After waiting 5 years, national Indigenous leaders gain access to their own building opposite Parliament Hill
But Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation says no one should use the space until it finalizes deal for its own space
More than five years after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared the former U.S. embassy across from Parliament Hill in Ottawa a space for Indigenous Peoples, the federal government is starting to let national Indigenous organizations use the building.
Natan Obed, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, told CBC News he received a letter on Oct. 4 from Daniel Quan-Watson, deputy minister for Crown-Indigenous Relations, informing his organization that it would have uninterrupted access for the next 12 months before construction begins to redevelop Wellington Street.
"This is a turning of the tide in the way in which we are respected," Obed said.
"It is now beyond time for us to have practical access to this space and to start using it as we see fit."
The building, located at 100 Wellington Street beside the prime minister's office, is the first such building in the parliamentary precinct dedicated to First Nations, Inuit and Métis people.
When it eventually opens, it will have an Indigenous cultural exhibit, a press gallery and meeting rooms facing the Peace Tower.
But the grand chief of the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation, whose unceded territory includes Ottawa, told CBC News that can't happen until her nation finalizes an agreement with the federal government on an Algonquin-dedicated space.
"Canada has guaranteed that 100 Wellington will not open until the concerns of our nation are addressed," said Savanna McGregor, acting grand chief of the Algonquin Anishnabeg Nation Tribal Council.
"We expect them to honour that commitment."
The building at 100 Wellington initially was set to open during the summer of 2019, but those plans were put on ice after Verna Polson, then-grand chief of the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation, held a 40-hour hunger and hydration strike to draw attention to a lack of consultation with her people.
The former embassy, which has sat vacant for more than 22 years, was donated to the three main national Indigenous organizations: the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Assembly of First Nations and Métis National Council.
The government offered the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation the former CIBC building at 119 Sparks Street and is giving them access to the site for the next year, but McGregor said her nation is still waiting for an agreement in writing that her council can put before the 11 member Algonquin chiefs for a vote.
"We hope your department will suspend any actions or activities related to the short-term space and focus your efforts on finalizing the documentation related to the agreement so that we can get that much closer to a decision," wrote McGregor in an Oct. 19 letter to Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller.
The minister said work continues on reaching an agreement with the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation Tribal Council, but the government is not changing its plans to open the doors of 100 Wellington to national Indigenous organizations.
"The concerns of the interim grand chief are ones that we'll have to address in private," Miller told CBC News.
"There's been some good work that's been done. We're confident that we can come to a positive conclusion to this."
From outsider to equal
Obed said he's also hoping the governance issues can be resolved soon so that everyone can start using the space — for meetings at first, then eventually for public tours.
"I have tremendous respect for the Algonquin," Obed said.
Obed said that throughout his career, he's had to go through multiple security checkpoints and sift through layers of red tape to get any business done in the House of Commons.
"It means complying with a system that treats me and other Indigenous leaders like complete outsiders, like any other visitor to Parliament," Obed said.
"In reality, we have an Inuit-to-Crown relationship with the Government of Canada."
The Indigenous Peoples Building represents an opportunity for change. Obed said that can only happen if Ottawa takes a step back.
Even though he's free to come and go as he pleases, Obed still doesn't have his own keys to the building, which Miller said he can make.
"The Government of Canada continues to want to play the central role in access and in what can and cannot happen in this space, and I think that's just a departure from what the prime minister imagined," Obed said.
"Hopefully, we can get back to the prime minister's original vision because it certainly would be simpler for us."