BY STEPHEN DALE
This article was originally published in the Nov/Dec 2014 print edition of Ottawa Magazine
Earlier this year, the discovery of ancient artifacts on land near the Chaudière Falls in Gatineau prompted First Nations activists to occupy the site, which is slated for redevelopment. Given the findings, some people want the city to put the brakes on the $43-million project. Algonquin off-reserve chief Roger Fleury was among the occupiers arrested in September for refusing to leave. Before his arrest, Fleury spoke about why this discovery is important and why First Nations people want more say in the future of the area.
How did you learn that this land contained important Aboriginal artifacts?
When you do construction along the rivers, which are the old highways, you have to check for archaeological materials. Hydro-Québec was burying wires as part of the $43-million waterfront development here. So the City of Gatineau said to Hydro-Québec, “Check this area,” and they dug it up. This was in April, and by May, they had found an object that an archaeologist from Archéotec said was from 5,500 years ago. The archaeologist has since told us that some objects date back 6,000 years. These are axes, spearheads, arrowheads, and even a copper lance. Someone from the mayor’s office told me, “We found tons of objects from different epochs in time and in very good condition.” This is a very small area, and it’s abnormal to find so much in one spot. I think this could have been a sacred site.
Why have you put up the teepees and occupied the land?
I got a call one day and was told, “Roger, the city has just covered the site.” They left in a hurry — just picked up their stuff and covered it. I came here, and I found these pipes on the site. The city wants those pipes 20 feet under the river so boats can pass by, and they want to keep to their schedule. I thought, Wait a second, if they pass those pipes through here, there is no more site. Right away we put up teepees.
Were you surprised that these artifacts are so old?
We’re talking about 4,000 years before the birth of Christ, to put things in perspective. I was reading a story in Le Droit about how, at the University of Ottawa, they found a 19th-century plate and they were really pleased about it. Here we have objects that are 6,000 years old … you are not talking Algonquin or Mohawk, you are talking about societies before that. We think it should be protected by UNESCO because it’s part of the global patrimony.
As chief of the Algonquins off-reserve, this site must have special importance for you.
I look at this in different ways. Just as a taxpayer, I’d be standing here. I’m also a retired history teacher, and I would have loved to bring my students here. But more than that, for us as Algonquins, this is a sacred place. Elders have told me they feel something special here.
Why do you think the city should adjust its plans and put a museum on this spot?
We don’t want the artifacts to be put in a drawer. People who love archaeology travel all over the world to visit important sites, and here we have something very special. Having a museum here would benefit everybody.
What do these artifacts say about the history of this area?
This was a trading hub, where the rivers came together. From here, you could either take the St. Lawrence to the Atlantic or go the other way to the Great Lakes and from there into western Canada or down south. Corn didn’t arrive here from Mexico by accident. When we find a copper implement, it came from Lake Superior because we didn’t have copper up here. It’s obvious that First Nations have been here a long time.
The Algonquins have an unresolved land claim. Is this issue related to that?
The city says, “This land belongs to us,” and we say, “No, you are the boat people from Europe who arrived only 400 years ago. We received you and helped you and saved your lives. We saved you during the American Revolution and during the 1812 war. But we never ceded the land.” So when the city says, “This land belongs to us,” they know that it doesn’t. The first thing they should do is say to the First Nations, “Let’s work together.”