Thirty teachers from the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board stood beside the National Aboriginal Veterans Monument on the edge of Confederation Park half a dozen blocks from Parliament Hill in the capital’s downtown core.
They were listening to Jaime Koebel, a thirty-something Métis artist and educator from Lac la Biche, Alta, explain the significance of the statue’s human and animal figures, and why Aboriginal soldiers are often overrepresented in the Canadian military in times of war.
One reason is economic, she said — they need the work. Another reason: they feel a need to help defend this land.
“How many of you have ever noticed this monument before?” asked Koebel, turning to look up at the towering dark bronze form. Clustered together on a van-sized block of marble, four life-sized people stand facing the four points of the compass, with their spirit guides (wolf, buffalo, elk and bear) howling in front. A golden eagle, wings spread wide, is perched on top. Most of the teachers shake their heads.
“Of all the monuments in Ottawa, this is the only one that doesn’t need extra maintenance because of bird poop,” she said. “I like to think it’s because of a higher power, but it’s probably because of the bird of prey.”
Koebel, who runs a fledgling company called Indigenous Walks, is leading the group on a tour that explores local social, political and cultural issues from an Indigenous perspective. She averaged about one walk per week from early May until early November in her first year of operation, leading packs of five to 100 people. She wants participants to gain a deeper understanding of the many layers of history and story that are hidden beneath the surface of the capital, a swath of unceded Algonquin land where “official” narratives — such as the construction of the Rideau Canal, or the performances inside the auditoriums of the National Arts Centre — tend to dominate.
“People feel a need to connect to their surroundings,” said Koebel. “I want them to experience the sights, the sounds and the smell of a place, but to see it in a different way than they otherwise might. I give them something to think about, but they come to their own conclusions.”
The teachers who followed her are members of the school board’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit education network. They are creating Aboriginal-themed lesson plans that reach across the curriculum, from social studies and art to languages and science. These resources can be shared throughout the city and, eventually, the entire province.
“Part of the reason I’m here is to educate myself,” said Justin Shulman, a Grade 7 and 8 teacher who has several Aboriginal students in his class. “I want to create a safe and inclusive learning environment.
“It’s also about being current and relevant to my students,” he continued. “The kids have to relate to the things I teach. A textbook doesn’t always cut it.”
Koebel, who moved to Ottawa from Alberta to attend university, got the idea to launch her company while working as an interpreter at the National Gallery of Canada’s Sakah‡n Indigenous art exhibition in 2013. She was also inspired by taking touristy sightseeing buses around the city. “I could add an Indigenous story right here,” she’d think at almost every stop, and from pointing out local Aboriginal sites and statues to her three children while walking downtown.
“I want to make sure they can see themselves in the environment around them,” she said. “They were my test subjects. Now they’re experts.”
The teachers’ tour began at the Canadian Tribute to Human Rights monument near City Hall, where 73 granite plaques express concepts such as equality and dignity in 73 Aboriginal languages spoken in Canada. Koebel used the location to talk about the basics of Indigenous identity — including the vast differences between many of Canada’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities — and the cultural practices of Ottawa’s 40,000 Aboriginal residents.
A few steps north, in front of the Ontario Court of Justice, she talked about sentencing circles and the province’s Aboriginal justice system, and how, for instance, looking somebody in the eye is often considered a sign of disrespect in traditional Aboriginal society, something that judges have started to understand.
Next, at the National Aboriginal Veterans Monument, she discussed the struggle many Aboriginal war vets have faced when seeking benefits, shuffled back and forth between the federal departments of Veterans Affairs and Aboriginal Affairs. “This is another trauma that many Aboriginal families endure,” she said.
Not only is this a poop-free statue and the contributions of Aboriginal soldiers often overlooked, Koebel pointed out another open secret: every year on Remembrance Day, at 9:30 a.m., not long before the high-profile ceremony at the National War Memorial just up the road, there’s a ceremony at the National Aboriginal Veterans Monument as well.
On the other side of Confederation Park, Koebel stopped at a totem pole donated by First Nations from British Columbia in 1971 to commemorate the centenary of B.C. joining Confederation. She noted the salmon at the bottom of the carving. “You know that expression, ‘It sucks to be at the bottom of the totem pole’? That’s actually not the case. You’re holding everything up. It’s not a bad thing.”
The rest of the walk is a kaleidoscope of history, culture and memories. At a statue of Mohawk chief Joseph Brant, which is right beside the National War Memorial, Koebel looked two blocks east to The Bay. Seeing the store’s sign makes her think of Hudson’s Bay Company blankets and the smallpox epidemic they spread. In Major’s Hill Park, she looked west, up the Ottawa River, to a site where a developer wants to build condos on land considered sacred by the Algonquin nation.
A few feet away, Koebel stopped beside a life-sized bronze statue of a shirtless, loin-cloth-wearing man with feathers in his hair and a quiver of arrows slung over his shoulder.
“Anishinable Scout” was originally located at the foot of the nearby Samuel de Champlain statue, kneeling and subservient. In 1999, after protests about the scout’s position and historically inaccurate attire, he was moved to the current location. Last year, he was given a name, Kitchi Zibi Omàmìwininì Anishinàbe, and he now has a Facebook page. “I like to think of this guy as my buddy,” said Koebel. “I bring him visitors.”