Ottawa Indigenous Culture is alive and well. Ottawa has been a place where people have lived for a long time. Excavations show that human habitat goes back as far as 8000 years and Indigenous knowledge keepers speak of being on this land since time immemorial.
This is not surprising as it is an area where the Rideau river and the Gatineau river in Quebec feed into the Ottawa River, known among the Anishnabe as ‘Kichisipi’. This means ‘Great River’ in the Anishinaabe language known as Anishnabemowin.
The Kitchissippi ward, spelled slightly different today, still reminds us of the original and still current name to the Anishnabe of the Ottawa river.
The rivers in Canada were the main ways to get around. Ottawa was a place where the peoples coming from different directions would trade their wares. In the early days of European exploration in Canada, Samuel de Champlain and Etienne Brule teamed up with Anishnabe people to find their way via the Ottawa river to the Great Lakes.
Indigenous people played an important role in the fur trade. Fur was an important fashion product in hats in 17th century Europe. The French maintained close connections with Indigenous peoples, who would collaborate with the French to collect and process the beaver fur. The fur trade played a significant role in the development of Canada, and you can read more about this in the highly informative Canadian Encyclopedia.
A dark chapter in the history of Canada is that of the residential schools. Government and church believed that it would be best for Indigenous children to be removed from the families at a very young age to be educated and raised the children in a European Christian lifestyle.
Sadly, this practice has devastated Indigenous communities. Many children were abused and parents were not able to pass their culture and language to their children. Only in 2008 Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered an official apology. The effects however remain. The University of British Columbia has an extensive webpage on the matter.
Slowly, changes are being made as Indigenous peoples’ suffering and strength becomes more recognized by Canadians each day.
There are a number of sights in Ottawa that relate to the life of Indigenous people. Ottawa is built on traditional unceded and unsurrendered territory of the Algonquin Anishinabe First Nations.
Because Europeans built Ottawa on this territory, you will often hear Ottawans at the start of an event recognising the unceded and unsurrendered territory and the historic decisions that failed the Indigenous peoples.
A feast for your eyes and ears, the competition Pow Wow attracts the best singers and dancers from across Turtle Island (the First Nation’s name for North America). A powwow is a place to socialise, enjoy food and goods vendors and to participate and celebrate Indigenous cultures.
The Odawa Native Friendship Centre organises a powwow every spring, about 20 km west from downtown at 200 Moodie Drive. You can find up to date info here.
The Museum of History’s impressive Grand Hall shows the cultures of the First Nations of the Westcoast. There are a large number of objects, and you can see a collection of totem poles. The totem poles can only be found on the west coast of Canada and were not in use by Indigenous peoples in the Ottawa area.
However, you can find a totem pole close to downtown at the Governor General’s Rideau Hall, east of downtown. If you book a tour with Escape Bicycle Tours & Rentals, you will get to see the totem pole at Rideau Hall.
You can also find one at Victoria Island just east of the Parliamentary district, one in Confederation Park and one on Baseline (a bit out of the way at the Scouts National Headquarters).
Recently added to Ottawa is Manuel Báez’ Gather-Ring, a wood, metal and glass installation at the Ottawa end of the Portage Bridge. Manuel is an Indigenous architect originally from Costa Rica).
His inspiration was the special location overlooking the Ottawa river, the Museum of History and the Parliament Buildings. Manuel was inspired by some Indigenous cultures that have important symbols such as the tree of life and the dreamcatcher and consulted with local Indigenous people.
The installation is a gathering circle for the community. Take a close look to the stone in the middle: a polished black Canadian granite circle. You’ll notice a 13-segment pattern of a turtle shell. Some First Nation peoples call North America Turtle Island. Above you, you can see four beams in the shape of a canoe.
Unveiled on National Aboriginal Day, June 21, 2001, this large monument can be found in Confederation Park across from the Lord Elgin hotel. More than 7000 First Nations fought in two world wars and the Korean War. A veteran group estimates as many as 12000 fought in those wars. See if you can find the four animal figures, humans and and spiritual objects in the memorial. Beside First Nations, Metis and Inuit fought in the wars as well.
Wabano was originally built between 1995 and 2000. The new part opened up in 2013; drop in at the 25,000 ft2 Wabano centre, a major landmark in Ottawa’s Vanier neighbourhood, opened in 2013 at a cost of $15 million, with $9.6 million coming from community campaigns. Designed by First Nation architect Douglas Cardinal, who also designed the Canadian Museum of History, the centre serves over 15,000 Indigenous people a year and functions as a hub for Indigenous people: Wabano is known for its leadership in holistic healthcare. Do check out the permanent Residential Schools educational exhibit.
If you want to learn about the rich history and contemporary issues of Indigenous people in Canada, consider taking a walking tour with our friends at Indigenous Walks. Their guided walk and talk through downtown Ottawa presents participants with social, political, cultural and artistic spaces from an indigenous perspective.
Note to reader: We wrote this blog in collaboration with our colleagues and friends at Indigenous Walks. This blog is obviously just a brief overview for those who are less familiar with the Indigenous history and it doesn’t pretend to be complete. Great ideas? Let us know.