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Canada Development on Ottawa River draws divide in indigenous communities

Chaudiere Falls over looking Ottawa sky line on the left and Hull, Quebec.

DAVE CHAN/The Globe and Mail

You don't even have to blink to miss it.

It was, however, once the area's greatest tourist draw – a 19th-century equal to the Peace Tower or the Changing of the Guard. Samuel de Champlain wrote about it and the Prince of Wales rode a timber raft over it to the cheers of 20,000 loyal citizens standing along the banks.

There is no place for them to stand today. Fences, gates and rundown buildings block anyone walking to Chaudiere Falls, and the traffic on Ottawa's oldest bridge funnels into single lanes as vehicles scoot from one province to the next. A visitor wouldn't even know it is there.

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Nor can you hear it through the traffic and muffling buildings, although Champlain noted in his 1613 diary that the water falls "with such impetuosity" that it could be heard "more than two leagues away."

The magnificent falls began to be lost in 1806, when Philemon Wright built his sawmill here. Two hundred years of industry – J.R. Booth, E.B. Eddy, Domtar – put it out of sight, out of mind.

Until this past week, anyway.

On Monday, Hydro Ottawa announced a $150-million-plus plan to open up the falls. Within two years, it will bury four huge hydroelectric turbines below grade, allowing for a public viewing platform above. The project will produce enough electricity to power as many homes as the number of spectators who watched the Prince ride down the timber chute in 1860.

On Tuesday, the Ontario Municipal Board dismissed appeals against a massive, $1.2-billion residential and retail development on the 37-acre former industrial site. Called Zibi – the Algonquin word for "river" – the project has proved highly controversial, although the board found that Windmill Development Group and the City of Ottawa followed all proper procedure in the rezoning and consultation with First Nations.

In the board's considered opinion, "aboriginal history and culture will be respected and incorporated into the proposed development plans."

This, however, is far from the opinion of others.

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On Thursday, an appeal was launched by Douglas Cardinal, the world-renowned architect responsible for the magnificent Museum of History just downstream from the Zibi project and across the river from Parliament Hill.

Less than a month since Justin Trudeau took power with such widespread support from First Nations, the new Prime Minister and his new minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, Carolyn Bennett, have an issue on their very doorstep that, at times, swirls and boils like the falls itself.

Chaudiere Falls and the three islands formed by the river – two of which will involve Zibi – have been held "sacred" by the Anishnabe for 10,000 years, says Mr. Cardinal. The OMB, he says, did not even consider indigenous rights in announcing its ruling.

Champlain observed that natives used Chaudiere Falls to give thanks following a safe journey. Mr. Cardinal would go to the falls to give offerings in the 1980s when he was building the museum. He is himself of Anishnabe heritage, although from Western Canada.

Windmill, on the other hand, has made efforts from the beginning to consult with the Algonquins of both Quebec and Ontario as it proceeded with its project. There are areas of the development specifically designated for First Nations. Street signs will be trilingual rather than bilingual. The company is offering jobs throughout the multiyear project. And it has key Algonquin leaders onside, such as Chief Kirby Whiteduck of Pikwakanagan First Nations near Golden Lake, Ont.

"I don't think they're evil," Mr. Cardinal says of Windmill, "just greedy."

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He contrasts the upper-scale residential area – a recent launch on the Ontario side found swift sales for townhouses and condominiums running from $262,808 to $999,500 – with conditions at the Kitigan Zibi reserve on the Quebec side. For the past 16 years, the reserve has been under a drinking-water advisory.

"The Algonquins are living in poverty," Mr. Cardinal says. "It's not Third World conditions – it's Fourth World conditions."

Earlier this month, Mr. Cardinal was joined by influential author John Ralston Saul and Algonquin elder Evelyn Commanda to protest the development. Ms. Commanda is the daughter of "Grandfather" William Commanda, the late Algonquin elder so widely revered by First Nations. It was William Commanda who first spoke of a vision for Akikodjiwan, the sacred falls and islands of the river that should be returned to the Algonquin. The area is also all unceded land and the subject of a current land claim.

The Zibi project is one of only 10 in the world to be named a One Planet Community for its incorporation of environmental sustainability. It intends to be a zero-carbon community with bike and walking paths and ready access to the river. And it says the Algonquin connection to the falls and islands will be respected.

"We thought it would be nice to see a great coming together of English, French and aboriginal – all right in front of Parliament Hill," says Julie Westeinde, Zibi's First Nations engagement facilitator. "What an opportunity to showcase these three cultures can come together."

Zibi has its non-elected Algonquin supporters as well, most intriguing among them a group of women who first met privately but who now call themselves the Memengueshii Council and are openly supporting the project Mr. Cardinal and other Algonquins oppose.

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Wanda Thusky of Kitigan Zibi runs a small construction company with her husband, Andrew Decontie, and they see this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get Algonquin tradespeople trained and certified, something that has always proved difficult in the tightly controlled Quebec construction industry.

"We are extremely happy with this process," Ms Thusky said in a telephone interview from Winnipeg where, with other members of the council, she was attending the Indigenous Innovative summit. "We want to turn that page so that we leave something in place for new generations." To her, it is "time for a new story," and in Zibi she and the other women believe they have found "a ripple of reconciliation," a chance for a new beginning.

It will still have to wait, however, as Mr. Cardinal and his group now say they have the support of the chiefs of Quebec and Labrador to fight on.

"I will keep appealing this," he vows. "All agreements, by law, are between First Nations and the Crown – and I don't see Windmill wearing a crown."

"We continue to feel strongly that this is good," counters Ms Thusky. "There's no reason we should be living in poverty, in deplorable social conditions on our own territory."

Mr. Cardinal fully agrees. They just can't agree on how to get there.

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