Ottawa

Inaugural Chief Pinesi Day held to honour long-forgotten 'great warrior'

This Canada Day, the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation is celebrating the life of Chief Constant Pinesi, who fought bravely in the War of 1812 and was the last grand chief of the Algonquins to live at historic hunting grounds in Ottawa.

Chief Constant Pinesi played crucial role in War of 1812, but fell into obscurity

People take part in a drum circle.
People take part in a drum circle at the New Edinburgh Fieldhouse in Ottawa on July 1, 2022, during the inaugural 'Chief Pinesi Day.' The day is intended to bring attention to the life and historic significance of the largely forgotten Grand Chief Constant Pinesi, (Dan Taekema/CBC)

One eastern Ontario First Nation is marking this Canada Day by honouring an important but largely forgotten historical figure.

The Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation is celebrating the first ever Chief Pinesi Day and reflecting on the life of Chief Constant Pinesi — the last grand chief of the Algonquins to live at his historic hunting grounds near Rideau Falls. 

Pinesi played a crucial role in the War of 1812 against the United States, helping ensure the survival of the British colonies that would later become Canada. On Friday, many of his descendents gathered on the site of the grounds in Ottawa for the first time in roughly 200 years.

"We're reclaiming the lands, if you will, and the titles that Chief Pinesi held in [the] early 1800s up to his passing in 1834," said Merv Sarazin, a seventh-generation descendant of Pinesi and emcee of Friday's event at the New Edinburgh Fieldhouse.

Sarazin, a councillor with the First Nation west of Ottawa, said the grand chief lost sons in the War of 1812 and fought at critical battles in the Niagara region. Without his efforts and the struggles of other Indigenous fighters, there may be no Canada Day to celebrate today, he said. 

Gravesite now a parking lot

In the early 1800s, Pinesi led a band of about 264 families as Grand Chief of the Algonquins. His hunting territory was centred at the confluence of the Rideau and Ottawa rivers, a common travel route for paddlers heading to the St. Lawrence River and south to the Gulf of Mexico

But despite his important role in the region, Pinesi has been largely forgotten by history, said Wendy Jocko, chief of the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation and another of Pinesi's descendants.

"I don't suppose many people know that Ottawa was his hunting ground — and actually, that's where the Parliament buildings are situated, at the confluence of the Rideau and the Ottawa rivers," Jocko told CBC Radio's All In A Day ahead of Friday's commemoration.

Jocko described her ancestor as a "great warrior" who often petitioned the British Crown to return his lands. But those requests were never honoured, she said, with Pinesi left in obscurity and poverty. 

"He was basically pushed out into his territory as encroachment happened, unfortunately," she said. "And even in death, his grave at Oka, [near the] Lake of Two Mountains [in Quebec] ... has been paved over by a parking lot."

A woman smiles for the camera.
Chief Wendy Jocko of the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation says many in Ottawa may not realize Pinesi's historical importance to the region. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Along with honouring Pinesi's legacy, Friday's event was also meant to both recognize the presence and resilience of the Algonquin people and offer a chance for reconciliation with settlers.

It included drumming and singing, dancing, guided walks of the territory and other activities. It also coincided with the opening of Chief Pinesi Portage Trail, an 8,000-year-old Indigenous pathway that weaves through the Rockcliffe and New Edinburgh neighbourhoods.

The roughly three-kilometre trail has seven interpretive stops marking the way. 

Sarazin said they hope to make the gathering of Pinesi's descendants an annual event, in order to properly remember the man and his role in history — and give his name the respect it's long deserved. 

"We're here to revive it and continue it," he said. "It's a great story."

The Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation are celebrating their first ever Chief Pinesi Day on July 1st to celebrate the long time historical figure.

With files from Dan Taekema

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