An Acre of Time: Algonquin Presence in Ottawa

Over 20 years ago, Phil Jenkins wrote An Acre of Time. He extensively researched the history of the Lebreton Flats in Ottawa, near Akikodjiwan (Chaudière). Below is a quote from the book regarding the continued presence of the Algonquin Anishinabe people in the National Capital region. This originally appeared as a comment on January 15th on my blog post, Algonquin Land. It is posted here with Jenkins’ permission.

Keep the Circle Strong,
South Wind

Excerpt from “An Acre of Time”

Acre-of-TimeConstant Penency was born in or around 1786. He fought in the War of 1812 with the British and then returned to the ways of the game hunter, spending his summers at the Lake of Two Mountains and his winters with his family upstream on the banks of the river. He was the father of at least four boys, two of whom died and left him young children to care for. The hunting grounds of Constant Penency had provided his ancestors with deer, beaver and fish for many generations.

Because of a petition Constant made to the British department of Indian Affairs in the February of 1830, when he was 44, we know where those hunting grounds were. In the document Constant says,

“That after several years the hunt has more and more diminished with the destruction and the distancing of the beaver and of game. The only means of subsistence of the supplicant whose hunting grounds, situated to the South of the Ottawa at the top of the Rideau, are almost all ruined by the incursions that were made and the numerous settlements that now run along them.”

The expanse of Constant’s family territory can only be guessed at, but the average Algonquin grounds was 100 square miles, or an area ten miles by ten. The “incursions” that Constant mentioned in his petition were the first stirrings of settlement, stirrings that would divide, sub-divide and eventually become Bytown, then Ottawa, the capital city of the British invasion. Constant and his family were to be replaced, in six generations, by half a million people.

Within a couple of months of his petition, Constant got a form letter. It was a fancy-looking document dressed up as a certificate, flourishes and filigreed edges, designed to impress the receiver. It came from Sir James Kempt who was, as it said at the top of the paper, “Captain General and Governor-in-Chief in and over the provinces of Lower and Upper Canada,” as well as of other glories. Sir James wanted Constant to know that he was “reposing especial trust and confidence in your courage and good conduct, and in your zealous and faithful attachment to His Britannic Majesty King George.”

Four years after Constant, together with a Nippissing chief, went to visit James Hughes, an Indian Affairs agent in Montreal. Hughes later reported the meeting to his employers, giving his take on what the two chiefs had on their minds. An edited version of his letter reads,

“Old Constant Pinaisais [French spelling] was here a few days ago. He brought a map made a few years past. These lands on the borders of the Ottawa are now almost all settled.
They however have marked out a lot above the Grand Calumet Portage some distance above the last settlements. They would wish to have a township or a seignorie given to them there, before these lands are granted.

It is on the south side [of the river]. There is an island before it which they would also like to have, to make hay thereon and place their cattle in summer. They say they have no encouragement to work on pieces of land that are in manner only lent to them, whereas were they masters of a certain tract that they could call their own, they would be happy and industrious. They would have it in their power to make better hunts – find more deer and catch plenty of fish.

The history of the British theft of the Algonquin way of living is right there in those few words. No-one goes through life without feeling great change, but Constant Penency found himself pushed over the edge of an era. He was born a free hunter’s son, and by the age of 50 he was asking men born in another world for the right to relinquish any claim on his birthland, and to become a sharecropper and part-time trapper far away from their incursions.


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