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Canada 150 and the violation of an Algonquin Anishinaabe sacred site

On this week's episode of Talking Radical Radio, Scott Neigh speaks with Lynn Gehl and Lindsay Lambert. Gehl is an Algonquin woman who traces her roots to the Ottawa River Valley, though she herself lives in Peterborough, Ontario. She holds a PhD in Indigenous Studies, and is a writer and activist. Lindsay Lambert is a white settler man, a historian, and also a writer. Both have been involved in the fight against the ongoing colonial development of the Chaudiere Falls and the three associated islands -- a sacred site to the Algonquin Anishinaabe people that is, in the year of Canada 150, slated to be turned into condominiums.

It's not even the end of January, and already there have been no shortage of Indigenous and other anti-colonial voices pointing out how this year's lavish Canada 150 sesquicentennial celebrations are an expensive, tasteless addition to the long list of ways in which the feel-good rhetoric from the Trudeau Liberals about a renewed nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous peoples is amounting to little more than a cover for the same old settler colonial substance. From pipeline approvals to land claim processes, from unequal funding for Indigenous child welfare to contaminated water in reserve communities, little seems to have changed except the packaging. And in that context, it is hard to see Canada 150 as anything other than a celebration and continuation of the settler colonial violence that has spanned that century and a half.

Today's episode is about one specific instance, among the many across the country, that seems packed with poignant symbolism: The ongoing willful violation of a sacred Indigenous site in the heart of Ottawa -- the Chaudiere Falls and three nearby islands, which sit in the Ottawa River just west of Parliament -- that is happening with the blessing of the Trudeau Liberals.

The land on which Ottawa sits is unceded Algonquin Anishinaabe land. The falls and the islands have been a sacred site not only to the Algonquins but to many other Indigenous peoples for thousands of years. They were a site of meeting, of peace-making, of ceremony. As colonization took place and Ottawa took shape, the falls and the island were taken over by industry, particularly the lumber industry, with a dam completely effacing the falls in 1908. Yet even in the mid-20th century, the official planning process that set the mandate for the National Capital Commission recognized that industrial uses would not last forever and recommended that the area be re-naturalized.

A little later, a respected Algonquin elder, the late Grandfather William Commanda, put forth a similar vision: Return the falls and islands to Algonquin stewardship and control, free the falls from the dam and otherwise re-naturalize the area, and -- in the spirit of the traditional use of the islands as a meeting place for different nations -- construct a centre for reconciliation and healing on one of the islands. As the final lumber company wrapped up its operations, it was widely expected in the community that this, indeed, would happen. Yet a couple of years before the end of their mandate, the Harper Conservatives made a shift. Suddenly, the land was promised to a private property developer called Windmill. The plan is now to use the islands to build condominiums. Trudeau has replaced Harper, but this plan to violate a sacred Indigenous site right in the heart of Ottawa is slated to continue moving forward in 2017 with the full support of the Canadian state.

Gehl and Lambert talk with me about the significance and sacredness of the site for Indigenous peoples, the history of colonial development there, the recent fight to realize Grandfather Commanda's vision, and the significance of the ongoing violation of this sacredness in the context of Canada 150.

To learn more about the interview participants and the issues, check out Gehl's website; an episode of Talking Radical Radio from August 2016 with members of Stop Windmill, a settler solidarity group that has been very active on the issue; and the sites for Free the Falls, Stop Windmill, and It Is Sacred.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada. We give you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow us on FaceBook or Twitter, or contact scottneigh@talkingradical.ca to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

The image that was modified for use in this post was from the website of Lynn Gehl.

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