Ottawa and Gatineau: Controversy boiling over Chaudiere plans

The Chaudiere Falls and Rapids. Industry, a dam, and a busy bridge have diminished their natural beauty. Photo: James Morgan

Recently, I shared the two big plans the National Capital Commission is considering for Ottawa’s LeBreton Flats area. This time, the topic is the details on redevelopment plans for the area immediately next to it, around Chaudière Rapids (French for “cauldron” or “kettle”) on the Ottawa River, and a couple of the islands in the area. After decades of industrialization and more recently, decay, controversial plans by Windmill Developments are unfolding to turn the Chaudière area into a condominium/retail complex called Zibi. Zibi means river in the indigenous Algonquin language

The main span of the Chaudiere Bridge at the Ontario-Quebec boundary. Photo: James Morgan

The site figures prominently in Canadian history. During the days of Samuel de Champlain and then the fur trade, canoes had to be portaged around the rapids through what is now downtown Hull. The portage legacy lives on in the names of a nearby street, bridge, and federal office complex. A bridge was built across the river in 1828, and sections of the original structure still compose parts of the contemporary bridge. E.B. Eddy began his match manufacturing and pulp and paper empire there in the 1850’s. Giant timber slides were built to send logs driven downstream around the falls. In 1908, the appearance of the falls was considerably diminished when the horseshoe-shaped dam was built above them in order to power mills and hydroelectric stations on both sides of the river. Domtar eventually took over E.B. Eddy and shut down the mills at Chaudière in 2007, leaving nearly two centuries of crumbling buildings. The power stations are still operated by two different utilities.

It is the history of Chaudière Rapids and downstream Victoria and Albert Islands (named after Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert) from before the arrival of Champlain, fur traders, paper mills, and government employees that makes Zibi a controversial project. This is the traditional territory of the Algonquin. They mostly live on the First Nations at Kitigan Zibi, Quebec and Golden Lake, Ontario now, but to them, the Chaudière Rapids and the islands are sacred. The rapids and islands were a historic gathering place for indigenous peoples.

Victoria Island, sacred space to the Algonquin. Part of it is parkland, the other half could soon be part of the Zibi development. Photo: James Morgan

Architect Douglas Cardinal, an aboriginal who designed the Museum of Canadian History in Gatineau and the Museum of the American Indian in Washington, has led the opposition to development plans for the islands. Cardinal wants them to become the site of an indigenous cultural center and natural area. That suggestion was originally made by late Kitigan Zibi elder William Commanda. The islands are located only 10 feet inside Ontario, so he launched an appeal with the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), a quasi-judicial agency that reviews and sometimes overturns decisions made by municipal councils. The OMB threw out the case and now Cardinal is taking it to court. The legal action has stalled the parts of Zibi within Ontario from starting, but things are going ahead on the mainland banks in Gatineau. Orange signs that tout the Zibi experience are displayed on all of the old Eddy factories, advertising a feel-good lifestyle in buildings that exceed LEED sustainability standards.

The Zibi sales centre in a former Domtar factory on the Gatineau side of the rapids. Photo: James Morgan

Cardinal’s cause has recently won support from environmental activists who are taking their concerns to the top. On January 26, a letter jointly signed by the leaders of the Ottawa Chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), the Greenspace Alliance of Canada’s Capital, and the Ottawa Field Naturalists, was sent to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and five cabinet ministers with political relevance to the matter, asking for a decision made by the previous Stephen Harper government to be reversed. In 2011, the government decided not to purchase the remaining private land around Chaudière from Domtar and have the National Capital Commission develop it for recreational and cultural purposes. The letter notes that Jacques Greber, the planner who created the master plan of public space for Canada’s capital in 1950, also recommended the islands be returned to their natural state. The three organizations also expressed support for William Commanda’s suggestion.

The court is to rule on Cardinal’s case sometime this month. Meanwhile, Windmill developments is already selling condominiums to home buyers on the Gatineau side and on the controversial islands.

1 Comment on “Ottawa and Gatineau: Controversy boiling over Chaudiere plans”

  1. Hank says:

    With all the dense development proposed by both of the Lebreton plans, it makes a lot of sense to retain an area of natural land at Chaudiere. Returning the islands to more or less their original state (as much as is physically possible) certainly has my full support.

Comments are closed.