Contested Histories of the Ottawa River: Views from the 2015 Quelques arpents de neige Workshop

Chaudière Falls, 1880. Source: Library and Archives Canada, 3236286.

Scroll this

On June 14, 1613, while exploring the Ottawa River, Samuel de Champlain wrote about his encounter with a spectacular site:

The water falls in one place with such force upon a rock that it has hollowed out in course of time a large and deep basin, in which the water has a circular motion and forms large eddies in the middle, so that the savages call it Asticou, which signifies boiler. This cataract produces such a noise in this basin that it is heard for more than two leagues. The savages when passing here observe a ceremony which we shall speak of in its place.

Voyages of Samuel Champlain, 1611-1618, Volume 3, translated by Charles Pomeroy Otis, (1882) p. 54

More commonly referred to today as the Chaudière Falls, the archipelago of sacred islands is literally central to the history of the National Capital Region. Earlier this December, scholars, students and activists gathered at the annual Quelques arpents de neige environmental history workshop series—hosted by Carleton University’s Department of History—to revisit this contested history.

“A view of Ottawa, some of Hull and of the Ottawa River circa 1859, including views of the Chaudière Falls and of Parliament Hill (formerly Barrack Hill) prior to the construction of the Parliament Buildings.”  ca.1859, by Stent and Laver, Library and Archives Canada,C-002812.
“A view of Ottawa, some of Hull and of the Ottawa River circa 1859, including views of the Chaudière Falls and of Parliament Hill (formerly Barrack Hill) prior to the construction of the Parliament Buildings.” ca.1859, by Stent and Laver, Library and Archives Canada,C-002812.

A River’s Contested History

The speakers at Arpents were all concerned with whose heritage was being preserved in the National Capital Region (NCR). More particularly, they provided attendees with an opportunity to illuminate the ways in which the history of the Chaudière Falls still resonates in present day contests between Aboriginal and working-class peoples, real estate developers, and the federal government.

The traditional history of Ottawa as the capital of Canada emphasizes the role of industry and the federal government in building a “Washington of the North” out of a backward lumber colony. In this story, the critical transition occurred in the middle of the twentieth century, when a Federal District Commission (FDC) rescued the waterfront from the careless management of Ottawa’s industrial elite. After decades of failed attempts to develop the Capital, the FDC received broad powers from the Mackenzie King government to implement the Plan for the National Capital—the Master Plan developed by French urbanist Jacques Gréber between 1938 and 1950. The legislative powers granted for implementing the “Gréber Plan” established the National Capital Commission (NCC) in 1958—the federal planning agency responsible for the built heritage of the NCR, as well as its future development.

As Monique Manatch showed at Arpents, this narrative ignores thousands of years of First Nations history in the region. The executive director of Indigenous Culture and Media Innovations, Manatch provided attendees with Algonquin perspectives on Chaudière’s history, as well as its future development. Drawing from her work on a documentary about the Falls, Manatch charted the work of Algonquin elder and spiritual leader William Commanda in protesting the development of condominiums on what is still, for Algonquin people, a sacred space. Commanda’s call to free the site from its recent concrete legacy would be taken up by numerous Algonquin peoples, including the prominent architect Douglas Cardinal.

As Manatch points out, the Ottawa River is a paleontological and archeological “gold mine.” Along its banks and beneath its surface we still find artifacts that are thousands of years old. Historians have established that this site, where the waters of the Rideau and Gatineau Rivers meet those of the Ottawa, was a major meeting place for religious ritual and trade, connecting the region to locales as distant as Labrador and Florida. Says Manatch, “It’s ironic that Ottawa became the nation’s capital, because in a sense it always was.” There have been multiple plans for the National Capital in Ottawa’s history, yet we rarely hear about the ones proposed by Aboriginal communities, which emphasize the sacred over the profitable.

For Noel Salmond, professor of Religion at Carleton University, the category of the sacred offers rich insight into the contests over space along the Ottawa River. According to Salmond, given its location at the heart of the NCR, the debate surrounding use of the Chaudière site may in fact be the most important contemporary environmental issue in Canada. As a contested site, debates over Chaudière underline the tensions between status and non-status Indigenous communities, the “vexed legalities” of the Crown developing on land that does not belong to the Crown, the difficulty of recovering the sacred at what is now essentially a site “desecrated” by industrial development, as well as the looming presence of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Aboriginal People and its very real applicability to these debates. There’s “something weird,” argues Salmond, about the lack of official recognition for 5,000 year old sites in the NCR, which raises important questions about the role of erasure in heritage management. As discussions following Salmond’s talk illustrated, the Chaudière Falls debate epitomizes a postindustrial contest between deep ecology and boutique environmentalism.

Rivers and Industry: Alternative Perspectives

Against the backdrop of debates over current plans for Chaudière, we were presented with the stunning exhibit curated by the talented photographers of the Workers’ History Museum (WHM). Carleton history professor David Dean—who also serves as a patron of the museum—introduced us to the museum’s mission to give presence to workers and workers’ history in the National Capital. For 150 years, the E.B. Eddy complex was a central site of industrial activity in Ottawa. Closed in 2006 and expected to be the site of a new condominium, this exhibit captures the history of the E.B. Eddy complex “as it disappears.”

Elevated control platform at E.B. Eddy complex. Photo credit: Workers’ History Museum, 2015.
Elevated control platform at E.B. Eddy complex. Photo credit: Workers’ History Museum, 2015.

In an engaging presentation, WHM Photographer and Image Archivist Paul Harrison showed us highlights of an archive consisting of more than 76,000 images and 36 hours of video. While this emerging archive offers digitally-minded historians enormous potential for reconstructing the ruins of the EB Eddy site, the archive also complements the 150-year documentary history of this central industrial site. From the exhibit’s brochure:

The photographs that hang from these walls are not passive. They do not freeze time nor are they simply captured snapshots. They act to create new histories and new meanings with each viewing, and with each viewer.

To hear Harrison and fellow photographer Andrea Cordonier speak, the year-long process of documenting the site—supported by the Windmill Corporation—was a phenomenal experience; it was an opportunity to explore dark and wet recesses of a mysterious ruin, to express themselves artistically, and to feel the rush of adrenaline as steam flowed through the old facility’s pipes and the ruin appeared to breathe. Offering a different perspective on the relationship between rivers and industry, Will Knight—Curator of Agriculture and Fisheries at the Canada Science and Technology Museums—offered observations on the introduction of bass to Algonquin Park, and the critical relationship between railway expansion and sports fisheries in Ontario.

Rock Bass. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Rock Bass. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Contrary to other stories of human-led biological introductions, bass are a native North American species and its introduction occurred over a short distance. That said, the story of the introduction runs is inseparable from the history of the railway. Bass were originally introduced to private lakes, but the species quickly spread across Algonquin Park due to the natural interconnections between Ontario lakes, as well as the artificial connections created by loggers. Relatively quickly, sports lodges emerged near private lakes, increasing demand for a rail corridor to deliver fishermen to the park. This transition from a commercial to a recreational fishery had important consequences for First Nations, whose traditional ways of life were marginalized in favour of timber and game activities.

Introducing the Ottawa Environmental History, Heritage and Humanities Network

On Saturday morning a few attendees decamped to the National Art Gallery to discuss the formation of a new network to bring together scholars, students, public historians, and others interested in environmental history in the Ottawa-Gatineau region, as well as to support those passing through on research trips. Pete Anderson (Geography, Queen’s University), Joanna Dean (History, Carleton University), Susan Ross (Canadian Studies, Carleton University), Dan Rück (History and Indigenous Studies, University of Ottawa) and Beth Jewett (Canadian Studies, Mount Allison University) discussed the name, goals, and program of the new network.

Bringing together those interested in the environment, the Ottawa Environmental History, Heritage and Humanities Network (or Ottawa EHHH for short) has planned an ambitious series of lectures, informal discussion nights, and field trips planned for 2016. Those interested are encouraged to follow Ottawa EHHH on Twitter, Facebook, or to send an email to for more details on the upcoming program.

About Arpents

Quelques arpents de neige brings together scholars in Quebec, Ontario, and in nearby U.S. states who share an interest in environmental history and historical geography. Arpents was founded in 2003 as a workshop that met three times per year in various locations, but in 2011 changed the format to having one larger annual meeting on the second Friday/Saturday of December. We make a particular effort to create an informal, workshop atmosphere, and to this end, we do not expect all papers to be polished and ready for publication, but encourage speakers to view Arpents as an opportunity to test new ideas and engage the audience with works in progress.

Next year’s conference will be hosted at Mount Allison University, in Sackville, NB and will be organized by Bell Postdoctoral Fellow, Beth Jewett.

The following two tabs change content below.
Currently a doctoral student at Carleton University, my research explores search engines as sites of historical representation. I'm interested in the way practices such as data mining shape our understanding of history. I also work as the Online Producer for Carleton University's History Department, and as a student researcher with the National Capital Commission.

1 Comment

NiCHE encourages comments and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments that fail to meet our guidelines including comments under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.