An Indigenous Perspective on Ottawa

Explore indigenous stories, histories, artworks and experiences sometimes overlooked on a visit to Ottawa
Explore indigenous stories, histories, artworks and experiences sometimes overlooked on a visit to Ottawa | © Vladone / Getty Images
Shafik Meghji

Guide Jaime Morse showcases a side of Canada’s capital that is often overlooked. Her walking tours allow travelers to explore the art, monuments, architecture and landscape of downtown Ottawa – “unceded and unconquered Algonquin Anishinaabe territory” – from an indigenous point of view.

On the Plaza Bridge, high above the Rideau Canal in downtown Ottawa, Jaime Morse brings her group to a halt at the open-air A Greater Sisterhood exhibition, which celebrates 24 high-profile Canadian women’s rights campaigners. Morse focuses on two in particular: “Singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie, from the Piapot 75 reserve in Saskatchewan, who is an activist through her music and a role model for many indigenous people around the world. And Sheila Watt-Cloutier, who is an amazing Inuk activist working on social and environmental issues.”

Nearby is a monument commemorating the Famous Five, a group of prominent Canadian suffragettes. Morse explains that the monument is “bittersweet” for indigenous Canadians. “Even though they fought for women’s rights and for women to have the right to vote, they were also adamantly against indigenous people having the right to vote,” she says. “Another one of their indigenous policies was around eugenics – a lot of indigenous women in Canada were sterilized because of the policies of the Famous Five.”

Providing travelers – and locals – with an indigenous point of view is a key part of Morse’s walking tours. Almost 1.7 million Canadians are First Nations, Inuit (the indigenous peoples of the Arctic) or Métis (who have indigenous-European ancestry and a distinct culture), roughly 5% of the population. Approximately 40,000 indigenous Canadians live in Ottawa and sister city Gatineau, yet relatively few visitors gain more than a limited insight into this side of the capital’s history, culture, art and architecture.

The Rideau Canal runs through downtown Ottawa

The art of “slow looking”

From the Plaza Bridge, Morse heads south to the National Arts Centre, where she advises her group to practice the art of “slow looking”, taking the time to really study the artworks on display, rather than hurrying from one to the next. Ottawa has the biggest Inuit population outside of northern Canada, she explains, and one of the gallery’s highlights is an exquisite untitled tapestry by Inuk artist Jessie Oonark, which measures 237 square feet (22 square meters) and depicts life in northern Canada in vivid detail.

“Jesse is the great-grandmother of a friend of mine,” says Morse. “He told me the story of when his great-grandmother was making the tapestry for a commission. She had to sew it in quarters because that is all the space she had in her home. She didn’t see the full tapestry until she came down south to the person who commissioned her. Sometimes you can walk past it and only see the size and color, but [if you take your time] you can see detail like a dog-sled team, a shaman, geese and a hunting scene.”

Just south of the National Arts Centre is Confederation Park, home to the National Aboriginal Veterans Monument, which commemorates the thousands of indigenous Canadians who fought and took part in peacekeeping missions from the First World War onwards.

Confederation Park is home to the National Aboriginal Veterans Monument

Produced by artist Noel Lloyd Pinay of the Peepeekisis First Nation in Saskatchewan, the bronze-and-marble sculpture features a First Nations man holding a peace pipe, an Inuk man with a hunting tool, a First Nations woman holding an eagle fan – which are used during powwows – and a Métis man with a rifle. “The idea is there are two people holding symbols of peace and two holding matériels of war. The philosophy behind that is sometimes you have to evoke war in order to obtain peace,” says Morse.

But the monument also highlights the shameful treatment of indigenous soldiers – who served in the military at higher per-capita rates than any other group in Canada – after they returned home. Many were denied the rights and benefits given to their white counterparts, resulting in increased issues such as untreated PTSD and homelessness. “My cousin only got his Korean War medals in 1986, and he passed away two years after that,” says Morse. “There’s still to this day indigenous people who haven’t got their veterans’ benefits. That’s why this monument exists.”

“We’re standing on stolen land”

Morse walks onto City Hall, where Algonquin Anishinaabe flags fly alongside the Canadian maple leaf. Although a glitzy Ottawa 2017 sculpture – celebrating Canada’s 150th anniversary of confederation – draws the attention, she focuses on a smaller, more modest plaque: “This was put up on 21 June 2016, National Indigenous Day, right before Canada 150. It was to recognise unceded and unsurrendered Algonquin Anishinaabe territory. We’re standing on stolen land.”

Afterwards, Morse takes her group to The Lost Child, a haunting sculpture by artist David Ruben Piqtoukun that resembles a “fragmented inukshuk”, an Inuit stone structure with a human-like form. “It talks about lost connections, but also says things can get better,” says Morse, before moving onto the nearby Canadian Tribute to Human Rights. This monument, the first in the world dedicated to universal rights, has great granite plaques inscribed with the words “Equality”, “Dignity” and “Rights” in more than 70 indigenous languages.

Morse finishes her tour at the National Gallery of Canada, where she works as an educator. She pauses at The Three Watchmen, a statue by artist Jim Hart featuring three wide-eyed figures sitting back to back and facing in different directions. “One watches over the church, one watches over the government, and one watches over the museum, which represents the people,” she explains.

Ottawa is a city of hidden histories and experiences

Inside, the Canadian and Indigenous Art Gallery showcases the staggering diversity of indigenous art in Canada, with the oldest exhibits dating back some 5,000 years – though Morse points out that many pieces of indigenous art and heritage were stolen from the country and now reside in overseas museums and collections: “The British Museum has the largest collection of North American indigenous items in the world.”

Among the National Gallery of Canada’s collection are elegant octopus-shaped Métis “fire bags”, originally used to carry flints, tobacco or pipes; a magnificent Algonquin canoe, dating from the early 20th century; more works by Jessie Oonark; and a colorful shaman’s coat. Later, Morse stops at a pair of boots with moose hooves for soles: “They were created to trick other people – hunters would wear them to cover up their tracks.”

Morse’s tours do just the opposite, revealing indigenous stories, histories, artworks and experiences that might otherwise have been overlooked.

For more information, visit Ottawa Tourism. The writer stayed at the Westin Ottawa during his trip.

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