OTTAWA -- According to writers on architecture, Douglas Cardinal's mentors
are giants in the field like Frank Lloyd Wright and Antonio Gaudi. But
Cardinal himself said his guides are elders like Ermineskin Band Cree Chief
Robert Smallboy and, now, William Commanda.
"He's a teacher to me," Cardinal said of Commanda, 92, widely known as the
"grandfather of the Algonquins."
The partnership between the world-famous architect and Commanda, keeper of
three wampum belts, is taking concrete form in plans for an indigenous
center on Victoria Island, unceded Algonquin land in the river that flows
through Ottawa. Cardinal has drafted plans for the center, which has
support from the National Capital Commission but is still up in the air
because of the Canadian government's recent change.
The center is Commanda's vision for an inclusive meeting place for
indigenous people that would advance harmony with all races. In an
invitation to a gathering of nations pipe ceremony on the site last year,
he wrote: "My people have been crushed for a long time and sometimes it
seems like we beg for crumbs and acknowledgement at a table where the world
seeks its place. We see churches, cathedrals, synagogues, temples and
mosques reflecting the great diversity of cultures here, but there is still
no place where indigenous peoples can gather together in the spirit of
unity that used to mark our heritage."
The proposed site on the eastern part of Victoria Island overlooks what
used to be the Great Kettle, a giant whirlpool generated by the Chaudiere
Rapids before the river was dammed. "It was the power center," said
Cardinal, "the place where all the Algonquin chiefs would meet and plan
Cardinal said the Algonquins never signed away the land on which Ottawa is
built, and as a matter of addressing their land claims they want to
preserve their legacy on Victoria Island. He has designed a layout on the
eastern point featuring Commanda's vision of an international peace center.
Commanda pressed the plans last year in a personal address to former
Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin, but he recently complained that
progress has been slow and that the government itself seems unsure about
which department should be responding to him.
Nonetheless, the vision is gaining attention as Commanda, Cardinal and
other aboriginal leaders embrace and promote the concept. "Douglas has the
ability to cultivate support from leading Canadian business people,
academics and progressive government leaders," said Larry McDermott, an
Algonquin who is also active in national municipal affairs as the mayor of
Lanark Highlands. McDermott sees the development of the indigenous center
as a fitting symbol of aboriginal perseverance.