PO Box 523, Station B, Ottawa, ON, K1P 5P6
Sunday, 30 April 2023 20:17

Uncovering Our Region’s Ancient Past

Jean-Luc Pilon Jean-Luc Pilon from his video: Paddling through the Past

The Historical Society of Ottawa was honoured to welcome back Dr. Jean-Luc Pilon as the featured speaker at the April 12, 2023, speaker series session, hosted by the Main Branch of the Ottawa Public Library. Dr. Pilon is a renowned archeologist, long-time curator of Central Canada archaeology at the Canadian Museum of History, an educator, and was the first recipient of the J.V. Wright Lifetime Achievement Award from the Ontario Archaeological Society.

Dr. Pilon, who had spoken to us in November 2016, led us through some of the history of archeological activities in the Ottawa area along with the views of some individuals, organizations and governments. He pointed out that Europeans immediately grasped the importance of this location, Champlain making note of it in his journal in 1613. A Royal Proclamation of 1763 offered a degree of protection to Indigenous lands west of the Appalachian Mountains, but land grants from the Crown and later questionable Crown treaties and purchases, such as the Rideau Purchase of 1819, served to strip the Indigenous peoples of their land and heritage. Philemon Wright noted the objection of the local Indigenous population as he expanded his own enterprises in the area in the early 1800s, especially logging in support of the Napoleonic Wars. Later, about 1843, Dr. Edward van Courtland, a local medical doctor, naturalist and archeologist, identified a major ceremonial and burial site in the area, collecting many artifacts from his find. Archeology, at that time, had little concept of context and would from today’s perspective be more closely associated with looting than science. In describing the site, Dr. Courtland failed to mention on which side of the Ottawa River it fell, leading to a misunderstanding about the location of his discovery that was to endure and propagate for over 170 years. Writing for the Women’s Canadian Historical Society of Ottawa in 1901, Gertrude Kenny provided an anecdotal account of the Indigenous culture that had existed in the area for hundreds of years, but provided no sources for her account. Dr. Pilon noted many others who found artifacts or provided their own interpretations.

Dr. Pilon described how the artifacts flowed to and through a series of museums including the Bytown Mechanics Institute, the Literary and Scientific Society of Ottawa, the Geological Survey of Canada, and now the Canadian Museum of History. The artifacts that have been collected in the valleys of the Ottawa and Rideau rivers have a story to tell. Implements of stone quarried from deposits in Labrador, the Hudson Bay / James Bay and New York State areas, copper from west of Lake Superior, pottery of the Middle Woodland period, virtually identical to that found in the Lake of the Woods area, speak to a broad-based and sophisticated trading network with a critical hub in the Ottawa / Gatineau area that had been active for more than 4,500 years before the arrival of European settlers. The meeting of the Gatineau, Rideau, and Ottawa rivers made this an ideal location for the exchange of goods and ideas, while the presence of the Chaudière Falls, also known as Akikodjiwan, made this a significant spiritual location as well.

During excavations associated with the renovation of the Centre Block of the Parliament Buildings, a stone knife, dated between 2,500 and 4,000 years old was discovered. The knife has been returned to the stewardship of the Algonquin Anishinabe peoples and it is expected that it will be displayed in the Center Block when it reopens.

Dr. Pilon reminded us that as we think about our city, we must remember that this was a center of commerce and culture for thousands of years before anything we see today.

Following Dr. Pilon’s presentation, we were privileged to be joined by several students from Anishinàbe Odjìbikan. Anishinàbe Odjìbikan is an Indigenous Archaeological Field School that provides First Nations students from Pikwakanagan and Kitigan Zibi the phenomenal opportunity to take part in archaeological digs along the shorelines and uncover and better understand their own ancestral past. Jenna and Kyle gave us some background to their program,. Planned in 2019, it, like most things, was delayed by Covid. In 2021, 8 students, 4 from each community participated, while in 2022, 16 students, 10 from Kitigan Zibi and 6 from Pikwakanagan took part. Their hope is to continue the program for at least another three years. The program has strong support from the communities, financial support from the federal government and archeological mentoring from the National Capital Commission. It is hoped that some financial independence can be achieved through access to bid on government contracts.

Jenna and Kyle explained some of the differences between their approach and that of traditional archeology, which has largely ignored First Nation’s voices and their traditional knowledge. They explained that while recovering their own people’s artifacts, they adopt appropriate cultural practices, such as ceremonies to thank the land for its care of the items before and after their recovery and the renewed use of the recovered items as they had been originally intended. In recovering the artifacts, the students and their communities recognize that they are also recovering their own heritage, allowing them their own interpretation not one from a colonial perspective. These artifacts also provide an undeniable proof of the occupation of this land by indigenous peoples for thousands of years before the arrival of the first colonists.

Jenna and Kyle expressed the urgency of their undertaking. Climate change, high water levels and urbanization are damaging and destroying potential sites. They see this program as critical in providing the skills and trained individuals needed to perform the work ahead.

Following their presentation, the students displayed a number of the artifacts they had uncovered and responded to many questions posed by audience members who came down to the stage for a closer look and a chat.

This in-person session, the most popular this season with over 90 people attending, left all of us with a thirst to learn more about the earlier history of the land on which we live and the peoples to whom it belongs.

display crArtifacts presented by Anishinàbe Odjìbikan.


Dr. Jean-Luc Pilon has shared this excellent video, a guided tour as he explores the heart of our region: Paddling through the past - Ottawa-Gatineau's Ancient Cultural Landscape.


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