Grand chief ends hunger strike as Algonquin, government reach deal on former U.S. embassy site

The federal government has reached a deal with the grand chief of the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation, who held a hunger and hydration strike for 41 hours over the future of the former U.S. embassy in Ottawa.

Verna Polson had been on strike since midnight Sunday over her First Nation's role in the future of the site

Grand Chief Verna Polson of the Algonquin Anishinabeg, has been on a hunger and hydration strike since Sunday to protest a lack of consultation about the future use of 100 Wellington St., the former U.S. embassy. The heritage building, which is to become an Indigenous centre, is on Algonquin Anishinabeg territory. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

The grand chief of the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation has ended her hunger and hydration strike after reaching a deal with the federal government over an Indigenous project on the site of the former U.S. embassy in Ottawa.

Verna Polson was taken away in an ambulance around 5 p.m. ET on Tuesday after agreeing to the deal.

Polson began her strike at midnight Sunday to press her demands for the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation to be included as a full, fourth partner in the building which three national Indigenous organizations — the Metis National Council, the Inuit Tapirit Kanatami and Assembly of First Nations — plan to use as an embassy and cultural centre. The building at 100 Wellington Street stands on Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation land.

Under the deal, the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation will get a dedicated space, separate from the former embassy, to hold meetings and showcase their culture, according to Algonquin Anishinabeg and government sources. The Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation is a collection of First Nations in western Quebec and Ontario.

The space will be located behind 100 Wellington Street and the CIBC building on Sparks Street. Sources said the deal follows long-term negotiations that preceded this week's hunger and hydration strike. 

The AFN, which supported Polson's protest, said it is "very pleased" an agreement was reached. 

"Our first thoughts are for the health and well-being of Grand Chief Polson," said National Chief Perry Bellegarde in a statement to CBC News. "We continue to stand with the Algonquin Nation for their full and equal inclusion in the Indigenous Peoples Space project at 100 Wellington and see this development as an important step."

Members of the band council erected a wigwam at the site nearly two weeks ago to protest their lack of involvement.

An ambulance leaves 100 Wellington St. after Polson ended her hunger and hydration strike Tuesday. Polson was taken to hospital for treatment after refusing water for more than two days. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

On Canada Day, Polson had a private meeting on Parliament Hill with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. According to Frankie Cote, a band council member from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg in western Quebec who was involved in negotiations, that meeting ended without an agreement and Polson continued her hunger strike.

But on Tuesday, the deputy minister of Crown-Indigenous Affairs spoke to Algonquin Anishinabeg leadership by phone, Cote said, and enough progress was made to convince Polson to call off her protest.

"Personally, I feel great about the deal," said Lisa Robinson. Robinson is chief of Wolf Lake First Nation, which is part of the Algonquin Nation Secretariat.

"It's a great opportunity for the Algonquin Nation and I think it's a good way for us to move forward with this, working with Canada."

Trudeau announced in 2017 that the former embassy would become a national space dedicated to Inuit, Métis and First Nations communities. But the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation was upset it was not consulted on key aspects of the new space, which is on Algonquin Anishinabeg territory.

Even though the Algonquin Anishinabeg have secured a space of their own, Cote said they still want to be a full partner in the building.   

Cote said the Algonquin Anishinabeg would like to share the space at 100 Wellington Street with the national Indigenous organizations until a building is built behind the former embassy for their use. The property given to the Algonquin Anishinabeg by the federal government is currently empty. Cote said he wants the site to be an extension of the new space for Indigenous Peoples. 

The heritage building has sat vacant for nearly two decades after the U.S. embassy moved to its current location on Sussex Drive. Its future use has been the subject of much public debate.

Members of the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation Tribal Council erected a wigwam outside the former U.S. embassy in Ottawa last week to press their concerns over the future use of the building. (Lorian Bélanger/Radio-Canada)

Under Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, the building was slated to become a portrait gallery. That plan was shelved when Stephen Harper came to power.

Last month, Polson said she planed to live in the wigwam until she becomes a partner at 100 Wellington St.

"We're fighting for our rightful place," Polson said. "If we can't come to an agreement or solution for something as small as this, how is Canada going to address bigger Algonquin issues?" 

A sign hangs on the former U.S. embassy in Ottawa across from Parliament Hill. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

About the Author

Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.