Hydro Ottawa recently opened the gate to the lookout at it’s Chaudière station overlooking the Ottawa river. This comes two years after a pedestrian access point was set up behind the Museum of War. It opened without fanfare or even a post to it’s website. The controversy with indigenous peoples around the site, which hosts the Dream Unlimited development known as Zibi, may have something to do with the low profile given this important milestone. People can now walk or bike to view the waters gathering above the flow-through dam on the river or the frothy channel of water rushing towards Parliament. It is not a natural waterfall as some would claim, but it is refreshing to be there. Not since the early 1900s, when Chaudière was indeed a falls that attracted almost as many tourists as Niagara Falls, have ordinary people been able to see the site. Much of the view is the exposed dry limestone riverbed, concrete dam and construction cranes, making the experience of nature more an act of imagination than a real encounter.
The landscaping at the site is impressive, especially for people who know their indigenous plants and can imagine what these will look like in a decade or so. Yellow birch (Quebec’s national tree), paper birch, American basswood, and several species of oak dominate. The tree selected to anchor the tree community, a White Oak, is a rare native species in this region and tends to turn a rosy pink in the autumn. It is a cousin of the Burr Oak, a species more characteristic of the Ottawa riverside and found in large numbers on Lemieux and Bate island just upstream. Pierre de Troyes, a French Captain who travelled from Quebec City to James Bay in 1686 to burn down the British forts there, noted in his journal the “oak forest” he walked through as he portaged around Chaudière Falls and Deschênes Rapids. Des Chênes, French for “some oaks”, was the site of an indigenous encampment called “Michiming”, an Anishinaabemowin term for “the place where Burr Oaks grow”. Oaks are clearly the right focus for the site, although the Burr Oak would have been a better choice for the leading edge of the park (two Burr Oaks are tucked into the space, along with a number of Red Oaks, the emblematic tree of the Eardley Escarpment across the river). The mixed feelings I have when looking out over the mighty Kitchi Sibi (great river) and sections of dry riverbed leave me with the sad realization that we don’t really understand the spirit and practice of nature in our midst. Yet another City staff amendment to the New Official Plan, submitted for review at the Joint Meeting of Planning and Agriculture and Rural Affairs October 14th, reflects the poor understanding and fudging for human profit that drives the overall plan. The amendment changes one word in the policy (3.1.5 f) intended to protect Ottawa’s Natural Heritage System, from “exclude” development to “avoid” development that threatens the system. What a difference a word makes if you own land within or bordering that system. It fudges the protection just enough to be subject to future negotiations and further compromise of ecosystem integrity. This policy is unlikely to rise to the top in the coming melee at the committee meeting. Even less likely are any explicit protections of native biodiversity or the Ottawa River to appear in the adopted plan: the current 300 plus pages of the draft contain the word “biodiversity” only four times. It does not provide any assurances of legal protections for existing biodiversity, regardless of location, or mandate a zero net-loss of biodiversity and ecosystem function when land use is changed or new construction undertaken. There is no policy concerning native plant species on private property anywhere in the Official Plan. We really still are in the dark when it comes to understanding how nature holds everything together in a fabric of life on this fragile planet. We do not know how to deeply acknowledge the indigenous experience of places like the historic Chaudiere Falls or their use of the Burr Oak acorn as a food in times of hardship. It makes sense to take precautions with our future by excluding residential development from the Natural Heritage System that buffers the tempest of the climate crisis. Instead, we approximate, guess and fudge our way to plans that reduce nature to a service we might have or opt out of. The zip line at Chaudiere that now offers a $60 thrill to view something rush by in 40 seconds or less is what we have instead. Should we look up river or down?
Daniel Buckles, Kitchissippi resident and co-animator of the People’s Official Plan.