To Justify Land #5


Skyscrapers and Tunnels (Gratticieli e tunnel), Fortunato Depero, 1930 (detail)

by Lital Khaikin

5—Of Coercion, Complicity, and Consent

Colonialism almost never exploits the entire country. It is content with extracting natural resources and exporting them to the metropolitan industries thereby enabling a specific sector to grow relatively wealthy, while the rest of the colony continues, or rather sinks, into underdevelopment and poverty.
—Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth.

The dishonouring of treaties is essential to the goal of the U.S. and Canadian vested interests which are organized to remove any and all obstacles to their exploitation of the Earth and her peoples.
Haudenosaunee “Basic Call to Consciousness”.


In Evgenii Zamyatin’s novel We, written in 1921, life unravels within the idyllic metropolis of the One State. The totality of its governance absorbs all within itself, and everything is joyously contributing to sustaining the operations of this infallible mechanism. Every aspect of life within this chrysalis functions on a logic of calculable facts, through the neat order of pink tickets and unquestionable schedules, under the numerical touch of Reason, on the principles of production and efficiency. Value is determined as whatever exclusively benefits the One State. Within this logical, economically-sound society, there is no justification for an emotional value, or of something being integral for itself. Feelings are unbearable. Faith and the fear of mortality are banished. If there is anything transcendental, it is the One State, and there is no such thing as ‘sacred’, especially if it is not an apparatus of the One State. Imagination, the seat of the soul, is excised, the sickness that it is.

Some unknown and very terrifying tomorrow is hidden in all this. It just goes against nature for a thinking and seeing being to live among these irregularities and unknown X’s. It is as if someone blindfolds you and then makes you walk around like that and you feel your way around, stumbling, and you know that there is an edge somewhere very nearby and that it would only take one step for the only thing left of you to be a flattened, mangled piece of meat.  

… But what if you didn’t wait for it to happen – but jumped headfirst over the edge? Wouldn’t that be the single most correct action, immediately untangling everything?” 

– translation by Natasha Randall, from the 2006 Modern Library edition.


The first section of this series of essays introduced a parallel development on Asinabka, a swathe of islands situated by Akikpautik (Chaudière Falls) on the Kichissippi (Ottawa River). The two developments are occurring concurrently: one is a condominium development by Windmill Development Corp. and DREAM Unlimited, called Zibi, while the other development is an expansion of the hydro-electric dam that spans the entire width of the Kichissippi. The second section of this series introduced the context of Canadian federalism that motivated the rapid eviction and razing of Gatineau-Hull in the 1950s in order to construct massive complexes of federal offices. At the same time, Québec’s Duplessis government and its corporate partners exploited infrastructural deficiencies in poor regions like Ville Jacques-Cartier – or what is now part of Longueuil on the south shore of Montreal – in order to generate profits through profitable construction contracts. In both contexts, the working class was lured with the promise of jobs created in construction and development, and was used to reshape neighbourhoods into more appealing investment opportunities for wealthier people. The workers, in turn, were pushed out even farther, to both the socioeconomic and geographic fringes of society. A dark irony emerges in the thread of exploitative construction scandals, when we jump forward to Windmill’s construction of the headquarters for consulting and engineering company Genivar (now rebranded as WSP, to “create a better risk management structure”) – a company that was investigated during the Charbonneau Commission enacted in 2011 for corruption allegations. During this investigation, numerous large Canadian construction and engineering firms, like SNC-Lavalin, were investigated for their bribes of Québec officials, for which they were offered lucrative municipal contracts and “lavish gifts” (CBC, Nov. 23, 2015), and their sock-stuffing middle-men bartered with the Montreal mafia (see section 4).

The third section of To Justify Land draws parallels between Canadian and Russian colonial histories, with the settlement of Siberian regions throughout the Soviet Union’s industrial expansion. Indigenous communities across Siberia were forced to change their livelihoods under the restrictions of state-ownership of land instituted through the existence of the USSR, concurrently struggled for republican independence, and continue to struggle for self-determination and land rights under the Russian Federation (though these struggles are related through media as small, isolated pockets of ‘natives’ coming into conflict with individual mining, oil, forestry, or other industrial developments). The fourth section examines the network of Ontario’s Hydro One board of governors (circa 2015) to replicate the rhetorics of the extractive, power-generation, construction, and development industries, which veil their enterprises with the terms of sustainability and renewability. The Hydro One board of governors was announced in the heat of the ZIBI development, and the Hydro Ottawa/Hydro Québec expansion of the Chaudière Dam, and in light of the provincial hydro company’s increasing monopoly, buying out smaller, local hydro companies.

This brings us back to Asinabka, to question the broader context of endemic colonial privatization in which the two developments are implicated. Developments like ZIBI and the Chaudière Dam expansion – which EnergyOttawa has branded the Chaudière “Falls” expansion – cannot be seen as isolated microcosms, not even from each other. It’s necessary to sustain a critique that continues beyond the scope of ZIBI’s PR crisis, and the completely overlooked hydro-electric dam expansion. How do these developments come to be justified to the public only after the internal pandering among politicians, contractors and their financiers? Where is the accountability and intellectual engagement with what the corporate idea of what “prosperity” means, and in whose service do these machinations of “growth” exist?

Ethical justification for residential or industrial development projects is often created through a strategic purchasing of participation; that is, a propaganda campaign that celebrates the inclusivity and cultural diversity of workers who are manipulated for the profits of private developers and their investors. It is this ‘inclusivity’ that contributes to the normalization of exploitative practices and development projects, inculcating the idea that a development is acceptable because it meets a certain demographic quota. Conflicts that arise around the acceptability of developments are often reduced to levels in which negotiation occurs only on the unquestionable basis that the development will indeed go forward and be constructed. This means, for example, reducing the Zibi development to a conflict of corporate-approved ‘territory’, where the bargaining chip is the exchange of land between Algonquin people, Ottawa’s municipal government under mayor Jim Watson, Domtar Corporation, and Windmill Development with their realty partners, DREAM Unlimited. In this scenario, the developers mediate factors like which Algonquin people they approve and speak to, whether the land is indeed sacred, and where the margins of this sacredness technically begin and end. If it’s not approved by anyone who is not profiting from the project, it’s blasphemous and standing in the way of progress! By marginalizing the implications of ethical difference that would make their developments both unnecessary and impermissible, companies persuade public opinion in their favour because they flaunt inclusive hiring practices and syphon off money for the benefit of the most collaborative individuals.

In Canada’s west, for example, oil companies have celebrated the support of First Nations for their projects during the tumultuous phase of approvals and reviews through 2015, to – well, today. The same companies were quick to throw their investments behind the creation of Indigenous-led pipelines. Throughout 2017, the Pacific Trail Pipeline, Coastal GasLink Pipeline Project, Prince Rupert Gas Transmission Project, and Westcoast Gas Connector Project claimed support from First Nations in British Columbia and Alberta. “Frog Lake has built homes, community and senior centres, and helps fund education programmes with oil production dividends” (BBC, Dec. 7, 2016). On one hand, the urgency of providing for basic living needs that are denied through systemic colonial oppression will coerce First Nations into the acceptance of bribes offered by extractive companies and the Canadian government (explored in sections 2 and 3). One of the arguments being made for First Nations’ collaboration with oil companies or other extractive industries is that, facing an apparent inevitability of such projects’ approval, First Nations investment would relieve some financial support on the federal government, allowing for communities’ self-determination to be more quickly realized. As quoted in an article in the CBC on the Trans Mountain pipeline, Stephen Buffalo of Samson Cree Nation – president and CEO of the Indian Resource Council of Canada – said, “There’s a lot of money going through those pipes, and First Nations can’t stand to the side and watch it go by” (CBC, Aug. 21, 2017). On the other hand, there are simply enflamed desires for ownership, profits, and participation in the lucrative oil industry, for which identity doesn’t stand in the way of bloating profits. In this case, there are projects like the pipeline between Alberta and British Columbia which was proposed by Eagle Spirit Energy Holding Ltd., intended to be twice as long as the rejected Northern Gateway pipeline. The Eagle Spirit pipeline, under company president Calvin Helin, is Indigenous-led, backed by Suncor Energy Inc., Cenovus Energy Inc. and Meg Energy Corp, and intends to overturn a ban on constructing oil tankers along the coast of the Great Bear Rainforest (Financial Post, Nov. 23, 2017, and Financial Post, Nov. 29, 2016).

Elsewhere, quoted in the Vancouver Sun in 2016 as representing the support of Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation for B.C.’s pipeline projects, ““As the old saying goes, we’re open for business,” said Chief Fred Seymour of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in Kamloops.” (Vancouver Sun, Oct. 7, 2016). The quoted Chief Fred Seymour is an ex officio member of the board of directors for Venture Kamloops, an economic development company in Kamloops, British Columbia. The interests in Seymour’s “support” for the oil pipeline become obvious when the man’s portfolio is seen alongside other current members of Venture Kamloops such as: Margot Middleton (President of Middleton Petroleum Services); A.J. (Tony) Ryan (Domtar Inc.); Greg Munden (President of transportation, forestry and commercial vehicle maintenance company Munden Ventures Ltd.); and Peter Aylen (controlling shareholder of agricultural product company Absorbent Products Ltd.). Oil companies will gladly champion First Nations-led pipelines and celebrate First Nations workers as part of their projects, if it means they will continue to make their ludicrous profits.

In Canada, as abroad, corporate stakeholders get to decide that their projects should continue because they make “significant investments in the country” or “help the area to flourish” – without consultation (gestural meetings staged for the media are equated with consultation), and often at the price of the lives of those who resist. In May 2012, Musqueam and Tsawwassen First Nations protested the construction of a condominium over c̓əsnaʔəm, or Great Marpole Midden – a four-thousand year old village and burial site. The Musqueam First Nation succeeded in halting the construction of the condominium, under developer Sean Hodgins with Century Group, by purchasing the land in South Vancouver (Vancouver Sun, Aug. 6, 2012, and CBC, Oct. 2, 2013). In August 2017, Freddy Stoneypoint was arrested for blockading continued oil surveying by Jumex in Gaspé, Québec. In a statement released to his lawyers the same month, he wrote, “As a representative of Bawating water protectors, my only wish is to activate my ceremonial being in defense of land and waters through peaceful means. I am not an activist, I am an Anishinaabe man working to protect the land for future generations” (Camp de la Rivière, Aug. 17, 2017). In July 2015, James Daniel McIntyre was murdered by the RCMP outside of a restaurant in Dawson Creek, B.C., where a BC Hydro-sponsored event was happening for the Site C dam construction (CBC, Jul. 14, 2016). McIntyre was an Anonymous activist, and an outspoken activist against the Site C hydro-electric dam development in the Peace River Valley. And how fast are we to forget the Oka Crisis? Wherein the Mohawk of Kanesatake, Kahnawake, and Akwesasne resisted the expansion of Club de golf d’Oka over Mohawk burial grounds – a resistance that, under Trudeau Seniour’s Liberal Government, received a militarized response from Sûreté du Québec (Québec’s provincial police), the RCMP, and Canadian Armed Forces. What exactly do these lives mean for those who only see “a lot of money” and are “open for business”?


Paggliacetti, Fortunato Depero, 1927

“When it is strong, when it organizes the world on the basis of its power, a bourgeoisie does not hesitate to maintain a pretense of universal democratic ideas. An economically sound bourgeoisie has to be faced with exceptional circumstances to force it to disregard its humanist ideology. Although fundamentally racist, the Western bourgeoisie generally manage to mask this racism by multiplying the nuances, thereby enabling it to maintain intact its discourse on human dignity in all of its magnanimity.”

– Frantz Fanon, “The Wretched of the Earth”.

“We’re anything but boring.”

–  Zibi.

Within this arsenal of corporate propaganda is a kind of ‘culture-washing’ of development projects, whereby companies will affiliate with and manipulate cultural milieus into their favour, buying out arts communities through sponsorship, donations, advertising, and venue offers. Through the appearance of community engagement (a form of “creative branding”), the controversies around developments and their corporate agents are diminished, if not erased entirely, from public criticism through the distractive barter of cultural capital.

One of Vancouver’s most ‘culturally involved’ development companies is Ian Gillespie’s Westbank Projects Corp., which credits itself for having “created a culture that’s open to new ideas” (Westbank Corp.). Westbank’s recent campaigns include the “Fight for Beauty” campaign in which it evolves from a simple, everyday development company into a “culture company” and exhibits some luxury clothing and a couple architectural models to promote Gillespie’s new book; its ironic sponsorship of Vancouver’s graffiti-co-opting “Mural Festival”; the Vancouver Art Gallery’s Off-Site location outside of its luxury hotel and residential Shangri-la building; and an installation of Vincent van Gogh’s bedroom at the developer’s Fairmont Pacific Rim hotel. Westbank has been one of the city’s most prolific condo developers and prominent gentrifying forces since ’92, with some of its projects including the massive condominium complex 188 Keefer in Chinatown, Joyce Street tower in Joyce-Collingwood, the Woodward’s Development in the Downtown East Side (DTES), and a swathe of other condos, office-towers and hotels throughout Vancouver’s downtown core. Notably, Westbank has collaborated with architecture firm Perkins+Will – on the Azure tower in Dallas, for example – whose principal Peter Busby is also the design and sustainability director for Windmill’s ZIBI project.

Westbank was awarded the contract for Woodward’s by the city of Vancouver in 2004, and the building open in 2009. The famed redevelopment in Vancouver’s DTES was praised for its inclusion of off-market single-room occupancy units (SROs) for low-income residents within a segregated zone of the development. This inclusivity was marketed as “mixed income” housing, but in reality, the Woodward’s development isolates its poorest residents into a separate building, with a separate entrance, 24-hour security, and enforced daily room-checks (The Tyee, Feb. 25, 2015). This quota for low-income housing, however, does nothing in the face of rising rental rates and property values in Canada’s most expensive city. Despite the inclusion of its token SROs into the vicinity of its luxury condos, Westbank’s Woodward’s development is part of a legacy of expulsion of the city’s poorest residents from their longtime homes around the DTES, and part of a systemic, social alienation of the working class who manage to remain within their old neighbourhoods that are now characterized by newly constructed luxury furniture stores, cafes, and “creative industry” offices. According to research by the Carnegie Community Action Project, between 2005 and 2012, 404 low-income housing units were lost (due to rents being raised, buildings sold into private ownership, or buildings being flat-out razed). The Carnegie Community Action Project writes, “while Woodwards created 125 new units that low income people could afford, the climate of investment and gentrification it produced destroyed at least 442 privately owned SRO hotel rooms, a net loss of  317 rooms within two blocks of Woodwards” (Carnegie Community Action Project).

Amid its focus on luxury condos, hotels and corporate offices, Westbank has emphasized its focus on ‘sustainability’, touting its achievements for the highest environmental standards on its over 6 million square feet of capitalist loci with LEED Platinum certification. The company’s humanitarian interests address “an evermore urgent environmental imperative”, with projects like its luxury Fairmont Pacific Rim hotel “exemplif[ying] the highest standards of environmental and social responsibility”, or its TELUS Garden acting as “the most efficient piece of real estate in Vancouver, if not Canada”. Westbank’s interest in ‘sustainability’ extended so far as to acquire a virtual monopoly on heating provision in Vancouver’s downtown core. In 2014, Westbank Corp. acquired Central Heat Distribution (which it renamed as Creative Energy), “a supplier of low-cost community energy to Vancouver’s downtown core for over 40 years” (Westbank). Gillespie – owner of both Westbank and Creative Energy – intended to construct his own development’s “two towers above its 720 Beatty Street steam plant near B.C. Place Stadium” (Business Vancouver, Sep. 27, 2016), and further, to expand the company’s heating provision outside of the downtown core, to include Chinatown and Northeast False Creek in East Vancouver. Westbank was eventually prevented from doing so in a 2016 decision by the B.C. Utilities Commission (Business Vancouver, Sep. 27, 2016, and Vancouver Sun, Apr. 28, 2015). Gillespie’s development company was not only acquiring a monopoly over central Vancouver’s heating provision, but with its continued construction of condominiums through the city’s poorest neighbourhoods, it would be lining its own pockets by heating increasingly more of its own buildings. All the while fighting for environmental and social responsibility, Westbank Corp. continues its artistic crusade, planning “decades into future” against “the vagaries of weather, vandalism and age”, seeking out “good art” that is “rare” and “more than prettification and ornamentation” in a city “littered with an array of civic ornaments” and “mediocre art”, because “Westbank’s public art program follows a markedly sympathetic path to that of [the] artist” (Westbank).

But let us leave the example of Vancouver’s most gasconade development company, and return now to the site of the ZIBI development. As they wait for their re-emergence as part of the ZIBI development, the industrial buildings at Asinabka that were abandoned by Domtar Corporation, have recently been inaugurated into the Ottawa-Gatineau public eye as untapped potential – photogenic spaces prime for politically-neutral cultural use and warehouse parties. In 2015, Ottawa music festival Arboretum chose to host their events on Windmill’s construction site, which they proactively sought out from the developers. (“Zibi is pleased to host the 2015 Arboretum Festival.” The festival’s organizers Rolf Klausener and Stefanie Powers made the following statements regarding their decision to collaborate with Windmill Development: “We explored several options before connecting with Windmill, a local development company, who offered us Albert Island.” “We had a chance to meet with a council member at Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg,” the organizers wrote, “we spoke with activists from the Free The Falls movement, others from the Algonquin community, had ongoing discussions with Windmill, and concerned members of our community.” (Arboretum website, 2015. The festival removed the page in January 2018, but the statement is archived here: Ottawa Citizen, via PressReader. Other relevant quotes and articles are (still) available at Chartattack, the Ottawa Citizen, Apartment613, as well as Albert Dumont’s website here).

The Arboretum festival organizers’ acceptance of Windmill’s offer gave the development company the appearance of collaboration, in exchange of personal gains for performance space and visibility. This is not a minor purchase on the part of Windmill – the price being the festival organizers’ refusal of the weight of making unpopular decisions for the sake of recognizing the cultural violence that is embedded through a much longer play at Asinabka than the stakes of their 2015 festival and a single condo development (again, let alone the dam expansion). It distances the site from the colonial exploitation that defines the roots of the conflict at Asinabka, and buys out artists’ participation into the festival as a public form of approval for the site’s development. It is no small note that the Arboretum festival continues to operate through 2017 and 2018 with the partnership of Ontario150, the provincial branch of Canada’s celebration of 150 years since Confederation on unceded Indigenous territory. While Windmill Development claims, “If you own a home in the region, you too own land on unceded Algonquin Anishinabe territory”, Arboretum Festival also claims, “We humbly acknowledge that Albert Island, and all of the Outaouais, is unceded, unsurrendered Algonquin territory”. Of what weight and use are such acknowledgements when they simultaneously relieve the festival’s organizers and participating artists of responsibility to take critical action as an act of acknowledgement – action that would necessarily be uncomfortable for them, and would deprive them of the profits of the Toronto company’s venue offers? Where was the gesture of respectful dissociation from the contested land upon being confronted with its context, rejection of Windmill’s gift, and cumulatively, a rejection of collaboration with Ontario150/Canada150 in their subsequent festivals that should have accompanied the organizers’ lip-service in a consistent demonstration of their conviction?

Upon realizing the PR-crisis of their 2015 venue selection, the Arboretum Festival hosted a panel discussion titled Unceded Ottawa: The Algonquin and the Outaouais, all the while maintaining the festival’s venue at Asinabka, and refusing to cancel or reschedule the events at other venues. The panel was announced only after accepting Windmill’s offer and receiving critique for Klausener and Powers’ decision to solicit Asinabka as a venue for the Arboretum festival from the developers. This panel featured Chief Kirby Whiteduck (Algonquins of Pikwàkanagàn First Nation), Verna McGregor (Minwaashin Lodge, of Kitigan Zibi Anishinabe), Albert Dumont (Spiritual Advisor, writer, public speaker, of Kitigan Zibi Anishinabe), and Josée Bourgeois (Powwow dancer, Memengweshii Council, of Pikwàkanagàn) as speakers; and Howard Adler (Artistic Director of Asinabka Film & Media Arts Festival) as moderator (Ottawa Citizen, Aug. 22, 2015). Whiteduck promotes a growing relationship with the private sector as a mode of progress, “To see Zibi as simply a greedy condo project, a meagre job generator or a dubious financial transaction is to miss the bigger, more positive story of reconciliation. Working in partnership with the private sector is the only option that can deliver true and lasting benefits to current and future generations” (Ottawa Citizen, Aug. 14, 2015). Bourgeois was quoted later, “In fact, consultations with Pikwàkanagàn, the one Nation whose legal claim to the islands has been recognized by the governments of Ontario and Canada, began long before any project design and continue to this day” (Ottawa Citizen, Jun. 16, 2016). The most openly dissenting Algonquin voice was Albert Dumont, who has written on the ZIBI development:

I stand in full support with Algonquin elder Evelyn Commanda’s statement, “Mother Earth is not for sale. If someone was to offer me all the money around the world, no.” Money is nice to have, but when we see our children’s minds swallowed up and destroyed by technology or see them hopelessly addicted to a party and drug lifestyle, what good will money do us then? Would we spread money on the floor and roll in it in the hope of it bringing us peace? When we replace a spiritual base, the natural thing to do on our earth walk, with the one laid before us like a snake in the throes of anguish by the almighty dollar, we will find at the end of our time what a terrible mistake we made. What explanation will we give? (Albert Dumont, Nov. 8, 2015).

It’s not a minor point that avenues for debate — through which the music festival tried to position itself as neutral in order to deflect responsibility from their self-interested collaboration with the Toronto developer — were downplayed by their very participants, as Josée Bourgeois stated, referring to the panel: “That doesn’t mean of course it has to be confrontational, it’s just for talking,” she added (Ottawa Citizen, Aug. 19, 2015). But if it’s too confrontational to clearly argue about the principles underlying the condominium development, then what is there to talk about in the first place? When a music festival positions itself as a mediating ground for panelists to talk about the controversy of a condo development with which the music festival is collaborating, how could the organizers then claim that others hold “bias” when they said: “We heard a broad spectrum of points, many clear and simple, others obscured by bias.” Is having a principled opinion and taking action consistent with such public statements equated with being obscured by bias?

Earlier in 2015, Windmill hosted the Ottawa Riverkeepers’ Gala at the Zibi site. The gala for Ottawa’s river protectors charged $200 for entry to a “celebration of our magnificent Ottawa River” (ZIBI, May 27, 2015). Special guests included Canada’s Ambassador to Ireland Kevin Vickers, with Gala host Evan Solomon, and RBC Past President and CEO Gord Nixon, champion of the RBC Blue Water Project. In August 2017, Windmill Development continued their acquisition of sterilized cultural cache through their collaboration with Montreal’s Cirque du Soleil. Windmill offered the Zibi construction site to Cirque du Soleil’s VOLTA performance where, incidentally, the protagonist “WAZ, a popular gameshow host, has lost touch with his inner self in the pursuit of fame, pulling others in the trap of instant glory” (ZIBI, Aug. 2017).

In October 2017, the Mìwàte illumination of the Chaudière hydroelectric dam (grossly misrepresented by its promotional campaigns as an illumination of the waterfalls), was billed as part of the continued Canada150 celebrations. The Mìwàte installation drew some critical attention when “native producer and DJ crew” A Tribe Called Red cancelled their performance at Mìwàte, making a statement about the endorsement of Canada150 celebrations, but restraining from making public statements about the ongoing ZIBI development or the hydro-electric dam expansion. Spokesperson for Ottawa2017 (for which the main sponsor is CIBC), Denise LeBlanc, was quoted in the Ottawa Citizen explaining, “According to their management, the band prefers to not participate in events connected to Canada’s sesquicentennial,” said Denise LeBlanc.” (Ottawa Citizen, Oct. 13, 2017). Mìwàte is described on the website as “created and produced by the Ottawa 2017 Bureau and Moment Factory, in collaboration with the Algonquins of Pikwàkanagàn, and in consultation with representatives from local Métis and Inuit communities” (Ottawa2017. Kirby Whiteduck is quoted on the page on behalf of the Algonquins of Pikwàkanagàn).

The obscuration of corporate interests through cultural means is not a new project. Where offers of collaboration and benevolence are offered with outstretched, clean hands, what is to be made of the nature of this gift? Thousands of kilometers away, this question was acted upon with great simplicity, courage and dignity by 14 year old Topacio Reynoso, who, as a leader in protesting the construction of a silver mine – which was bought by Canadian mining company Tahoe Resources from a smaller Guatemalan stakeholder – near her hometown of Mataquescuintla, “led her classmates in refusing the small welcome gifts from a congressman who supported the mine” (Los Angeles Times, Dec. 27, 2017). Only a few years later, in April 2014, Topacio Reynoso was murdered for her fearless resistance and leadership against the Mataquescuintla silver mine.


Speeding Motorboat (Velocità di motoscafo), Benedeta Cappa, 1923-24.

But today, the air, the waters, and Earth herself are polluted and this once life-sustaining and life-producing entity is now making us sick.  No, she does not sustain life as she used to.  We experience this in the cancers in our bodies, in the devastating impact of our modern farming practices, and in the dearth and loneliness in our souls.

– Elder William Commanda.

The renewable quality – the sacredness of every living thing, that which connects human beings to the place which they inhabit – that quality is the single most liberating aspect of our environment. Life is renewable and all the things which support life are renewable, and they are renewed by a force greater than any government’s, greater than any living or historical thing. A consciousness of the web that hold all things together, the spiritual element that connects us to reality and the manifestation of that power to renew which is present in the existence of an eagle or a mountain snowfall – that consciousness was the first thing which was destroyed by the colonizers.

– Haudenausaunee “Basic Call to Consciousness”.

Quite simply, the modern canal, unlike a river, is not an ecosystem. It is simplified, abstracted water, rigidly separated from the earth and firmly directed to raise food, fill pipes, and make money.

– Donald Worster, “Rivers of Empire”, 1985.

The vision for Asinabka developed by Elder William Commanda – which involved an Indigenous Centre and the removal of the dam at Akikpautik (the Chaudière Falls) – conceived of a respectful and dignified gesture of local reconciliation with the Algonquin community, but also a celebration of the intersection of First Nations that pre-existed federal-imposed divisions and registrations. In lieu with the plan for Indigenous-led governance, the Vision decreased the stakes of all levels of Canadian government in the functions of the proposed project – to effectively cede power to a collective Indigenous governance, at the level of the Centre itself as well as in “national ‘working circles’” for the development of its broader programming. In the 2004 memorandum for the National Capital Commission, Commanda emphasized the creation of Sustainable Relationships – how could these be possible today under competitive, private projects that are fundamentally interested in making the most profits?

The Centre for Indigenous Peoples described in the Vision for Asinabka was intended to: “Support the reclamation, development and sharing of innovative ideas designed to contribute to the healing of Indigenous Peoples and strengthening of communities in such fundamental areas as substance abuse, physical, mental and sexual abuse, suicide and self identity crises; Promote the reclamation, retention and revitalization of language, education, culture, restorative justice practices, sustainable traditions and ways of life; Policy development in social justice and biodiversity to improve the lives of all Canadians and build a sustainable legacy for future generations(The Vision for Asinabka). The Centre integrated all of these ideas within a plan for the space that charted out a language resource centre, conference centre, healing and meeting centre, museum, and gallery, among other aspects. The Centre would be governed under an Indigenous Committee consisting of representatives from Ontario and Québec Algonquin, representatives from other First Nations, and non-voting federal representatives for liaising and partnership. The governing board would in turn be supported by an Honorary Council of Wisdom Holders. This plan did not prioritize the investment, decision-making and mediation from private developers and realtors from Toronto, or Ottawa’s music festival organizers.

Both in the plan for the Centre for Indigenous Peoples and in the call to remove the dam across the Kichissippi, Commanda’s vision refocused the intention of the Asinabka islands towards an explicit relationship with the natural environment, and encouraged space for education, reflection, and growth between Canadians and First Nations in ways that would challenge existing government-mediated paradigms of what “inclusion” and “co-existence” mean within a recently formed colonial state. The islands would have been retained as public, green space for contemplative and communal experience, and – by excluding a focus on commercial properties and interests – as a space that makes non-proprietary and non-hierarchical relationships possible at the cusp of the Canadian capital. This anti-capitalist tone of the proposed Vision has often flown under the radar. The focus on the Indigenous cultural centre at the heart of the Asinabka plan situates the project as concerned with the recognition of the heritage of the site, not only as an Algonquin site, but as a point of intersection, dialogue and exchange between all First Nations, as was also vehemently advocated by Elder Commanda throughout his life’s work.

The undamming of the river proposed in the Vision for Asinabka sought to reclaim a sense of dignity for the river as an entity. For the Ottawa-Gatineau region, this would dramatically change the relationship of people to the water, learning to respect the agency of non-human beings and elements, sensitizing to the changing affects of the climate, and rethinking the lucrative industry of hydro-electric power generation. Under the heading “Wild Space in the Nation’s Capital”, Elder Commanda wrote in the Vision,

The voice of the magnificent circular Chaudière Rapids has been silenced over the past two hundred years, yet she speaks loudly of the polluting of the waters of the countless rivers whose natural cleansing processes have been stifled by dams.  It is time for us to be bold and innovative in our search for other viable sources of power, perhaps wind and solar; and it is time to restore the Chaudière Rapids to her wild freedom, in a symbolic statement of reconciliation with the waters of Mother Earth, a message that can reverberate to the world from this Nation’s Capital.

A new PR project introduced between December 2017 and January 2018 by Windmill Development and DREAM Unlimited, called Zibi Dialogues, is a reactionary component of their website with public-facing statements regarding the conflict around Asinabka and the controversy they’ve received over the development. Zibi’s developers and PR team cite “Seven Grandfather Teachings”, discuss the dubious technicality of sacredness as pertinent to their specific site of development at Asinabka (i.e. the condo site is probably not sacred), and cite Elder William Commanda in a way to frame their development as a respectful, progressive collaboration with the Kitigan Zibi Pikwàkanagàn Algonquin. The significance of Algonquin claims to the land, Asinabka, and the water, Akikpautik, as sacred have been dismissed or trivialized in favour of profitable exchanges of private land ownership and construction contracts.

“Remembering that Zibi does not include Victoria Island, and with great respect to all opinions and voices, there is no Anishinabe consensus as to the sacredness of the wider Chaudière Falls area, nor of the land where Zibi will be located. In our conversations with hundreds of Algonquin men and women – Elders, band members, and elected officials – very few have raised the subject with us. When it has come up, we have heard two principal interpretations:

  1. There is no Anishinabe word for ‘sacred’ in the way the English language uses it. Instead, all land, air, and water is sacred. No area more or less than another.
  2. There is (or was) a spiritual or ceremonial importance to the area, but that is specific to Victoria Island. (Zibi Dialogue: Land and Spirit.)

[…elsewhere on the Zibi site:]

The City of Gatineau has offered an eight-year 50% tax waiver for units in the first two residential buildings.” (Zibi: Residence O. “You don’t follow history. You make it.”)

The Zibi Dialogue website borrows quotes from Elder Commanda, and even claims that it would be open to ideas for a Vision for Asinabka. “If an Algonquin Anishinabe vision emerges for Victoria Island, we would entirely support it, and are prepared to help bring it to reality,” they claim, as if that Vision didn’t already exist, and hadn’t already moved through multiple levels of municipal support, funding and planning. Nowhere is there an acknowledgement of the Vision for Asinabka that pre-existed the private development by about a decade, and was in negotiation since at least the 1998 “Mandate from the Algonquin leadership to explore the feasibility of developing an Indigenous Healing and Peace Building Centre at Victoria Island” (A Report on the Vision for Asinabka, Feb. 14, 2010). Nowhere is there an acknowledgement of the City of Ottawa’s decision to stall on the original Vision from 2004 through 2008, and again through 2010, up until the death of Elder William Commanda in 2011. “In August 2006, at the Circle of All Nations International Gathering, NCC [National Capital Commission] MP Michel Beaudry affirmed that […] The Federal Government would invest $100 million dollars on the building” which included remedial environmental work on Domtar’s pollution.

When Windmill Development took advantage of Domtar’s unaccounted-for contamination of Asinabka, it represented its ZIBI development and the offering of its environmental restoration services as a benevolent, “green” project. Decontamination and waste-removal are a big industry. The reality is that the Domtar paper mill was allowed by the municipal government to get away with never paying for the brownfield clean-up of over a century of contamination that had accumulated in the riverbanks and permeated the watershed. Are Windmill Development and DREAM Unlimited not complicit in the municipal government’s rejection of the Vision for Asinabka on the basis of a more lucrative investment that let an enormous company that was formative of Ottawa-Gatineau’s earliest colonial history off the hook?

And how can a private Toronto-based realtor with “~$14 billion of assets” (including investments in ‘renewable energy infrastructures’) and a private Toronto-based developer possibly “support” and “bring to reality” a self-governing Indigenous Vision that, in Elder Commanda’s words intends “a counter balance to the political and bureaucratic preoccupations of the capital city”, that moves away “from greed and corporate domination” and “unbridled commodification and consumerism”? Do they imagine their “support” as a reality in which they are invested partners or shareholders? In which they gain or give out contracts for their selected Algonquin Anishinabe vision? Nowhere does the “Zibi Dialogue” acknowledge the hypocrisy of self-representing progress on healing Canada’s history of apartheid towards First Nations and exploitation of the earth, while in reality constructing another consumerist hub with tax breaks for wealthy condo-owners.


Changing West, Thomas Hart Benton, 1930-31

Why is ‘sacredness’ reduced to a derivative of the human capacity for performing ritual, for being present at a site, and for otherwise engaging with what is ‘sacred’? Why is the inherent sacredness of a site not considered as independent from human needs, intervention and presence? How is it possible that definitions of the sacred, and the territorial meridians that define where its affects begin and end, are negotiated by development companies and extractive industries?

By documenting Indigenous-led popular resistance against the privatization of land and water in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, Peruvian anthropologist Marisol de la Cadena argues that “indigenous politics may exceed politics as we know them” (Cadena, Indigenous Cosmopolitics in the Andes, 2010). This essential point underlies much of Cadena’s examination of linguistic politic and epistemological difference that is shared across Indigenous understandings of the earth, and humanity’s place and relationship to it – in contrast to state governance and proprietary relationships that create myopic bounds of environmental and humanitarian justice. As the intimate relationship to the world is shaped through language, so is the sense of accountability and justice towards the earth. Cadena brings our attention to the creative origin of thought, language, understanding, and imagination that permit us to contrast the multiplicities of world-experience when interrogating the ethical acceptability of, in her focus, extractive industry developments – but which certainly applies to similar rhetoric of ‘sustainability’ and defining ‘sacredness’ in any capitalist development scheme.

A reading of the Andean ethnographic record along epistemic lines shows that earth-practices are relations for which the dominant ontological distinction between humans and nature does not work. […] sentient entities whose material existence—and that of the worlds to which they belong—is currently threatened by the neoliberal wedding of capital and the state. (Cadena, in “Indigenous Cosmopolitics in the Andes”.)

Resistance to extractive industries and capitalist developments comes out of an ethics that is based on an intimate, reciprocal connection with the land, rather than a framework that perceives the land as a commodity that can be acquired and sold, or even as a discrete entity that is situated on an ‘outside’, from which the self is separated. Quechua understanding of environment (place, nature) is one of an inseparable and non-hierarchical network of earth-beings that includes and supersedes the interests of humans. Cadena describes this as “an ecologized nature of interdependent entities that simultaneously coincides, differs, and even exceeds—also because it includes humans—the object that the state, the mining corporation, and environmentalists seek to translate into resources, whether for exploitation or to be defended” (Cadena, Uncommoning Nature, Aug. 22, 2015). By extension, this statement offers a rare critique of the dominant logic of environmentalism when its logics elevate human intervention into the role of the saviour, and do not account for ‘nature’ as an active agent, interpenetrating and inseparable from everything, and deserving of rights and respect beyond its domestication into ‘precious natural resources’.

Cadena wrote of an experience where she was confronted with this contrast while attending a demonstration against the construction of a mine at the town of Sinakara, situated on the mountain chain shared by Ausangate peak. The mentality brought by Cadena to the protest, as she describes, considered the damage humans could do to the environment, ultimately having an economic impact on the families dependent on it. The contrasting Quechua mentality Cadena encountered held protest as necessary not out of economic interests, but fundamentally out of respect for the sacredness of the mountains: yes, human actions cause environmental damage, but nature, Pachamama herself, would retaliate as she is greater than humanity.

People—indigenous or not, and perhaps ethnically unlabeled—could side with the mine, choosing jobs and money over Ausangate, either because they doubt or even publicly deny its being a willful mountain or because they are willing to risk its ire for a different living. Ausangate’s willfulness could be defeated in the political process—some would embrace it, others would not—but its being other than a mountain would not be silently denied anymore for a pluriversal politics would be able to recognize the conflict as emerging among partially connected worlds. And although I would not be able to translate myself into Nazario’s ontology, nor know with him that Ausangate’s ire is dangerous, I would side with him because I want what he wants, to be considered on a par with the rest, to denounce the abandonment the state has relegated people like him—while at the same time threatening with assimilation—to denounce the mining ventures that do not care about local life; in a nutshell to defend in his way, in my way and in the way that may emerge as ours the place where Nazario lives. (Cadena, “Indigenous Cosmopolitics in the Andes”.)

And, as Cadena explores further, nature is increasingly being brought into the political realm to challenge “politics as normal”, as she describes in the case of Pachamama being written into the 2008 Constitution of the Republic of Ecuador, and the recognition of the mountains – Ausungate, Quilish and Coyllur Rit’i – as sacred, as legally protected entities.

In her essay “Anishnaabekwe: Traditional Knowledge and Water”, scholar Deborah McGregor, Anishnaabe from Whitefish River First Nation, writes: “In attempting to express the meaning of water as a discrete concept, we risk obscuring the meaning that is associated with water in traditional Aboriginal philosophies. For many Aboriginal people and their ways of life, water offers “life-giving” forces, accompanied by certain duties and responsibilities. This knowledge must be lived to have meaning.” (McGregor, “Anishnaabekwe: Traditional Knowledge and Water”, First Voices: An Aboriginal Women’s Reader, 136). McGregor writes of a material understanding of water as medicinal, spiritual, and therapeutic – as holding tremendous significance for the experiences of birth, cleansing, and collective responsibility. She also writes of the significant role women hold within Anishnaabe culture by holding the wisdom of human connection to water, and in taking leadership in the defense of water when it is threatened by contamination and poisoned by big industries. McGregor writes,

When we are born water precedes us. With this special place in the order of things come responsibilities. No one is exempt from caring and paying respect to the water, but for women there is a special responsibility. In some ceremonies, women speak for water.

McGregor refers to the research she conducted into Aboriginal knowledge and practices in relation to water, through cases like the Walkerton Inquiry in May 2000 on deaths resulting from contaminated water, as well as Imperial Chemical Industry’s contamination of waters around Bkejwanong Territory. Echoing Cadena’s writing on Quechua relationships to the sacred mountains, McGregor writes that “water is understood as a living force which must be protected and nurtured; it is not a commodity to be bought and sold”.

Faced with the realities of human and technological waste, technological acceleration, climate change, nuclear fall-out, and the responsibility of imagining ‘futures’, the world is forced to think about changing perspectives from the human-centered paradigm, to one that embraces greater complexity and networked thinking, that respects nature and non-human beings with rights for existence because they are inherently ‘sacred’ outside of any human definitions or parameters. In Peru, as in Bolivia, as in Anishinabe lands, as in Innu lands, as in Haudenosaunee lands, there is an urgent need to recognize traditional wisdom that has been actively choked by industrialist, capitalist development – that there is no separateness of nature and self, that there is no individual species existing alone and without repercussions or responsibilities. Everything is in place. To be is a reason in itself, because it requires no justification. What is there to justify, in the sense of proving ‘sacredness’? Since when do development corporations, like Windmill Development Corp. and DREAM Unlimited, become prioritized judges of ‘sacredness’ and where it begins and ends?

To justify the ‘sacredness’ of the land would require a validation of this separateness that enables this commodification in theory and practice, and validates the logics that sustain the arguments of development and the compromised languages of environmental defense. By retaining an understanding of nature as separate from self, the human is given moral authority as either the aggressor or the agent of defense. This denies the earth and earth-beings an equivalent, sentient, and encompassing agency. The defense of territorial rights – such as the simplification of human habitation and ancestral responsibility for land to a flat concept of ownership and nationality – then becomes the locus upon which ethical justification or accountability towards development projects is based. Never is the earth left alone, to exist for itself.

It is not possible to justify the machinations of ‘natural capitalism’, or ‘green capitalism’ as truly sustainable, for we will find no end to these ecologically, socially, intimately destructive consequences by trying to imagine alternatives through logics that are already finite, compartmental, and contain the imaginaries of statehood, capital ownership, and hierarchies of superiority. It is necessary to reach outside of ourselves. It is necessary for ‘epistemic ruptures’ to come as social revolutions that are inspired out of worldviews entirely different from the roots of capitalist thought, from resistance that is borne out of languages and cosmologies that cannot even imagine, cannot give place to, ideas of nationalism, statehood, citizenship, and the privatization of the planet. Confrontation with extractive and industrial development, and the continued sale of land into private ownership, cannot just negate developments as they arise, but need to create a widespread ethical change by which such developments are not only unnecessary for their endless reliance on exploiting an absurd surplus, but are understood as morally unacceptable. This means “imagining futures” of entirely different ways of existing on the planet and relating to the earth, requiring as Cadena writes, “an insurgence of indigenous forces and practices with the capacity to significantly disrupt prevalent political formations, and reshuffle hegemonic antagonisms, first and foremost by rendering illegitimate (and, thus, denaturalizing) the exclusion of indigenous practices from nation-state institutions.”


Automobile in corsa, Giacomo Balla, 1913

“Our ancestors’ trepidation was not without justification, and for many years we were made invisible in our homeland. We struggle now to reclaim our rightful place. Further, today, we all face the challenges of the two crucial issues that were integrated in our ancient prayer, Ginawaydaganuc: respect for Mother Earth and peace and harmony; many realize now that these entities are in dire trouble, and now threaten all our lives as well as future generations.  Today I read George Monbiot writing about Consumer Hell – “solidarity is shattered by possessive individualism. Consumerism has changed all of us. Our challenge is now to fight a system we have internalised.”  We are witnessing the collapse of unbridled commodification and consumerism, and it is crushing us all.”

– Elder William Commanda.

If we are to have peace in the world, we must be as the trees.
The lilac doesn’t order the oak tree to move over;
the maple tree doesn’t tell the birch to move over.
All of the different trees stand together
with their arms upraised in prayer and thanksgiving;
they support and protect one another against adversity.

– Alice Olsen William, “The Spirit of my Quilts”.

Why does the question of motives for opposition and resistance to projects like the Zibi condos and the hydro-electric expansion of the Chaudière Dam on Kichissippi never broach issues that underlie land-claims? Why does self-determination become untouchable for its responsibility towards fighting oppression of other means that can be continued through capitalism by a different owner? Why is it more controversial to oppose profiteering motives, no matter whose hands they are in – motives that continue to pervert the earth solely towards economic interests, refuse to respect the complicated and interconnected networks of life that humans are terribly implicated in? The dangerous equation is one that manipulates collaboration as growth, success or victory, and legitimizes capitalist projects. In our shared world, we struggle with defending the wellbeing of the earth and each other through conflicted ideas of belonging and territoriality. Decisions to construct this project or another are made on a spectrum of economic feasibility that is locked into egotistic, capitalist values that are professionally communicated to appeal with immediate and temporary profits, and to pacify criticism and resistance of the unravelling consequences over time.

It is truly radical to consider others, as in the earth and earth-beings, who are not human as important, self-sufficient, and irreplaceable. But it remains that we have yet to truly apply this even to one another. And yet, in the face of a powerful and radical Vision, the Ottawa municipal government, chose instead the contaminated money of privatization. Local communities largely chose the easy way, which is to accept the corporate hand-outs and to learn the cleanest vocabulary with which cover their complicity. An Indigenous-led project that was at its very soul ‘ecologically sustainable’, standing for truth and dignity, for recovering physical and spiritual health, for claiming responsibility and seeking deeper connection and understanding with others, was overturned for the corporate greenwashing of condo developments, and back-patting for negotiating another profitable, ‘unique’ investment opportunity. Small people chose small ideas, and the only honourable route was dismissed. Will there be another vision that rises out of Asinabka?

To Justify Land was published in a serialized form in Berfrois, and republished in the Media Co-Op. The author wishes to thank David Gray-Donald for his close editing of the essays for republication in the Media Co-Op; Berfrois for the first publication of the essays; and Nathan Medema for his support, patience, and encouragement.


basic call to consciousness. Akwesasne Notes Mohawk Nation. 1978. Revised Edition, fifth printing. 1993.

de la Cadena, Marisol. “Indigenous Cosmopolitics in the Andes: Conceptual Reflections Beyond “Politics””. Cultural Anthropology Vol. 25, Issue 2, pp. 334–370. 2010.

Commanda, William. A Report on the Vision for the Asinabka National Indigenous Centre. Circle of All Nations Report. 2010.

Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Translation by Richard Philcox. Grove Press. 2004.

McGregor, Deborah. “Anishnaabekwe: Traditional Knowledge and Water”. First Voices: an aboriginal women’s reader. Eds. Patricia A. Monture and Patricia D. McGuire. Inanna Publications & Education Inc. 2009.

William, Alice Olsen. “The Spirit of my Quilts”. First Voices: an aboriginal women’s reader. Eds. Patricia A. Monture and Patricia D. McGuire. Inanna Publications & Education Inc. 2009.

Worster, Donald. Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West. Oxford University Press. 1985.

Zamyatin, Yevgeny. We. Translation by Natasha Randall. Modern Library. 2006.


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.