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Politics Algonquins want part of the old U.S. embassy that Trudeau said would become Indigenous space

The former United States embassy that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said would be a space for Indigenous people continues to sit empty as the Algonquins, on whose traditional territory it was constructed, demand to have part of it along with the Assembly of First Nations, the Inuit and the Métis.

A small group of Algonquins set up a birch-bark teepee this week outside the classic 1930s art-deco building at 100 Wellington St. across from Parliament Hill that was vacated by the Americans two decades ago.

The government had hoped to open an exhibit of Indigenous art reproductions in the space on Friday as part of celebrations to mark National Indigenous Peoples Day. But that plan was scuttled by the protest.

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“We’re here to demonstrate our rights and title on this land and we need to become equal partners in this 100 Wellington Street,” Verna Polson, the Grand Chief of the Algonquin Nation, said as she and other members of her community huddled around the building’s front doors. “I need to send a clear message to the three Indigenous organizations that it is time to sit down with the Algonquin leadership to have that open discussion on the future of this building.”

Like all of Ottawa, the former embassy sits on unceded Algonquin territory. The former Liberal government of Jean Chrétien said in 2001 that it would be turned into a portrait gallery but those plans were scrapped by the Stephen Harper Conservatives.

On June 21, 2017, when Mr. Trudeau announced that National Aboriginal Day would henceforth be known as National Indigenous Peoples Day, he said the building would become a “powerful symbol of the foundational role of the Indigenous peoples in Canada’s history as well as our close relationship towards a shared future.”

It would be up to the Indigenous people, said the Prime Minister, to decide how the space would be used. And, since then, not much has happened.

The department of Crown-Indigenous Relations said in an e-mail this week that the representatives of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), and the Métis National Council (MNC) have been getting together to discuss the building’s occupancy. And, since January of this year, the Algonquin Anishinabeg Tribal Council has been invited to join those meetings.

But Ms. Polson said the other Indigenous organizations, especially ITK and MNC, have shown little interest in talking about having the Algonquins occupy a quarter of 100 Wellington St. Instead, she said, she has been given the impression that the other groups believe the Algonquins, as First Nations, should take part of the space that is given to the AFN.

“We don’t see it that way,” Ms. Polson said. “... It is unceded territory of the Algonquin people. So we need to be also a governance [body], across from Parliament, where we can do our business.”

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In fact, Perry Bellegarde, the National Chief of the AFN, has written to Carolyn Bennett, the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, to say his organization favours giving the Algonquins equal participation in the project. He also asked the government to formally recognize that the space is on unceded Algonquin territory.

The ITK said in a statement this week that it supports developing the former embassy in ways that reflect Algonquin history, culture and tradition, and it hopes to resolve this issue so that the initiative can move forward.

But, Clément Chartier, the president of the Métis Nation, wrote Ms. Polson to his group has understood that 100 Wellington is an initiative between the federal government “and the three national representatives of Indigenous nations and peoples.” In that light, wrote Mr. Chartier, it is the AFN that has the obligation to find a way to accommodate the Alonquins.

Ms. Polson said the Algonquins are willing to share. But, she said, it is time to "come up with a solution that we can all become equal partners.”

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