Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has declared that a former U.S. embassy across from Parliament Hill will be a space for Indigenous peoples and that his own offices will no longer bear the name of one of the architects of the Indian residential school system.
The goodwill gestures announced by Mr. Trudeau at a noon-hour ceremony on National Aboriginal Day – which the Prime Minister said will henceforth be known as National Indigenous Peoples Day – are part of the Liberal government's agenda of reconciliation with First Nations, the Inuit and the Métis.
But some Algonquins say they fear the government is giving Indigenous people the building at 100 Wellington St. so it can forgo the creation of the Indigenous centre they want on Chaudière Island in the Ottawa River, which is unceded Algonquin territory and the site of a defunct paper mill that is being prepared for condominium development.
"The grassroots are suggesting to turn 100 Wellington to the developers and let them make condos there and leave the island alone," said Albert Dumont, an elder from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg, which is an Algonquin community in Quebec a short drive from Ottawa.
And Indigenous architects say the classic revival architecture of the "hand-me-down" embassy, which was vacated by the Americans 20 years ago, is identified with colonization.
"It's an existing building that is a 1930s art-deco kind of thing," said Patrick Stewart, the chair of the Indigenous Task Force of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada and a member of the Nisga'a Nation in British Columbia.
The fact that the former embassy is a heritage building means it will not be possible to make significant changes to the facade, Mr. Stewart said. "What we didn't want is to have somebody else's history."
The concerns are not shared by all Indigenous leaders.
Chief Kirby Whiteduck from Pikwakanagan, an Algonquin community in Ontario, and two elders from Kitigan Zibi were on the podium when Mr. Trudeau made his announcement outside the embassy building. So were Perry Bellegarde, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), Clément Chartier, who is president of the Métis National Council, and Natan Obed, the president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.
"This is just a first step, and from my point of view it is a positive first step because of the prime location of the building. It's right across from the House of Commons," Mr. Bellegarde said.
Support for the government's plan does not mean the AFN is giving up the fight to have a cultural centre on the island, he said. "I totally support that dream becoming a reality and I will do all I can to make sure there is pressure on the public and private sector, on governments, to make sure that happens as well," Mr. Bellegarde said.
The government says the old embassy is a blank slate and it will be up to the Indigenous peoples of Canada how it will be used. There is no price tag for its renovation and it will take years to complete whatever remodelling is required.
But Mr. Trudeau told the Indigenous leaders that it is important that Indigenous peoples have a place within the Parliamentary precinct. "It is our hope that this historic building will be a powerful symbol of the foundational role of Indigenous peoples in Canada's history as well as our close relationship towards our shared future," the Prime Minister said.
A couple doors down from the embassy is the Langevin Block that contains Mr. Trudeau's offices. In a surprise move, the Prime Minister announced that that building would now be called the Office of the Prime Minister and the Privy Council.
It is currently named after Hector-Louis Langevin, who was a father of Confederation and the superintendent of Indian Affairs in the cabinet of Sir John A. MacDonald. In arguing that Indigenous children should be placed in the residential schools, Mr. Langevin wrote: "If you leave them in the family they may know how to read and write, but they still remain savages, whereas by separating them in the way proposed, they acquire the habits and tastes – it is to be hoped only the good tastes – of civilized people."
First Nations leaders, activists, politicians and members of Mr. Trudeau's own caucus have lobbied hard for the building's name to be changed.
"There is a deep pain in knowing that that building carries a name so closely associated with the horror of residential schools," the Prime Minister said, and it is "inconsistent with our vision of a strong partnership with Indigenous peoples in Canada."