Sunday, May 4, 2014

My Log 423 May 4 2014: Imaginative scheme for recognizing an important historical and cultural period in Canada’s history struggling on while federal government drags its feet

On a visit to Ottawa last week I was shown a most interesting document outlining in some detail the
proposed changes to the long-used, long-almost-abandoned islands in the Ottawa river between the cities of Ottawa and Gatineau.
The proposal has been drawn up by the Windmill Development Group, Canadian developers, who want to  use the 37 acres of the  property they have bought from Domtar, the paper-manufacturer. The architects of the proposed Windmill development are Perkins and Will, of San Francisco, and the Ottawa architect Barry Padolsky, an expert in the culture and heritage of the city of Ottawa, has been hired as heritage consultant.
These islands  --- Chaudiere and Amelia islands on the Ontario side, and Philomen island on the Quebec side,  outlined by the dotted red line in the map shown here, which delineates the limits of the Windmill proposal --- have been used for more than 200 years, first, by the logging industry on which Ottawa was founded at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and later by pulp and paper interests, as well as hydro-electric companies which still operate four generating stations right there in the middle of the Ottawa river, downstream from the Chaudiere Falls dam. Readers will note that the large Victoria island, to which access is gained from one of the bridges, is excluded from the Windmill scheme.
What surprised me about the document I saw was the scale of the industrial work that has historically been carried out there. It was immense,  and at one time rated among the biggest industrial projects in North America. The timber barons who moved in,  Philomen Wright and his son Ruggles, J.R. Booth, E.B Eddy and others, became immensely wealthy, and in their time were almost all-powerful. Booth was said at one time to trade more lumber than any other man in the world.
The first timber was taken in the form of what were called squared logs --- simply trees cut down and squared off before being shipped to England --- first, by being run down the Ottawa river to Montreal for trans-shipment ---- mostly for use by the Royal Navy in construction of its ships.
Later came sawed lumber, and photos of those years show how huge were the piles that were established before being shipped off, usually by barge. When this timber began to run out, the industrialists turned to creating a pulp and paper industry that made paper for most of the great newspapers of North America, and some in Europe. Later E.B. Eddy established a match-making factory. This lumbering has continued to the present day throughout the Ottawa river basin, feeding for the most part regional pulp mills, and it is still a matter of contention between the governing authorities and the Algonquin inhabitants of these forests who, historically, were simply pushed aside to make way for the loggers, and were thus reduced to a deplorable state of poverty. At no time during this long history have they ever ceased to struggle to have their ownership of these valuable lands recognized, a struggle that is continuing today.
I remember a decade ago, when filming the depredations being made of the traditional hunting territories of the Algonquins in La Verendrye park, coming across the biggest pile of logs I could ever imagine, hundreds of thousands of logs, lined up beside the Gatineau river, ready for dispatch into the waters, to be floated down to Ottawa. (This was discontinued soon after, since when the Gatineau river, almost fatally polluted by the trade, has been cleaned up, and is today available for recreation.
This notable industrial  history, certainly worth preserving as an element of heritage not only for the city but for the nation as a whole, does present proposals for “cleaning up” the site with considerable difficulty, because the remaining industrial structures are admitted to be of little intrinsic architectural interest, however much it might be desirable to preserve them for the education of present-day generations.
The Windmill proposal is for condos, walkways and so on, to establish a viable living community on the Chaudiere, Albert and Amelia islands in the middle of the river. But a cultural and heritage assessment of the plans, and of the possibilities, is under preparation.
Windmill requires a  re-zoning by the cities of Ottawa and Gatineau before it can turn a spade in the ground. Since Hydro Ottawa already plans a fifth 29-megawatt generating station on the islands,  and Hydro-Quebec owns land on the other side of the river, one thing is clear: to work through the maze of different ownerships and jurisdictions will be a process requiring immense finesse, tolerance from both sides of the river, skills of diplomacy and vision for both the past and the future.
At the moment is seems that the municipal governments are on board for this effort, but one thing that I found curious about the overall photos of the area was that Victoria island, at present the most accessible to the public, on which stand the remains of the most handsome of the extant buildings, does not even appear in the photos. 
I vividly remember being present at a wonderful concert given by Buffy Ste Marie many years ago, outside the tall stone remains of an industrial building on Victoria Island, that is in these days used in the summer for a variety of operations by local native groups. Similarly, the first time I ever heard of Robert Lepage, the innovative  stage director, was when he staged one of his plays in a tall brick building on Victoria island that still stands, in which the audience was able to surround the stage in balconies rising to the roof, looking down on actors who played their parts in a pool of water covering the stage. These two events surely suggest the sort of future use that could be made of these island lands in the middle of one of Canada’s iconic great rivers. Victoria island is the proposed site of the Gathering of the Nations place, which has been suggested by the late Grand Chief William Commanda as a centre for aboriginal cultural and spiritual activity. The Ottawa river was the centre of Algonquin life long before Europeans arrived here, and they have long hankered after having at least Victoria island transformed into such a place as Chief Commanda recommended. This has to happen if Canada is to live up to its self-image as an imaginative and compassionate nation. But the reason why nothing is happening on Victoria island is that it is owned by the government of Canada, which is showing a notable lack of interest in the possibilities of redeveloping, improving and once again using  the centre of this great river.
“There’s not even a whisper of interest from any agency of the federal government,” said one interested architect, who merely shrugged disconsolately when asked for an explanation.
One doesn’t need to be a rocket scientist to discover the reason. The inertia can be traced back to Cabinet level, in other words, to Prime Minister Stephen Harper himself, so this can be just one more area added to the long list of important projects for the health and spiritual well-being of Canadians that have been stalled by the lack of imagination, the failure of vision, and the strange control-freak impulses of our Prime Minister.
It seems unlikely anything can be done to awaken this government to show even a spark of interest in this important proposal, which could help to transform our somewhat sleepy capital city into a more vibrant presence. The only hope, it seems, is that the government is changed at the next election.
As I have written on this web site before --- Harper Out!  ---- should be the slogan for anyone who hopes for a more imaginative and vibrant Canada.

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