Protesters angry with a massive residential, commercial and retail development planned for two Ottawa River islands considered sacred to First Nations people waved placards and approached would-be condo buyers Saturday morning.
Saturday marked the beginning of condo sales on the Ontario side of Zibi, a 37-acre site that includes the Chaudière and Albert Islands as well as part of downtown Gatineau's riverfront.
The development is expected to include condo buildings, a boutique hotel, shops, waterfront parks and a network of pedestrian and cycling paths.
As police kept watch, about two dozen people attempted to slow cars and hand out information pamphlets about the "in dispute" development, as one protester put it.
"This is a sacred site for all Anishinaabe people, from the Atlantic to the Rocky Mountains themselves," said Canadian architect Douglas Cardinal, who has filed an appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board over the project and took part in Saturday's protest.
"This was our mecca. This was our holy place where we'd come, because these islands are in the shape of a sacred pipe," Cardinal added.
The firm behind Zibi, Windmill Developments, has promised to use many cultural and historical references in the development of the two islands, as well as hire local First Nations contractors to do much of the work.
Company co-founder Jeff Westeinde has said that Windmill spent three years engaging with Algonquin groups — including some that support the project — as well as all levels of government.
The protest wasn't exactly the welcome he'd hoped for, but Westeinde said Saturday that he's well aware major projects like Zibi often court controversy.
"We are ensuring that everybody gets a chance to put their information out. And people can make their own decision from that," he said.
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While the protesters have a right to make their voices heard, the Zibi development remains the best way to ensure Algonquins "take our rightful place on our own territory," said Wanda Thusky, a member of the Algonquins of Barriere Lake who also sits on a Windmill advisory board.
"We understand that they want this area to be maintained as a sacred area. But for us, sacredness also means working in partnership, restoring dignity in our people, [and] to be part of the building process," said Thusky inside the Zibi showroom Saturday.
"This is where we feel that we can build together and be able to change history together," she added.
The land had been been recently used as an industrial site until the former Domtar paper mill shut down in 2007.
Windmill partner Rodney Wilts said that despite the protests, half of the available units were sold on Saturday.