Long before French explorer Samuel de Champlain discovered what is now Ottawa in the early 1600’s, the region was inhabited by different Aboriginal tribes. These tribes, who were Huron, Algonquin, Cree and Ojibwe to name a few, were the region’s first residents, often teaching early settlers necessary skills such as how to navigate the mighty Ottawa River, survive the region’s frigid winter season and how to enjoy the sugary delicacy that is Canadian Maple sap.
The important stories of these and other native tribes are told throughout Ottawa; through its museums, galleries, monuments and other cultural attractions. From a guided walking tour to an authentic pow wow, how you choose to experience Ottawa’s Aboriginal heritage is up to you. But in case you might need a bit of direction, Ottawa Tourism has put together a few great ideas to get you started. Discover some of the many ways in which you can connect with Ottawa’s and Canada’s distinct Aboriginal past:
Canadian Museum of History:
Located just across the majestic Ottawa River in Gatineau, Que., this beautiful and expansive museum was designed by Métis architect Douglas Cardinal. Here, in the museum’s Grand Hall, you’ll find the world’s largest indoor collection of totem poles. Stroll through the hall, taking in amazing views of Parliament Hill and the Ottawa River, as these carved and painted poles tower high above you. And don’t miss Morning Star, a beautiful ceiling painting by Alex Janvier. Janvier is one of Canada’s great Aboriginal artists and is a member of what is commonly referred to as the “Indian Group of Seven.”
On July 1, 2017, the museum unveiled its much awaited Canadian History Hall. The massive space features the largest and most comprehensive exhibition about Canadian history ever created. Over 15,000 years of Canadian history is recounted through 1,500 artifacts, with indigenous history incorporated throughout.
Also worth a visit is the First Peoples Hall. This is one of the museum’s most fascinating exhibitions and has been, since the Canadian Museum of History opened in 1989. Through an extensive collection of artifacts and several detailed dioramas, you’ll get a compelling look at Canada’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples. According to the Government of Canada’s 2006 Census, Canada’s urban centres (excluding the territories) with the largest Inuit populations were Ottawa-Gatineau at 725, Yellowknife at 640, Edmonton at 590, Montreal at 570 and Winnipeg at 355.
Canadian War Museum:
This bunker-like museum is a living memorial to Canada’s military history. But here, you’ll also find themed sections dealing extensively with conflicts involving Canada’s First Peoples before and after European contact. In the museum’s Canadian Experience Gallery, you can learn about how wars of the First Peoples, the French and the British shaped Canada. Discover everything from aboriginal warfare, to founder of the province of Manitoba and Métis spiritual leader Louis Riel, to the Northwest Resistance of 1885 and more.
National Gallery of Canada:
In this spectacular crystal palace, you’ll find the world’s largest collection of Canadian art, including Indigenous and Inuit art. Visit the Gallery’s permanent Canadian and Indigenous galleries (opened on June 15, 2017) which feature the largest display of Canadian and Indigenous art in the museum’s history. The items are presented side by side in chronological order, providing a complete picture of Canadian art. Inuit art is incorporated throughout the Canadian and Indigenous galleries and more is on display in the museum’s Inuit gallery.
Canadian Museum of Nature:
On June 21, 2017, the Canadian Museum of Nature opened its new permanent Canada Goose Arctic Gallery. Through interactive exhibits, multimedia and fascinating artifacts, visitors can explore the natural history and human connections with Canada’s North. The museum consulted with Indigenous groups and individuals from the region, such as the Inuit, to weave their perspectives throughout the gallery. Some of the highlights include: the Northern Voices Gallery, a rotating special exhibition space to be curated by Northerners; a multimedia installation called Beyond Ice, a co-creation with the National Film Board of Canada, which features projections of Inuit art onto real blocks of ice that visitors can touch; and a giant mural designed by an Inuk artist which colourfully presents key aspects of Inuit culture.
Located on the scenic Victoria Island on the Ottawa River, this unique, group-only outdoor experience is available from May through September. Here, you can learn about how Aboriginal people live across North America!
Experience an authentic Aboriginal meal, complete with bannock; a staple bread of many Indigenous groups. Also, take in a dance performance and Aboriginal craft activities. And if you’d like to experience the Ottawa River as the First Peoples and early explorers once did, canoe-paddling activities are also offered. Make sure to have a camera ready!
Launched in May 2014, these guided walking tours discuss Ottawa’s art, culture, history and landscape from an Indigenous perspective. Running through the spring, summer and fall, the tours are given by Jaime Koebel, an Apeetagosan/Nehiyaw (Métis/Cree) woman who resides in Ottawa. Choose from an Introductory Tour, a Parliament Hill Tour, an Indigenous Women Tour and the “Very Scary Tour.”
Following on Canada’s military history, just east of the National War Memorial in Ottawa’s downtown core, you’ll find the Valiants Memorial. This monument pays tribute to several Canadians in our nation’s history, including Thayendanegea, who was also known as Joseph Brant.
During the bloody conflict of the American Revolution from 1775-1783, Brant – a well-known Mohawk warrior and principal war chief of the Six Nations – led his people in support of the British. After the war, Brant brought his people to Canada and settled in what is now Brantford, Ont.
National Aboriginal Veterans Monument:
Located in Confederation Park across from the Lord Elgin Hotel, this monument honours the contributions of Aboriginal Canadians in war and peacekeeping operations.
More than 7,000 Aboriginals served in the First and Second World Wars as well as the Korean War. An unknown number of Inuit, Métis and non-status Aboriginals also served Canada. The monument, designed by Lloyd Pinay and unveiled on June 21, 2001 (National Aboriginal Day), was made possible by the National Aboriginal Veterans Association (NAVA) and donations from many Canadians.
Summer Solstice Aboriginal Arts Festival:
This festival takes place in Ottawa’s Vincent Massey Park each June. In honour of National Aboriginal Day (June 21), you’ll find some of Canada’s best Aboriginal talent here performing music, dance, theatre and more. There’s even a pow wow competition featuring drums and various forms of Aboriginal dance! This festival is family-friendly.
Odawa Pow Wow:
Taking place towards the end of each May, the Odawa Pow Wow offers an Aboriginal dance and singing competition as well as an Aboriginal arts and crafts market. This is also a great place to sample Aboriginal cuisine!
For more ideas on what to do and where to stay in Ottawa, browse Ottawa Tourism’s website.