“Come all of you young fellows
Come listen to my song…
About the famous battle that was fought at Brennan’s Hill…”
– The Battle of Brennan’s Hill, by Thomas Hayden (1866-1933)
Sneeze going up this sharp rise in Highway 105 running along the picturesque Gatineau River and you would miss Brennan’s Hill entirely.
No historical plaque, nothing but a handful of houses, an ancient hotel, an over-used sofa sitting on the side of the road and – gesundheit! – you’re down the other side and away.
Yet it was here, during a snowy autumn late in the 19th century, where the only armed tax revolt in Canadian history took place – our own Boston Tea Party, but with a decidedly different outcome.
“Armed to the teeth,” warned a sub-head in the Nov. 14, 1895, Ottawa Evening Journal – the towering headline above shouting “PAY OR SEIZURE.”
The Battle of Brennan’s Hill, also known as “The Low Rebellion,” involved some 200 mostly Irish settlers in Low Township, nearly 60 kilometres north of Parliament Hill up the Gatineau River. For 15 years, they had adamantly refused to pay their taxes, many of them having fled Ireland to escape what they deemed unreasonable and unfair authority.
Law officers had regularly been chased off their land. When bailiff Joseph T. Flatters arrived with notices, inhabitants tore them up and locked him in Jim Brennan’s root cellar for two days without food or water before sending him packing.
The authorities then sent in a squad of police who also failed to persuade the rebels, now known as “the kickers,” to pay up. A Miss O’Rourke, who was $2.35 in arrears, told the policeman who came to her farm that she’d pour boiling water on anyone who tried to serve her, then grabbed a stick of firewood and chased him down the lane.
Next they called in the army, 120 soldiers from the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards, the No. 2 Ottawa Field Battery and 43 Battalion, Ottawa and Carleton Rifles, each man armed with up to 70 rounds of ammunition. The soldiers travelled by train up the Gatineau Valley, knowing there were rumours about that the rebels were planning to blow up the trestles.
But the army arrived without incident, pitched tents in Low and the show of force alone was enough: The kickers capitulated and paid up.
“There’s a bit of a frontier mentality here,” says Marc Cockburn, an archivist with the federal government and volunteer with the Gatineau Valley Historical Society. “The farther you go up the Gatineau from Ottawa, the more independent people get, the more rebellious.”
“The attitude is sort of, ‘I don’t care who you are, just don’t tell me what to do,’ ” adds Michael Francis, long-time mayor of Low. until he retired from municipal politics in 2009.
In 1993, renowned Canadian photographer Malak published a coffee-table book on the Gatineau River, with words by Ottawa journalist Ron Corbett. “If there were threads of commonality among the settlers,” Mr. Corbett wrote, “these were ambition, stubborn independence and eccentric individualism.”
Eccentric for sure, none more so than former prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, who, high in the Gatineau hills, built his beloved Kingsmere, where, as he recorded in his journals, he could get “away from the world of humans” and commune with the spirits of his dead mother and various dogs, all named “Pat.”
On another hill, this one overlooking the charming riverside village of Wakefield, Lester
Pearson is buried with his wife Maryon beneath a simple grey tombstone. Decades before Mr. Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize or became prime minister, he had formed a pact with two civil service friends, Norman Robertson and Hume Wrong, that their final resting place would be by the Gatineau River and not far from the Five Lakes Fishing Club, of which Mr. Pearson was a charter member.
Among the many smaller rivers and creeks that feed the Gatineau is the Picanoc River close by the village of Kazabazua, where yet another former prime minister, Pierre Trudeau – in the company of current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, then but a boy – once got into a rather heated discussion with canoeing legend Bill Mason over what should have been on the Canadian flag. Not the maple leaf, which Mr. Trudeau defended, but the canoe, championed by Mr. Mason as much superior, since the canoe, unlike the maple tree, could be found throughout the country.
Arguments are easy to come by along the Gatineau Valley.
A century after they chased away the bailiffs, residents were chasing away the Quebec language police. Still strongly Irish, but with a significant francophone element, there was little sympathy to be found here for the sovereignty movement and none whatsoever for changing signs that had stood in one language for decades.
The most notorious incident involved The Low Down to Hull and Back News, a charming little local weekly run by Art Mantell when he wasn’t working next door in his junk and antiques shop. In 1998, an official from La Commission de protection de la langue française showed up and Mr. Mantell, who died in 2013, began snapping pictures of the agent as she worked her way through his workplace. She demanded he hand over the photographs, insisting that it was against the law in Quebec to publish someone’s image without their permission.
Mr. Mantell’s response was to slap her image on the front page of the next edition, with a huge headline saying “We can’t show you this photo.”
And still today, there are periodic political rumbles along the river valley.
On May 7, 80 testy voters packed the old Brennan’s Hill Hotel and called for the resignation of today’s mayor of Low, Morris O’Connor, the group – modern “kickers,” so to speak – griping about everything from fiscal management to differences between French and English media coverage.
True to local habit, the mayor swung back, gleefully announcing that not only would he not resign but “I’m even thinking of re-running.”
Dams calmed the wild river
The Gatineau River runs 386 kilometres in a relatively straight line south from Quebec’s massive Baskatong Reservoir to the city of Gatineau, once known as Hull, where it empties into the larger Ottawa River. Its surprisingly clean water reflects black, largely because of the tall pines that line its shoreline. The deciduous trees – many of them oak – higher up in the slopes make the Gatineau a photographer’s delight come the fall colours. In any season, it is one of the loveliest rivers in the country.
When Samuel de Champlain travelled up the Ottawa River in 1613, he passed by the mouth of the Gatineau in early June, noting in his journal that the aboriginals he encountered (“Algouemequins,” he called them, known as Algonquin today) used the river as a way to avoid enemies who might lie in wait farther down the Ottawa, “knowing that they will not seek them in such difficult accessible places.”
The Gatineau River then was a wild river of multiple rapids. In the mid 1920s, three hydroelectric dams were constructed – the largest, Paugan, at Low – and the dams helped the lower Gatineau grow fat and complacent. While there are still challenging rapids upstream toward the Algonquin First Nations at Kitigan Zibi and the town of Maniwaki, the water below the dams is wide and calm, the mild currents and eddies swirling in a slow, almost hypnotic surface waltz.
“It’s easy rowing upriver now because there’s almost no current,” says the heroine of Low author Brian Doyle’s lovely juvenile novel Mary Ann Alice. “Floating along this way feels like flying. I still feel the real river way down underneath me.”
The wildness of the river kept the loggers at bay for decades, so long as there were plenty of white pine to be harvested along the Ottawa. By the 1820s, however, the timber barons, led by Philemon Wright, began to eye the rich stands of the upper Gatineau. Wright used his influence as member of the legislature to create the “Gatineau Privilege,” a restrictive law that put the river and its watershed under exclusive control of a handful of families, all of whom grew rich on Gatineau timber.
“Conflict of interest” was a term virtually unknown then in the region that would one day form the capital of Canada.
Before the dams were built, the woodsmen could run the logs – you can still find small white crosses along the banks where drownings occurred. After the dams were completed, the logs were moved down the widened and slowed river in booms and then passed over the next dams by chutes. The last log drive on the Gatineau River took place in 1992.
Rail access, logging and dam construction led to farming, where possible, and the growth of communities – some of which were lost in the flooding. On a small island out from the shore of the village of Lac-Sainte-Marie, a tall sad cross shows where the town stood on what was once a prominent hill.
Low, 8,000 strong during the construction of the Paugan dam, is home today to fewer than 1,000. The string of small towns have their charm: small shops, covered bridges, ski hills, hiking trails and, most of all, the lure of a picturesque river that is largely undeveloped along the shoreline, in no small part because so much of the shore belongs to Quebec Hydro.
For a river that has multiple small communities all the way north to the Baskatong Reservoir, and which ends in the very heart of Gatineau, Quebec’s fourth-largest city with a population of 265,349, it is surprisingly clean.
According to the Friends of the Gatineau River, a volunteer group founded in 1991, regular monitoring of the water quality shows the Gatineau River to be “one of the cleanest major rivers in Southern Quebec.” Over the early years of the 21st century, the quality has steadily improved.
“The river gets grade-A marks for swimming,” says Mr. Cockburn, the Wakefield archivist. This summer, the communities along the river plan to co-ordinate a “River Pride” festival to celebrate the waterway that has always meant so much to them.
Today, the Gatineau River is of particular attraction to canoeists and kayakers, who find the countless islands created by the flooding – some of them so small a person can barely stand on them – fascinating to explore. The solitude of the river, the scent of pine and the slow, calming currents have made recreation and escape the modern economic engine of the Gatineau Valley, if rather smaller than the heydays of logging.
Paddlers also appreciate the rarity of speedboats or racing personal watercraft. Along with the multiple small islands, there are deadheads – trees that were left standing when the dams flooded the valley.
“They’re great speed bumps,” says Mr. Francis, the retired mayor. “They slow the boats down a lot.”
“Last log on the river
Slow the motorboat down
Take some time to consider
Once was a time now past and gone.
Last log on the river.”
– Song from musician Ian Tamblyn’s play-in-progress, A River Runs Through Us
Philemon Wright was a New Englander from near Boston who believed he could bring several families to the mouth of the Gatineau River and establish a new community. They arrived in 1800, began clearing the land and were soon visited by First Nations chiefs who informed Mr. Wright that the land belonged, and had always belonged, to them.
“Wright settled the claim,” two historians wrote in a 1964 history of the area, “with fair words and the trivial sum of thirty dollars.”
It would, of course, turn out to be not quite so simple.
There were Algonquin encampments all along the Gatineau River and they were increasingly forced upstream by the lords of the Gatineau Privilege and their insatiable appetite for more and more timber.
Chief Antoine Pakinawatik led a push in the mid-1800s to establish a reserve and – finally, after multiple canoe trips south to persuade the authorities – the River Desert reserve came into existence just south of Maniwaki. In 1994, the band council voted to change the name to Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg, meaning “the people of the Garden River,” a tribute to how important the Gatineau River watershed is to the Algonquins.
The population of Kitigan Zibi is today roughly 2,300 and the vast reserve covers more than 180 square kilometres, making it the country’s largest Algonquin First Nation. The reserve boasts its own school, police force and impressive health and cultural centres. It looks, and is, relatively prosperous.
The notion that Philemon Wright somehow settled matters forever with “fair words” and a “trivial sum” now seems preposterous, as Kitigan Zibi is involved in modern land claims negotiations and has become a key player in First Nations attempts to bring a halt to massive re-development projects in Ottawa that they claim infringe on “sacred” territory.
Gilbert Whiteduck, who stepped down last year as chief of Kitigan Zibi, is currently fighting for the return of artifacts from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Previous negotiations with the Canadian Museum of Civilization (now History) saw 75 boxes of human remains, some as old as 6,000 years, repatriated and buried anew on the reserve.
Mr. Whiteduck, an educator, was first elected to council in 1976 when he was all of 22 years old. In the decades since, he earned his reputation as a tough, no-nonsense negotiator who followed in the footsteps of his older brother, Jean-Guy, who served as chief for three decades.
Mr. Whiteduck says that the Algonquins will “never, ever” extinguish their claims, even if financial settlement is reached on the vast tracts of Quebec and Ontario lands the Algonquins feel were unfairly taken from them.
No longer serving as chief, he continues to fight, not only for the return of the artifacts but for better services for the reserve. For the past dozen years, Kitigan Zibi has been under a “do-not-consume order” because of high levels of uranium found in the area water table. More than half the people are still using bottled water only.
“People get complacent,” says Mr. Whiteduck. “They kind of get used to it. But I’m still pissed off about it.”
His toughest test as leader came only three months after his election in 2008, when two teenage girls, Maisy Odjick and Shannon Alexander, disappeared. They have never been found. Nearly eight years later, the community still has large billboards of the smiling young women begging for any information that anyone may have.
Mr. Whiteduck’s stepping down was in part because of frustration in dealing with the authorities and he is hoping to help organize a Quebec-specific investigation into missing and murdered aboriginal women.
“We weren’t ready,” he says of the crisis that struck when the girls vanished. “Who do you turn to? Who does searches? How do you arrange to get a helicopter?”
As chief, Mr. Whiteduck turned to the Sûreté du Québec, the provincial police force, asking them to launch an aerial search. He got nowhere.
A year later, a small lion in the care of a rather eccentric and bullheaded resident of Kitigan Zibi managed to escape from a backyard and was seen wandering the woods and streets of the community.
“Almost immediately we had a parking lot full of media,” Mr. Whiteduck says. “The SQ had their helicopter up almost immediately. When the girls went missing there was no media, no helicopter.”
The frustration is as obvious in his eyes as in his voice. He may no longer be chief, but that does not mean he lies back and accepts things as they are in the Gatineau Valley.
“There’s something to that,” he says. “Our chiefs have always stood up for their people and I stood up for mine.
“I was never afraid. Sometimes you had to pay for it, but I believe in what I’m saying and I speak my mind.”
As has always been the case along the swirling waters of the Gatineau River.