For millennia, the Ottawa River has been a major artery through the wilderness of eastern Canada, providing a highway of travel and trade for the Algonquin First Nation. One of the most strategic places lies at the junction of the Rideau, Gatineau and Ottawa Rivers. Here, next to Chaudière Falls, is Victoria Island, an important Native encampment and sacred ceremonial spot for countless centuries.
From the 1800s, the cities of Ottawa and Gatineau grew and prospered around Victoria Island. Today, Canada’s only urban aboriginal attraction, called Aboriginal Experiences, lies at its northeast end. The historical Native village consists of tipis, birch bark wigwams, cultural displays, a fire pit and two large tents for performances and dining.
The central location offers outstanding views of the soaring Gothic Parliament buildings and is within walking distance of icons such as the Canadian Museum of civilization and the National Art Gallery. The Village is easily accessible, as it lies alongside Confederation Boulevard, the official ceremonial route to show visiting dignitaries the best side of the national capital.
Aboriginal Experiences, operated by Turtle Island Tourism Company, offers tours of the village where visitors can interact with artists working on crafts such as birch-bark canoe building, soap-stone carving, basket weaving, dreamcatcher creation and snowshoe making. A variety of programs are offered involving songs, dances and story telling. The most popular is the Discovery Program, which includes an informative tour of the Native village and describes Aboriginal cultures across Canada. Trina Mather-Simard, the president of Aboriginal Experiences, explained, “The village represents not just the Algonquins but other First Peoples from across North America such as the Oneida, Cree and Cherokee.” The tour is followed by a vibrant and interactive performance of a traditional Pow Wow dance and concludes with a shared friendship dance. Special programs are often offered, including Inuit throat singing and Metis jig dancing.
Another favorite is the Aboriginal Voyageur tour, which starts at the Canadian Museum of Civilization with a visit to the impressive First Peoples displays. The participants then clamber into voyageur canoes, each seating more than a dozen, and paddle upstream a short distance to Victoria Island. The ‘voyageurs’ receive a Native welcome, conduct trade and then are guided through the village. This tour has recently received a prestigious honour: it was named to the list of Canadian Tourism Signature Experiences, which is used to market Canada internationally.
But this now-popular attraction did not have a happy beginning. In the 1970s, when the National Capital Commission made plans to redevelop Victoria Island as part of the Confederation Boulevard, Algonquin Natives protested. To the Algonquins the island was a spiritual place, which had been used by their peoples for a thousand years. Furthermore, it was part of unceded territory. The Natives occupied one end of the island, beginning a long protest. In 2000, after almost two decades, the occupation evolved into a tourism and cultural center. Today the National Capital Commission accepts the aboriginal presence and grants three-year leases for Turtle Island Tourism Company to use the land.
There is an even more ambitious vision, however, championed by Algonquin Elder William Commanda. He said that Victoria Island “is an important sacred ceremonial place for the original peoples of the land. And it seems the land has been waiting for these people to ignite the ancient communal fires again.”
He lobbied vigorously and elegantly for a Healing and Peace Centre on the island that would help heal, strengthen and unite Aboriginal peoples, and share indigenous values and culture with all others. Sadly, he passed away in 2011. His grand plan lives on, however, with his granddaughter Claudette Commanda providing leadership. The National Capital Commission has approved the need for such a Native facility and intends for Aboriginal Architect Douglas Cardinal to design it. To date, funding has been difficult to find and the Center’s future is uncertain.
Meanwhile, Aboriginal Experiences is expanding its role. It recently introduced a program to train young Natives in their culture and to become ambassadors who will carry the message to the rest of Canada. The first class of 15 students was graduated this year receiving tourism certification from Tourism Canada. These young ambassadors have learned dance, music and story telling and are helping bring tourists to Canada and teach them Native culture.
They are also keeping elder Commanda’s dream alive.