Zibi foes target McKenna

A group of community activists in downtown Ottawa is seeking political pledges to pressure Ottawa Centre MP Catherine McKenna to stop Zibi, the controversial condominium-office development around the Chaudière Falls.

The project is planned for former industrial lands on Chaudière and Albert islands and the adjacent Gatineau shore of the Ottawa River — all of which is unceded Algonquin territory, like much of the rest of Ontario and Quebec.

The opposition group, Stop Windmill, is pressing McKenna to exercise her influence as federal environment minister and the top local member of cabinet to stop the transfer of federal lands for the Zibi project to the private firm Windmill Developments.

“We are coming at this as allies of Indigenous people who are asserting certain rights and certain demands,” said Stop Windmill’s Debra Huron. “They’ve been ignored by the federal government. We want to use our voting power to have a particular impact on a cabinet minister.”

Windmill is hoping to transform the islands into a sustainable residential-commercial community, but has faced strong opposition from a number of Algonquin leaders who want to see the land transformed into parkland next to a national indigenous cultural centre on Victoria Island.

The Chaudière Falls and surrounding areas are considered sacred sites by many indigenous people; as early as 1613, French explorer Samuel de Champlain described tobacco rituals taking place on the edge of the once-mighty falls.

The Ottawa Centre Solidarity Pledge is seeking 3,014 signatures from local voters who promise not to support McKenna in the 2019 federal election if the current government approves Windmill’s project. 

The pledge target number is one higher than the margin of victory in the 2015 election when McKenna won the Ottawa Centre seat.

“We have decided that she is a politician at the federal level who may be able to be a conduit for the larger Trudeau government to consider the concerns and demands Algonquins have raised in their opposition to the Zibi condo project,” said Huron.

The Stop Windmill Coalition protested twice this past summer at McKenna’s office. In July, McKenna sent SWC a letter in response to its concerns.

“We are committed to a renewed relationship with Indigenous Peoples — one that is based on recognition of rights, respect, co-operation and partnership,” McKenna said in the letter.

She added that Windmill is currently engaging in a dialogue with First Nations in relation to the project and that the adjacent Victoria Island will not be affected by the development project.

For Windmill executive Rodney Wilts, Zibi is not only environmentally sustainable, but also a socially sustainable project that will include First Nations.

“We have commitments to provide jobs and opportunities for First Nations,” said Wilts. “We’ve been working with a company called Decontie Construction, which is an Algonquin-owned contractor which is doing some of the (soil) remediation for us. We’ve been looking to try to leverage the community to try and build partnerships with the First Nations community.”

Windmill also formed the Memengweshii Council, an advisory group made up of First Nations women from various Algonquin-Anishinabe and other First Nations communities in and around Ontario. Wilts said representatives of the Algonquin-Anishinabe are working to make sure the developer upholds the values of the Anishinabe people in terms of protecting the environment and community.

Nine out of ten federally-recognized Algonquin First Nations in the Ottawa-Gatineau region are opposed to Windmill’s project, according to Stop Windmill’s website. The only federally-recognized Algonquin community to support the development is the Algonquins of Pikwàkanagàn, located near Renfrew about 140 kilometres west of Ottawa. 

The community’s chief, Kirby Whiteduck, claims the development represents a new opportunity for collaboration.

“Through arts, culture, jobs, training, youth mentorships and the formal recognition that the site is on unceded Algonquin territory,” Whiteduck wrote in the Ottawa Citizen in August 2015, “Zibi will be a meaningful and authentic manifestation of the influence and presence of the Algonquin in the heart of the nation’s capital – a vibrant living space and development model that encourages cross-cultural integrity and inclusion.”

Consumer interest for the condominiums has been high, according to Wilts. Two planned projects currently up for pre-sale are the “O” Condos on the Gatineau side and the Kanaal Condos on the Ottawa side. Wilts said construction should begin in the spring.

On Oct. 18, the federal and Ontario governments signed a historic land deal with the Algonquins of Ontario that will see 36,000 square kilometres of land signed over to Indigenous people. The land includes territory in the Ottawa Valley that is Crown-owned, but excludes land the land controlled by Windmill.

The Ottawa Centre Solidarity Pledge was launched in September as a downtown street-corner campaign, with volunteers seeking signatures from passerby. For Huron, the focus right now is on receiving the desired enough pledges to reach the coalition target.

“We have one focus at a time,” she said. “Our strategy has focused on lobbying and targeting a particular federal politician whom we think can have an impact at the cabinet table. We work to accomplish that one focus.”