For Anishinaabeg who gather, even today, at this sacred meeting place from points east, west, north and south, the Chaudière waterfall’s whirlpool is the bowl of a great peace pipe, and its mists are smoke rising to the Creator. World-renown Métis-Blackfoot architect, Douglas Cardinal, describes the importance of the Falls in this video.
When Samuel de Champlain stopped at the sacred site in 1613, he recorded this in his journal:
“The water falls…..with such impetuosity on a rock that with the passage of time, it has hallowed out a wide, deep basin…..the water whirls about to such an extent, and in the middle boils so vigorously, that Indians call it Asticou, that is to say, a kettle. This waterfall makes such a noise in this basin that one can hear it from more than two leagues away. [This means the roar of the Falls was audible 11 km away, as far to the west as Deschênes Rapids near Aylmer, Quebec.]
“After having carried their canoes to the foot of the falls, they assembled at one place where one of them with a wooden plate takes up a collection, and each one of them places in this plate a piece of tobacco… the plate is placed in the middle of the group, and all dance about it, singing in their fashion; then one of the chiefs makes a speech, pointing out that for a long time they have been accustomed to making this offering, and that by this means they are protected from their enemies…the speaker takes the plate and throws the tobacco into the middle of la chaudière [kettle] and they make a great cry all together.”
Because it is a medicine plant, the use of tobacco in this Indigenous ceremony signifies that the Falls was a sacred place. The islands near the base of the Falls were integral to making offerings, due to their proximity to the Falls.
In the 19th century, the Falls became a major tourist attraction, second only to Niagara Falls as a place of wonder. The Falls’ vertical drop is 15 metres (49 feet), and its width is 60 metres (200 feet). Artists galore painted and drew their impressions of its grandeur. Prof. Louise Boucher of the University of Ottawa is among those who have argued for this part of the Ottawa River to be designated as a heritage site.
Grandfather William Commanda’s vision for Asinabka (the entire sacred site) calls for freeing of the Chaudière Falls from the dam that holds it back. The river, as the life blood of Mother Earth, was blocked when the dam was constructed. He advocated for dismantling the dam and allowing the sacred waterfall to display its splendor.
The ring dam that currently holds back the Falls can be easily dismantled. It was built in 1908 to power the lumbering and manufacturing industries that dominated this part of the Kitchi Sibi (Great River). That industrial age ended in 2007 when Domtar closed its paper mill at the site.
In the 21st century, across North America, dams much larger than the ring dam at Chaudière Falls are being decommissioned (PDF will load) to benefit river ecosystems. This is described in the documentary “DamNation.”
In the fall of 2015, Energy Ottawa (a subsidiary of Hydro Ottawa, owned by the City of Ottawa) began desecrating the sacred site (Chaudière Island) to construct a below-ground generating station that will feed into the provincial grid and provide power to 20,000 households. This amounts to less than 5% of Ottawa households–a piddling benefit considering that if the ring dam were decommissioned, newer and equally clean technology in the form of underwater turbines are able to generate an equivalent amount of power.
Allowing the Falls to return to its natural state will not raise water levels downriver, and silting will be minimal since the existing dam is run-of-river, not a reservoir dam.
Chaudière Falls has deep significance in the spiritual traditions of the Algonquin. It is integral to the sacred site and a longstanding vision for the site cannot proceed without freeing Chaudière Falls.