Why history enthusiasts are mapping an Algonquin portage route in downtown Ottawa

Algonquin Grand Chief Pierre-Louis Constant Pinesi used this portage route to bypass Rideau Falls in the early 1800s. Here's why a group of history enthusiasts are mapping and clearing this traditional Indigenous route, steps from Ottawa's downtown.

Algonquin Chief Pierre-Louis Constant Pinesi used route to bypass Rideau Falls in early 1800s

Uncovering Algonquin history under the concrete

6 months ago
Duration 2:29
Kichi Sibi Trails' Peter Stockdale says for him, revitalizing Indigenous portage routes is an act of reconciliation.

When Wendy Jocko, chief of the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation, made the 90-minute drive to Ottawa recently, she tried to put herself in her great-grandfather Pierre-Louis Constant Pinesi's shoes from more than 200 years ago. 

"I was trying to imagine how long it would take in a birch bark canoe … Would it take two or three weeks? Would it take three months?" wondered Jocko, who is a seventh-generation direct descendant of the Algonquin chief. 

"Canoeing was our mode of transport back in the day. Unfortunately, those routes are disturbed now with dams and construction along the way."

A group of history enthusiasts are working to change that, by revitalizing traditional Indigenous routes and paths, and shedding light on their history.

Wendy Jocko, chief of the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation, stands a few hundred metres from the Ottawa River near Pinesi's portage route. (Francis Ferland/CBC )

"This work is not common. There aren't many people restoring Indigenous trails," said Peter Stockdale, founder of Kichi Sibi Trails, a group raising awareness about Indigenous routes in eastern Ontario and western Quebec.

"I'm interested in this portage because it gets us under this concrete and closer to understanding what this place is about — how it links to Algonquin history in this capital which has been so long forgotten. This is a small way we can create a gift towards reconciliation," he said. 

For centuries paddlers would portage through the bush to avoid the rapids near Rideau Falls. (Library and Archives Canada)

The group's first project is to uncover Pinesi's original portage, mapping and clearing the route they believe he used to bypass the Rideau Falls. 

According to Jocko, 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 many paddlers travelling to the St. Lawrence and southbound to the Gulf of Mexico.

Pinesi's original portage route starts on the shores of the Ottawa, approximately 200 metres west of what is now the Rockcliffe Park and the Rockeries entrance off the Sir George-Étienne Cartier Parkway. 

The nearly four-kilometre-long trail stretches through Pine Hill forest and later Stanley Park, reaching the Rideau next to St. Patrick's Bridge. It winds its way through bush and trees, past Rideau Hall and through what's now paved neighbourhood streets lined with houses in New Edinburgh. 

"There's brass plaques commemorating 100-year-old homes. But they should have another plaque that says, 'This home is on a 8,000-year-old portage trail," said self-described "portage detective" and Kichi Sibi Trail member Max Finkelstein.

To let people know about the trail, the group has asked Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg artist Simon Brascoupé to design trail markers marking the path. Kitigan Zibi muralist Doreen Stevens will create a ceramic mural depicting its history at Stanley Park.

'Sometimes when you're walking these paths, you feel that you're inside this ancient world,' said Peter Stockdale, founder of Kichi Sibi trails. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

For Kichi Sibi Trail member Catherine Mageau-Walker, working on the revitalization project has felt like weaving a tapestry.

 "All of these little pieces form a bigger picture," she said, adding she's learned a lot about Algonquin culture through this project, such as the different uses of portage routes.

"You have portage trails for rituals, and then you have trails of 'avoidance' during wartime."

Mageau-Walker, whose grandmother told her she is of Algonquin descent, did not grow up in an Indigenous community. 

She hopes this project helps reconnect people with the Algonquin history of the area. In particular, Mageau-Walker hopes the route will be a place teachers can take their students to delve into the past. 

Expert canoer Max Finkelstein walks Chief Pinesi's Portage Trail. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Though the path is clear now, the full project won't be completed until June 2022 when Kichi Sibi Trails are planning a ceremony that includes members of the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation.

For its current chief Jocko, it's a chance to mark the contribution of her great-grandfather Pinesi. 

"He was a warrior first and foremost," said Jocko, explaining he fought in the war of 1812.

"Sadly, he's not honoured in death, because his burial site was paved over by a parking lot near Oka."

Marking his contribution is of personal significance to Jocko who comes from a long line of veterans, and served in the military herself from 1979 to 2002.

Catherine Mageau-Walker says she hopes this project helps people to learn more about the region's Algonquin history. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

For her, this project is another way to connect past and present communities in Ottawa and 90 minutes away in Pikwàkanagàn. 

"We still make birch-bark canoes and we still use those water routes," said Jocko.

"I'm standing here today, so Constant Pinesi's legacy lives on."

The Kichi Sibi Trails group named itself after the Algonquin word for 'great river,' and plans to continue working on revitalizing Indigenous portage trails across eastern Ontario. (Francis Ferland/CBC )