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The River, The People and The Industry: The damming history of the Ottawa River Watershed

By Fazeela Jiwa

On Nov. 4, a large group packed into Octopus Books’ Centretown community classroom event to hear the history of the Ottawa River Watershed. Peter Di Gangi, the Research Director for Algonquin Nations Secretariat, told a story that spanned from the ice age to today’s land claims and contestations in the area.

The powerful Ottawa River runs for 1,271 km, from the headwaters at Lake Capimitchigama, through Lake Temiscamingue and over the Chaudière Falls, joining with the Rideau and Gatineau Rivers, and draining into the Lake of Two Mountains and the St. Lawrence River near Montréal. It was used for thousands of years as the main transportation waterway by the many peoples who lived in the area, known today as Algonquins. It was a robustly used trade route that could take a boat to the interior of Canada or out into the Atlantic Ocean, making it a large part of the pre-settler economy.

Di Gangi described the more recent history of the Ottawa River as one of industry, beginning with the fur trade. The river is flanked by forests on either side, which at the time of the fur traders were old growth. Logging of these forests began in earnest in the Hull/Ottawa area in the early 1800s, and soon the waterway was clogged with logs, making trade very difficult and creating economic hardship.

Watershed1

Credit: Ottawa Riverkeeper

The arrival of lumbermen also put many pressures on Algonquin people who lived in the area, Di Gangi noted. They brought diseases such as influenza, tuberculosis and smallpox. The timber licenses granted to settlers displaced Algonquins from their homes, forcing them to watch from a distance as their lands were logged, their animals over-hunted for fur and their waterways blocked from regular use.

“Impacts on the Algonquins were usually dramatic,” Di Gangi said at the event. “Before the actual arrival of lumbermen [there was] disease. Then [there was] habitat destruction and competition for game from the lumbermen, then dispossession of lands from colonization.” As an example of the decline in Algonquin populations due to industry and settlement, Di Gangi used the numbers from Temiscamingue: Algonquins made up 77 per cent of the population in 1871, and this had declined to three per cent by 1901.

Abundant lumber helped the advent of the pulp and paper industry by 1840. The river was being dammed in the 19th century to control the flow of floating logs for sale and use, but the “early [to] mid 20th century saw first the construction of dams for storage, reservoirs for flood and water flow control, [and] from the 1920s to 1950s was the phase of construction of the hydro dams,” Di Gangi said. In his lecture, he described how key players in the hydroelectric industry lobbied the government for reservoirs that would control the flow of the river and better service power hydroelectric generators. The creation of reservoirs such as Cabonga in the Barriere and Rapide Lakes area flooded large portions of lands where Algonquin people lived.

Today, the entire length of the Ottawa River is dammed – the water flow is regulated from the headwaters to the basin for the purpose of industry.

Today, the industry day laying claim to this area is luxury boutique condo development, which proposes to build on the Chaudière and Albert Islands, just west of downtown Ottawa. This is controversial as the area is a sacred Algonquin site, and the City of Ottawa and the National Capital Commission agreed to the development withoug consulting all ten Algonquin nations, whose traditional lands include this unceded area.

When the topic of Windmill Developments’ Zibi project came up as a question after Di Gangi’s lecture, he said that while the four Algonquin nations that he works with (Wolf Lake, Temiscamingue, Eagle Village, and Barriere Lake) oppose the development, many other Algonquin nations have not, to his knowledge, made the same public protestations. The communities do not have unity on this subject, and Di Gangi stressed that outsiders must be willing to listen with respect to the conversations between these communities. “Everyone thinks Indians are supposed to be the same, but they aren’t,” Di Gangi said. “Each community is different and has different factors at work that influence their decision-making.”

If you’re interested in these subjects and more, Peter Di Gangi will be speaking at Octopus Books Centretown again on Dec. 8. You can sign up on the Octopus Books website for $10.

This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 8 No. 3 (Nov/Dec 2015).

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