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Fairy lights on the veranda, tea lights on the table

Hear us roar

CANADA | Sunday, 16 October 2022 | Views [84]

The wail of an Algonquin chief undulates on the October wind. He launches sorrowful prayer towards a darkening sky. Foam whipped up by waterfall crashes down, battling with the din made by beaver-skin drums. White gulls shriek in reply, as though birds too mourn a landscape unscarred by human hands.

When I reached Akikodjiwan, or ‘Pipe Bowl’ Falls, I’d come to witness the sacred. But I saw so much concrete. Dammed water tumbled through the jaws of a gunmetal grey structure punctuating the rapids in a gap-toothed grin. Diggers and other hungry looking machinery guarded the perimeter, crouching open-mouthed behind chain-link fences.

For millennia, the falls have been a place of worship for indigenous peoples as far-flung as Mexico. The waterfall-carved basin embodies the bowl of a great peace pipe. Mists from white-water are smoke rising to the Creator.

Two centuries ago, settlers who had claimed Ottawa began to monetise the river. Leases were created to steal the land from First Peoples and sell it to the timber industry. The dam was built to harness its hydropower. Loggers no longer need it. Now the sacred land is destined for luxury apartments.

Years pass but the status quo remains.

“Kwey kwey,” the chief gently greets curious passers-by as five First Peoples’ descendants prepare for ceremony. They feed tobacco fluff into the whirlpool below – stoking the Great Pipe. Firepit embers are fanned into flame by the ballooning wind. 

“My sisters! My brothers!” His mounting drumbeat lifts the hair on my arms.

“You wouldn’t let developers desecrate the Vatican!” His lament addresses all humanity.  “You wouldn’t build skyscrapers over Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall!”

Mournful howls electrify the air. They call the spirits of the falls. They pray to free the sacred – and all of us.

No one mentions the people who greedily took possession of this land. Or that those people look like me.

Chanting and drumming reaches a crescendo, spiralling above the roaring falls and merging with smouldering white sage smoke, then snatched away on south-westerly winds. Their voices are borne far over northern Québécois tundra – over boreal forest and black bears snuffling through pine needles – and scattered out as waves of green and pink light dancing across the Arctic Circle.

Grounding myself that evening with a huge, heart-taxing dish of French fries drowned in gravy, I accidentally squirt maple syrup on the waiter’s apron. He apologises profusely.

Like the British, whose ancestors settled here, Canadians typically act amusingly, excessively polite. While devouring poutine, I try to square our courtesy with our dark history.

“Well, I’ll be damned…” I’ve googled the falls and found a sepia photo. Before they were dammed, they rivalled Niagara. Settler blood pounds in my ears.

Before flying home, I visit the falls for one last look. Seeing beyond concrete, I marvel at water’s raw power. Lifeblood flowing through the veins of Canada’s capital.

This time, no Algonquians are here singing. Instead, thundering white-water competes with an ominous orchestra of diggers and drills. Together, they roar.

Tags: canada, ceremony, first nations, indigenous people, industrialisation, waterfall


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