By Joey Clavette
This was originally published in The Leveller
On June 17 a group of over 300 protesters marched from Victoria Island to Parliament Hill. The protest was organized by Algonquin Elders under the slogan “It Is Sacred,” referring to the Albert and Chaudière Islands, which have been sold to Windmill and Dream Unlimited Corp. in order to build the Zibi development project consisting of condominiums and commercial spaces.
Picket signs read: “Trudeau aidez nous (Trudeau help us),” “Nothing is Greener than Trees,” “Solidarity with Algonquins,” and “Amazon tribes support Grandfather William Commanda’s Spiritual Centre. Declare the centre sacred now.”
The project has been shrouded in controversy since the city rezoned the land and sold it to Windmill on Oct. 8, 2014. The controversy focuses on the claim that the Chaudière Islands are sacred Algonquin territory that have been sold to a private company without the consent of the Algonquin people.
Many of the protesters were in support of Grandfather William Commanda’s vision for the Chaudière site as an alternative to the Windmill developments. Commanda was an elder from Kitigan Zibi who passed away in 2011 yet remains an important figure. His vision was for a peace and healing centre to be built on Victoria Island and for Albert and Chaudière to be reverted to park land.
Samantha Tenasco, who is a member of Memengweshii Indigenous advisory council, whose mandate is “to ensure the integrity and appropriateness of the Zibi development,” told the Leveller that the Windmill developments are not in conflict with William Commanda’s vision for a peace centre on Victoria Island, as the condos would only occupy the Albert and Chaudière Islands. Windmill’s dialogue website reiterates this, stating “Grandfather Commanda described a rejuvenated future for Victoria Island in a vision he called Asinabka: A Healing And Peacebuilding Centre At Victoria Island. Zibi [the name of the Windmill developments] will not conflict with that vision, and we are entirely supportive of that idea.”
However, 9 out of 10 Algonquin bands, as well as the Assembly of the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, have motioned in opposition to the decision to sell the land to Windmill. The one band which is in favour, Pikwakanagan, is working with the Windmill developers.
The Algonquins of Ontario (AOO), who are comprised of the Pikwaknagan band and nine other non-status Algonquin groups, have also voiced their support for the project, though their legitimacy has been questioned by certain activists including Lynn Gehl and Douglas Cardinal.
A common topic at the protest was the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which requires “free, prior and informed consent” from First Nations before land is ceded. What remains to be determined within the Canadian legal system is the definition of consent and clarification surrounding its applications. This is a problem Member of Parliament Romeo Saganash plans to rectify with his private member’s bill (bill 262) which would ratify the UNDRIP and set such definitions.
The question of consent regarding land secession is ambiguous according to current common law precedent in Canada. The Nations of Haida, Delagmuuk and Tsilhqot’in in British Columbia have all made land claim suits to the Crown which have set precedence at the Supreme Court.
In Delagmuuk v. B.C. (1997), the ruling set that governments have an obligation to consult First Nations with land claims to territories before selling them. In Haida v. B.C. (2004), oral tradition was allowed to be submitted as evidence in limited ways for the first time. Tsilhoqot’in v. B.C. (2014) set a legal test for overturning First Nation land claims, requiring consent.
Windmill developers, on their website zibidialogue.com, mention that they are working with the definition of “collaborative consent.” This definition was elaborated by former Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations and current corporate sector advisor, Phil Fontaine, in a report by the same name.
This definition would mean that free, prior and informed consent would be maintained through collaborative efforts between developers, government and First Nations with land claims. This collaboration, as Fontaine elaborates, would include “development of legislation,” “development of policies and plans,” “negotiations regarding ownership and use of land and waters,” and “resource revenue sharing agreements.”
However, as local independent journalist and Indigenous solidarity activist Greg MacDougall recently noted, government has yet to consult with the nine Algonquin nations opposing the Zibi project, calling into question the notion of “collaborative consent,” in this case limited to the developer and its pro-development mandated advisory council.
Responding to this sort of criticism, the Memengweshii council released an open letter in which they state “at first glance, it may be easy to see the same old story, to criticize this project as a condo development by greedy developers at the expense of First Nations People. But to do so is to miss an opportunity for our people to rise above and advance.”
The Memengweshii council also refuses to acknowledge the land’s sacredness, arguing that the claim to sacredness is contested by Algonquins. Obviously, the more than 300 protesters who marched on Parliament Hill, with iterations of “Save and preserve Asinabka sacred Chaudiere islands,” disagree.