Algonquin Nation erects wigwam opposite Parliament in protest over future of former U.S. embassy

Members of the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation have erected a wigwam in front of the former U.S. embassy opposite Parliament Hill in Ottawa in an effort to draw attention to a lack of consultation on the future of 100 Wellington St.

'We’re fighting for our rightful place' grand chief says of 100 Wellington St. protest

Verna Polson, grand chief of the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation Tribal Council, says she is fighting for her First Nation's rightful place in discussions over the future use of 100 Wellington St., a heritage building on Algonquin Anishinabeg territory. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

Members of the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation have erected a wigwam in front of the former U.S. embassy opposite Parliament Hill in Ottawa in an effort to draw attention to a lack of consultation on the future of the 100 Wellington St. building.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced in June 2017 that the former embassy will become a national space dedicated to Inuit, Métis and First Nations communities. But the First Nation says it was not consulted on key aspects of the new space.

The heritage building, which is on Algonquin Anishinabeg territory, sat vacant for nearly two decades after the U.S. embassy moved to its current location on Sussex Drive. Ever since, its future use has been the subject of public debate.

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

Grand Chief of Algonquin Anishinabeg Verna Polson said she plans 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?" 

National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Perry Bellegarde issued a statement Thursday in support of the Algonquin.

"In order to ensure the progress continues in a respectful and good way, the Algonquin Anishbaabe Nation must be full participants at every stage," Bellegarde wrote.

"I look forward to advancing this project so it can become an important space to celebrate the cultures and contributions of Indigenous Peoples and a place to conduct intergovernmental business and advance self-determination."

'Reconciling with the owners of the land'

Polson gathered with a dozen supporters Wednesday evening to put up the wigwam. She said the First Nation was not consulted on the art and displays planned for the space until February and wasn't consulted on the governance of the building until April — and it's still not a full partner.

The wigwam is the traditional home of the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

"If you're going to reconcile, if Canada is going to reconcile with Indigenous Peoples across the country, you better start reconciling with the owners of the land," said Frankie Cote, a band council member from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg, Que., and a negotiator for Indigenous Peoples space.

"The whole intent is this is going to be acting much like an embassy: High governmental-level functions, government-to-government meetings, nation-to-nation meetings ... We're the Algonquin Nation that hosts this building, hosts this project and we also deserve our rightful place so that we can meet with government officials. As it stands right now, we don't have any place in this city that we can meet."

Feds won't say whether Algonquin should become partners

The federal government is not saying whether the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation should be allowed to enter into full partnership with national Indigenous organizations in managing the space at 100 Wellington Street. A federal spokesperson tells CBC News its up to those groups to decide what to do with the space.

"As 100 Wellington is located on Algonquin traditional territory, the Government of Canada supports the participation of the Algonquin people, including the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation Tribal Council, in the Indigenous Peoples' Space initiative," a spokesperson for Crown-Indigenous Relations wrote.

"We respect the process of the working group, and the need for decisions to be taken amongst all members regarding the Indigenous Peoples' Space, including membership of the working group."

A flag from the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation hangs outside of the new space for Indigenous Peoples at 100 Wellington St. in Ottawa. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

The Ministry of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada has developed the Indigenous Peoples Space in partnership with Inuit, represented by Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami; First Nations, represented by the Assembly of First Nations; and the Metis Nation, represented by Métis National Council.

In a letter dated June 13, Polson expressed her concerns about the site to Clément Chartier, the president of the Métis National Council.

Chartier responded on June 19 to say the Métis Nation has been acting in good faith and operating on the basis that 100 Wellington is a national initiative between the federal government and the three national representatives of Indigenous Nations and Peoples.

"I believe that the AFN has the obligation to deal with its constituents," Chartier wrote. "And as the Algonquin Nation is the acknowledged host First Nation within the First Nations community, hopefully the AFN will find a way to accommodate your Nation in a meaningful way."

In a written statement given to CBC News, a spokesperson for Inuit Tapiriit Kanatam said the Inuit respect the ability of First Nations and the Métis Nation to determine their own level of involvement in this and other joint projects of national significance.

"ITK recognizes the ancestral territory of the Algonquin Nation, and supports developing 100 Wellington Street to strongly reflect the history, culture and traditions of the Algonquin Nation.

"ITK remains committed to ongoing dialogue with all parties and exploring options to achieve a resolution so this national initiative can move forward with respect for all parties."

A survey conducted for the government by Ekos Research Associates suggested that a "Canada House" to showcase the best of the provinces and territories was the favoured choice for the building's use. A gallery was the second choice, with an Indigenous cultural facility coming in third.

Polson and Cote are inviting Trudeau and Indigenous leaders to visit the wigwam, which is the same type of lodge used by their ancestors when they travelled the Ottawa River.

"It's important that we become equal partners in every aspect of this building," Polson said.

"I'm doing this for my people, my family, my grandchild that's going to be born soon. I need to continue this fight to take our rightful place as Algonquin people."


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.