach to differing views, and more on the history of the area. Audio 3min40s

In this era where historical monuments to racism and colonialism are being contested and overthrown, we need to ask what responsibility non-Algonquin and non-Indigenous people have in proximity and potential participation with this place — with such a large ($1billion+), private-property, metal-glass-and-concrete monument to present-day corporate colonialism and the violation of Indigenous rights?


For a comphrehensive backgrounder on the site and development, please see this 2019 post:
Sacred Waterfalls Site in Ottawa – Annotated Resource Guide
(It includes references and source links to most of the information in this piece)

The August long weekend – the first Monday in August is a civic holiday in most of Canada – was when Grandfather William Commanda hosted annual gatherings at his place on Bitobi Lake in Kitigan Zibi, that grew to bring thousands together each year as a Circle of All Nations. The first gathering there was in 1969 and the last in 2011, just after he passed away (on August 3rd of that year). It was at the gathering a dozen or so years ago, that the author of this piece first learned about the Asinabka vision for the sacred site, and then since 2014 has been involved with Algonquin and other peoples to protect the site from the development.

(1) The Zibi development is on the Gatineau shoreline as well as on the islands closest to Chaudière Falls. Slightly downstream Victoria Island has been public space, a site of ceremony and gatherings in recent decades, while the other islands were occupied exclusively by industry.

(2) The nine non-status communities that are part of “Algonquins of Ontario” (AOO) have a large proportion of members with very tenuous connection to Algonquin ancestry; there are also other non-status Algonquin communities in Ontario that chose to not be part of AOO. There are nine status Algonquin communities based in Quebec, along with Pikwakanagan and also Wahgoshig in Ontario (Wahgoshig isn’t part of AOO). The Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation Tribal Council (AANTC) represents seven status Algonquin First Nations – Wahgoshig and six of the Quebec-based Algonquin communities – while the Algonquin Nation Tribal Council (/Algonquin Nation Secretariat) represents the other three Quebec-based communities.

(3) Windmill Development Group Ltd. is an Ottawa-based environmentally-focused developer company that created the ‘Zibi’ development. It later brought in a much larger partner, Toronto-based Dream Unlimited Corp, and also created a new spin-off company, Theia Partners, for its own interests in Zibi.

(4) In 2015, researchers Randy Boswell and Jean-Luc Pilon published archaeological studies focused on “Hull Landing” near the Canadian Museum of History, the downstream beginnings of the portage route around the falls, goig back more than 4500 years that “paint a picture of Ottawa-Gatineau as a profoundly important place for aboriginal people” (quote from the Ottawa Citizen newspaper).


Two short videos from Bluesfest first weekend:

Land acknowledgements:
The CEO of the National Arts Centre, the two Bluesfest concert co-hosts, and Samantha Tenasco (of Zibi’s Memengweshii council) acknowledging the Algonquin and other Indigenous peoples in Canada.

Haviah Mighty:
The 2019 Polaris Prize winner, performing Saturday August 1st, responds to a question from the audience about what message she might have for other artists about ‘the current situation’.

Two short videos from second weekend of Bluesfest:

Algonquin Nation message:
The second Saturday evening was opened with a recorded video from the Algonquin Nation and AANTC Grand Chief Verna Polson, followed by live jingle dress dance from Josee Bourgeois (member of Zibi’s Memengweshii council), Amanda Fox, Stephanie Sarazin, and Ember Sarazin.

Zaki Ibrahim
Amanda Rheaume:
Both of these artists, separately, had specific messages about the sacred site hosting the performances. As Ibrahim said, it’s important to come “to understand” these issues, what they mean.

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