To Justify Land #1
by Lital Khaikin
1 – Introduction
This text is part of a series of texts called To Justify Land.
“…those who believe the land belongs to them cannot ever really understand”
I am in the earth, wind and waters;
I am as the bird flies, the wind blows, the water flows…
On the ancient river, seagull rock crests out of the waters. An outcrop within its sight is thorned by a few young silhouettes, taking turns plunging into the river some feet below. Riverboats and water taxis, white river cruise-ships weave short and cyclical tours between the two shores. When the black outlines all tumble into the water, seagull rock disappears entirely underneath a white swarm. The steady rhythm of a drum carries down the rocky riverbed. At a great distance, an undulating song ripples through a woman’s throat, a few moments, and then the screaming birds are all that is heard again. Drumming and song are held here as if in a cup, the Ontario bank curving in to the gushing water. Millennia before, the Champlain Sea coursed through this cup. This river, and the humid nest of the city, is at the ancient floor of the sea. Shells and fish bones mingle with cemeteries. The condominiums and government buildings settle comfortably on the graves of ancient people, on the fossils of ancient animals. Cranes and the hideous metal hydro towers grow in the east with each day, raising the condominiums of reconciliation. Grey gunmetal silhouettes cut the distance behind the Algonquin teepees that dot the island – those three sturdy pyramids, white as the screaming gulls.
Since the 2013 purchase of the Asinabka islands by Toronto-based developer Windmill Development and real estate company Dream Unlimited Corp. (formerly Dundee Realty Corporation), a persistent and controversial condominium development called Zibi has been pushed forward by the Ottawa-Gatineau municipal governments. The condominiums are being built in the middle of the Ottawa River, on a peninsula between Ottawa and Gatineau, directly across from Victoria Island – that is, Asinabka, or Place of Glare Rock. Asinabka is a small parcel of land within the entirety of the Canadian state that was claimed by European settlers without the secession of Indigenous peoples. The Algonquin have long considered this area sacred and Asinabka carries a legacy of being a place of meeting for visiting Indigenous councils. The area has been drafted for UNESCO World Heritage status with the continued discovery of over 6,000 year old artefacts and traces of human civilization being found along the river’s coast. Despite resistance from Algonquin communities and activists, it has been enabled by the municipal and provincial Liberals through a consistent rejection of appeals, an evasive and profiteering approval process, and a perversion of private land zoning policies that causes public interests to be subsumed by those of corporate property owners. While it remained in a publicly-facing state of flux between 2015 and 2016, the idiosyncrasies of this site were dismissed more as obstructions to the high-density development that self-assuredly began blasting at the islands to pour its concrete foundations in 2016. Such is the idiocy of a nation that is not accountable to the longevity of memory for the bodies that came before it.
The Akikodjiwan Falls, otherwise known in the region as the Chaudière Falls, were dammed in the 1920s – a chokehold to withdraw electricity, to fuel factories and the cities that were burgeoning on either shore. It remains owned by Hydro Ottawa and Hydro Québec on either side of the provincial border that runs down the meridian of the river. Algonquin Elder William Commanda – a world-renowned council leader who often acted as a dignitary to the UN for Indigenous councils around North America (or, Turtle Island) – spoke of a vision for an Indigenous cultural centre, and a call to undam the Chaudière Falls, similarly as the removal of four hydro-electric dams from the Klamath River between Oregon and California, or the removal of two hydroelectric dams from Washington State’s Elwha River in 2011. Put to paper between 2002 and 2003, this vision was introduced to the Ottawa City Council in June 2006 shortly after Commanda was honoured with the Order of Canada. By all appearances, the plan for an Asinabka Aboriginal Centre was approved by the City (Thumbadoo, 2013). Today, the dam is instead undergoing expansion through Hydro Ottawa, and the condo development is advertising the Chaudière Falls as being “open” to the public with gated viewing platforms of the dam between its condos and shopping complexes.
The expansion project for the hydro-electric ring dam that spans the river between Ottawa and Gatineau-Hull occurs while Windmill Development and Dream Unlimited Corp. acquire the lease of the land under ‘fee simple’ claims, which infers absolute ownership of the land. In 2012, the previous occupant, pulp and paper mill Domtar Corporation, having left the land it occupied contaminated, sold $45 million worth of assets, or the 38% it held in the Chaudière hydro-electric dam facilities to Hydro Ottawa [Energy Ottawa]. The lease in perpetuum on the land given to the Toronto entrepreneurs encroaches upon the $45 million hydroelectric expansion development by Ottawa Hydro, and the affiliate Energy Ottawa’s subsidiaries Chaudière Hydro L.P. and Chaudière Water Power Inc. This in turn occurs under looming regional acquisitions by Ontario’s provincial Hydro One (Great Lakes Power, Orillia Power, Woodstock Hydro, Haldimand County Utilities, and Norfolk Power) and the sales of the final 120 million publically traded Hydro One shares in May 2017. In the context of Hydro Ottawa’s massive expansion, the privatization of the provincial energy distributor, and its purchasing of smaller hydro-electric companies through the province, it is significant that as a distributor Hydro One bills people for the amount of energy that is sent out – which is not necessarily what people use – all the while in the position of overproducing power and selling to Michigan and New York. “Hydro One doesn’t actually generate any power — that responsibility remains with another utility created by the Tories, Ontario Power Generation — it just transmits the power along electricity lines” [The Star, Nov. 2015].
In the privatization and vampiric bloating of the hydro-electric companies, we can recognize the tone of policies that preceded Ontario in the privatization of ‘public utilities’, or natural ‘resources’, in Québec. Throughout the years of conservative reign and increasing privatization of La Grande Noirceur, under Québec’s Union Nationale Premier Maurice Duplessis, between the 50s and 70s, the body of the land increasingly became a product of Wall Street interests, its industries appropriating a rhetoric of collaboration, growth, and economic prosperity. The rivers of Québec were put to work as resources of hydroelectricity, their pulse sold in over-production to America. In the 1980s, Hydro-Québec began exporting energy to Ontario, New Brunswick, Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey and New-York.
Fresh water itself, however, as opposed to hydro-electricity, was excluded from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which is currently threatened by renegotiation or dissolution between Canada, the United States, and Mexico. It is also significant that under Canada’s second largest trade agreement after NAFTA, the Comprehensive European Trade Agreement (CETA), Canada is currently obligated to treat European companies bidding on contracts in the country equally as Canadian companies.
“The result: provincial and municipal governments will have to treat EU companies the same as Canadian ones when it comes to awarding service or procurement contracts […] Jacqueline Wilson, a lawyer with the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA), said that there could be a path to commercialization of water resources. She pointed out sections of CETA (Annex II) that uphold EU companies’ immediate rights to water resources if those water resources are commercialized by a Canadian government.” (Water Canada, How CETA Will Impact the Water Sector, Jan. 19, 2017).
In response to the infrastructural and energy companies justifying their “development” projects in Québec, Pierre Vallières wrote in 1971: “Duplessis, having once more won a brilliant victory, was completing the sale of Québec to the Americans. In the country as still and silent as a great, pale corpse, living men were suddenly questioning themselves as if they were in peril of death; they were not wrong.” During this time, underprivileged areas were exploited for their environmental and infrastructural ‘liabilities’ as opportunities for profitable contracts. Vallières wrote specifically of the Québec government’s exploitation of poverty in Ville Jacques-Cartier where, under the semblance of providing better living conditions for what was essentially a ghetto, construction projects for aqueducts and sewage only had the capitalist entrepreneurs’ interests of profit in mind. When Vallières wrote of the petit bourgeois of Montreal who rose from neighbourhoods of extreme alienation and poverty, to the bait of prosperity, it was a prosperity that was kept among themselves and never redistributed to the workers who made it.
“So it was that Duplessis, financed by his friends on Wall Street, created his own class of petty bourgeois out of the very misery of the workers and farmers of Québec who, taken in by a cunningly organized system of patronage, voted for him en masse—against their true interests and without quite realizing what was going on.”
“The underworld,” he wrote of the newly admitted bourgeois administrators and contractors, “rubbed its hands at the thought of the enormous profits it would reap from this very humanitarian enterprise.”
The islands of Asinabka – as is the country’s capital – remain “unceded territory”, or land that was stolen without a treaty. With the upcoming national celebration of the state’s 150th year of formation, it is considered a PR-friendly, if not just decent, thing to do to “acknowledge that we are on unceded [x] territory”. These acknowledgements, however, rarely go beyond lip service to a settler-approved spectrum of ethical performance. Beyond the acknowledgement, the actions and motivations of those doing the acknowledgement continue to serve corporate and Canadian state interests. When Ottawa signed off on the fee-simple trade of Asinabka to the private ownership, it referred to the inclusion of an Algonquin workforce to construct the condominiums planned for the site as Reconciliation. Within the scope of the Zibi construction, Windmill Development made a lot of noise about the acknowledgement of their occupation of the land, and proclaimed an intention to collaborate with the Algonquin on their enterprise.
“”This is private property. We’re a private sector developer who has done more, we think, than anyone else in the region to ever engage with the Algonquin, so we’re very hopeful that that will get resolved quickly and we can get to work,” Westeinde said.” (CBC, Aug. 15, 2015).
Of course it is problematic to so quickly draw a superficial connection between the Algonquin contestation of the Zibi development, and the colonial heritage and rhetoric of Québec nationalism that was critical of the exportation of natural resources to the United States. The construction projects and privatization of “natural resources” within the colonial settlement of Québec – and much of the resistance towards the proliferation of such policies – were motivated by colonial sentiment of sovereignty on land that was and is lived through Indigenous peoples, and an ideology that identified land as State. As the later sections of this text will examine, however, the parallel to be drawn is rather in the underlying capitalist maneuvers of owning, selling, and exploiting land as a commercial interest, and the veiled logic of exploitation that guides the processes of gentrification.
With a project like Zibi, its distorted appeals to Reconciliation through “inclusive” signage and employment contracts, are an opportunistic posturing of inclusion towards Indigenous peoples – a buy-out for participation in capitalist and nationalist projects. As prosperity and social equality are measured in terms dictated by those who hold power, it has never been that the condominium project and the associated expansion of the hydro-electric dam have been questioned for their principle – why and for whom is it being built? These projects are instead justified on the basis of buying out Algonquin participation for temporary construction contracts, and assuaging the rest of the city with an emotional appeal to flaunt an absurd representation of such “world-class” status with a development of “award-winning” condominiums. State and corporate tactics always exploit the underprivileged working classes in the logic that justifies projects of “development”.
The industrial chimney tower and block warehouses of Hull are smoking behind the ring dam. The yellowing concrete is rotten with thin green mould and faded names in shades of ochre, purple and silver. Glass and concrete converges into the cliff faces that are looming with decades of fears of Québec sovereignty, when a federal presence was solidified with the razing of the poor neighbourhoods swathed over the Outaouais. The sky is flushed with coral and lilac, and a gentle wash of foamy green, the shallow parts of the river are curling rapidly against each other. The few lit windows from the Hull warehouses are illuminated, showing the acidic paint inside, revealing walls of an old paper factory, of warehouses moving paper cups and plates, napkins between the two provinces. Along the poorly lit path that snakes along the river, steam violently belches from large metal pipes that line the stone walls of an underpass. The river is slower here, the dam is growing.
Screenshots from the Hydro Ottawa website.
About the Author:
Lital Khaikin has published in 3:AM Magazine, Afterimage, Black Sun Lit, The Brooklyn Rail, continent. journal, Deluge, and e·ratio, among others. A book, Outplace, was published with Solar Luxuriance in May 2017.