I recall many years ago, standing on the Chaudière Bridge in Ottawa with an elder from Pyramid Lake, Nevada. She was in the territory to share teachings of her people, the Paiute Nation. I had been delegated to assist her during her two-week contract at the Kumik Lodge at the then Department of Indian Affairs. Over the course of the first few days of her stay, I had occasion to speak to her of the mighty Chaudière Falls nearby, where it was customary for my ancestors to offer the gift of tobacco into them before undertaking a hazardous journey.
The elder, intrigued by what I told her about the falls, wanted to see them for herself. We went for a walk one day and found ourselves on the bridge, completely mesmerized by the power of the falls. We listened to the painful roar of waters rushing over shale rock blackened by currents no longer free like they had been before the islands and shores were developed and the river’s flow was harnessed to operate paper mills and power stations. Though in a weakened state, the Ottawa river’s waters fell into the Kettle with a great spiritual force, still carrying within its boiling bubbles the hopes and dreams that the Anishinabe, who had lived around them for many thousands of years, had for their descendants living today and far into tomorrow. The falls are a place of tremendous spiritual energy and a person sensitive to such energy can lose control of his/her emotions when standing in close proximity to them.
The elder at my side suddenly clasped my arm with one hand and grabbed the bridge railing with the other. I saw tears roll down her cheeks as she silently wept. I did not respond until she began sobbing uncontrollably. I asked what was wrong, and she answered that the power of the Spirit coming from the Kettle had overwhelmed her. “I feel the love and strength of your ancestors at this place,” she told me.
Water, even when quiet and not stirring, still contains life. The spiritual messages of the wise moon are reflected on its mirrored surface. The birds go to it to bathe. It quenches the thirst of the bear. Water sings! It brings out songs from us. Where water is silent, power remains. But where it roars is the place where the spirits of the river gather.
Since the “Kettle of Boiling Waters” (Chaudière Falls) first sang its mighty spiritual songs for the Anishinabe, the people have revered it as a sacred site. The people saw that the spirit of the strongest men and women among them shook with excitement when in the presence of the boiling waters. In prayer, the people heard the falls, even as they lit their pipes many leagues away. The voice of the sacred falls was ever-present in their ceremonies.
Nothing was more free than were the waters of the great river before contact with white people was made. Nothing was more pure of spirit, nothing nurtured and sustained more life! For all which the river provided, we were thankful. The Kettle of Boiling Waters was a special place on the river and known as such spiritually to all Anishinabe of our territory. We gathered there to pray and acknowledge and honour the force of Kichi Manido. The falls were truly the centre of our woodland cathedral.
But much has occurred over the past 200 years. As a place of spirituality, the falls have been neglected. Forgotten by a people converted to Christianity! We can measure the health of our people by the wellness of the river. The falls were placed where they are by the Great Spirit, to act as a gauge to do this. That is the way it was before the white people came here and it will remain as such for however long into the future we exist as First Peoples. We will only survive if the river is healthy, and only as long as the great falls of our river are held sacred to us as a special place of prayer and ceremony.
You have probably heard about Windmill Development Group signing an “Agreement of Purchase and Sale” for Domtar’s property on Ottawa’s Chaudière Island and downtown Gatineau.* Chaudière Island is right next to Chaudière Falls. You may also have heard about late Algonquin Elder William Commanda’s Vision for the area, which included plans for Chaudière Island. Windmill wants to build a sustainable mixed-used community (with residential and commercial areas) on Chaudière Island. Commanda wanted Chaudière Island to have a City Park and a Historic Interpretive Centre, part of his overall Vision that included an Indigenous Centre on Asinabka (Victoria Island). Kitigan Zibi Algonquin Chief Gilbert Whiteduck stated in the Citizen that this Indigenous Centre “should be the jewel in the crown” of any redevelopment of the former Domtar lands. Chief Whiteduck also said he and his community members are concerned about the future of the Chaudière Falls, whether they will be visible and “free”, or turned “into a tourist attraction on the backs of the Algonquin people.”
The current debate about the fate of Chaudière Island is important to resolve. But my focus here is on the sacred Chaudière Falls. One thing I feel is important, and has not to my knowledge been discussed in any of the plans for Chaudière Island, is that I believe a place must be provided at the falls where the Algonquins can go and once again offer tobacco and prayer for the health and well-being of the river. I only speak for myself, but nothing less would be acceptable to me.
* A note about the purchasing Agreement, from Windmill’s Press Release: “The Agreement with Domtar commits Windmill to purchasing the property, with the only remaining condition being rezoning of the property for a mixed-use community-scale development. Windmill plans to present its planning application to Ottawa and Gatineau city councils in the spring. The financial terms of the Agreement are not being released at this stage.”