I’ve been promising Mike and Scott at The Charrette a piece on Rossdale for a few months now. But PhD life being what it is, I’ve struggled to get to it as I try to meet multiple competing deadlines.
But I woke up early this morning to a story by David Staples on a proposal to dredge Rossdale to build a canal and I couldn’t hold back. There are so many things that are wrong with this proposal that I realized I had to get my thoughts out in writing to provide a counterpoint to the breathless, greedy and historically and culturally tone deaf discourse around Pehonan (the Cree name for Rossdale — it means ‘waiting place’. As Louis Buff Parry points out on the Spirit of Edmonton website, pehonan is, in fact, not a noun but a verb — an action not a place as we would understand it to be in the English language. It was a place people came together to do things).
The anger I feel at the canal proposal is palpable. The prospect of sacred land being dredged to create a canal — and for no better reason than to please folks with the disposable income as they enjoy cafes and shops lined up along the river’s edge — while questions of the long and rich history of the space are ignored is unconscionable in this day and age.
So I write.
Rossdale has become a blank slate of sorts these days. There are many many plans for what to do with the space now that the power plant has been decommissioned. For me, though, it all boils down to this: the land that Rossdale encompasses is sacred. It was a place of great significance for thousands of years. In fact, fellow Trudeau Scholar Logan Mardhani-Bayne dedicated his Master’s thesis to the history of the site and the neo-colonial re-imaginations of it.
Pehonan deserves more than current Edmonton planning and design discourse can offer it. First and foremost, it should be acknowledged as Indigenous space, as the birthplace of the city, and a space that deserves the most amazing, audacious, humble, respectful approaches that we can muster. In other words, it deserves to be more than a collection of post-awesome condos and half-thoughts.
In case you’re wondering why I care so much about this issue: my connection to Pehonan is personal. When my great-grandparents retired from farming in the 1950s they moved to the Flats. They had earlier farmed at St Paul des Metis, which was a Metis Settlement that was ‘disbanded’ (oral history stresses that Metis were pressured/forced to leave while written history says they ‘left of their own volition’. I still feel the loss, directly and indirectly, of how they were forced off of their farm to make way for more ‘desirable’ [ie: non-Indigenous] people). The Flats were my great-grandparent’s final home after a long life of moving around the prairies to support themselves through farming. Many of the stories I’ve absorbed through my Dad and Aunts and Uncles and cousins involve the life of a Metis family down in the Flats. Stories of my nine-year-old Dad and his little brother trying to steal a (broken down) truck from the ice factory. How my aunt said the kids would stick their heads in the ice house to cool off on hot prairie days. The way my great-grandparent’s house was demolished to make way for the James MacDonald Bridge. When I ride under the bridge, past the place where their house stood, I pause to think about what it meant to be Indigenous and less valued than others in the city at that time.
I plan to come back to this theme over the next few weeks, so perhaps the first thing to do is outline all of the current plans for the place (or at least outline the ones I can track down. I am sure more are lurking out there in meeting minutes and dossiers and behind the closed doors of the Old Boy’s Club).
National Historic Site and Indigenous Space
I have written before about how I feel it should be acknowledged as a National Historic Site, which is something that local thinker and advocate Louis Buff Parry has long dedicated his energy to. He is working with Lewis Cardinal and a group of visionaries to implement the Spirit of Edmonton plans. These include an Indigenous Centre for Art and Knowledge designed by internationally renowned architect Douglas Cardinal.
The group is also proposing the Umphreville Governance Fountain. Amidst all the blokey stories of the Ross’, Groats, MacDonalds, Olivers and the like who ‘settled’ Edmonton, how many people know about the role of women like Louise Umphreville, the ‘First Lady of the Fort’? This project brings a much needed gender discourse to the table in how we imagine ourselves as a city. By and large, the things we celebrate are very much rooted in discourses of male pioneer heroics. It’s about time we acknowledged the hard working women (Iskwewak) too.
Thankfully City Council turned down a plan to build a funicular which would have ‘improved access to the River Valley’. While I think questions of making public and private spaces accessible is an important one, I’m not convinced this plan was conceived in that spirit. Or that it would have been a great asset to the river valley. We need a much broader discourse on making things accessible, not just a funicular down 104th street to an imagined post-awesome hotspot (how’s the redevelopment of Louise McKinney and promised hoardes of people down by the water working out these days, anyway?). Why not spend the money (~$80 million) that would have gone into the funicular on making all city properties fully accessible, in order to benefit the greatest number of citizens as possible?
The West Rossdale Urban Design Plan has already won two awards. It aims to:
– Determine the best future use of lands in West Rossdale.
– Provide development guidelines that reference the rich history of the area.
– Enhance West Rossdale as a main entrance or gateway to downtown
The plan makes a pretty good attempt at walking the line between the various issues raised by the history and placement of the site. The problem I have, however, is that it claims to aim to determine the best future use of lands of the site, and comes to the rather uninspired decision to build more housing. A city run by developers deciding that the best possible use of sacred land is…to build condos that will benefit local developers (and a few perfunctory nods to all that other historical jazz in amongst the condos)? Shocking! Absolutely shocking!
Kidding aside, there are not even mentions of affordable housing in the plan, which I find very disturbing. With an ongoing issue of access to safe and affordable housing for many Edmontonians, this should be at the forefront of our discussions around new inner city developments. But before that, we really need to ask ourselves: what IS the best possible use of this land?
Eleanor Hopkins dedicated her MArch thesis at Dalhousie to the adaptive re-use of the Rossdale powerplant. Martin Kennedy and the Edmonton Historical Board have proposed allowing the Rossdale plant to become an urban ruin. I think reuse or adaptive preservation of the plant is important. A significant use of the Flats in the last hundred years has been as an industrial site, and it’s an important marker of Edmonton’s history.
What else is there to say, really, other than ‘this is the most tone deaf plan for the space yet’?
But wait, there’s more!
What becomes evident when poring over the various plans for Pehonan is that competing groups are fighting for the hearts and minds of funders to develop their own vision of the space. The River Valley Alliance, the Edmonton Historical Board, various Indigenous groups, developers salivating over the opportunity to build some Edmonton Specials. The problem is that all of this glosses over deeper questions of the cultural and historical significance of the site.
This bend in the river not just any piece of land. It’s THE land that the city was born from. And before that it was a major gathering place, where people came to be together, to trade, for ceremony. And in an ironic way, it continues to be a conceptual gathering space, with all of these competing plans for the space fighting for dominance of place.
Before we even delve into the question of what to build here we should ask: should we build? And who should get to determine what is built?
In this case, it’s an opportunity for the city to be brave. To acknowledge its very large and very present Indigenous population and history. This is an opportunity for the city to break from current discourses of property, development and space and to take a chance on a new discourse. One that honours our collective connections to this birthplace of the city.
It is also an opportunity for the city to do things right. It’s not enough to just ‘consult’ a handful of Indigenous people alongside planners and developers and say ‘okay, we’ve fulfilled our duty to consult’. It’s about the spirit of the space. This was a place where people came together. And it’s a space where we ought to acknowledge, humbly, that our current ways of thinking about land, about building, about people is not working. It’s an opportunity to ask “what did the people who used this space for all those years think about this space. Why was it special? how do we honour that?”
Those should be the very first questions asked. THEN we can discuss where to go from there. (Spoiler alert: only the Spirit of Edmonton and the preservation of the powerplant ruins fulfill these aims, and in my mind are the only ones worthy of this sacred place. But, you know, I’m biased as a Metis woman frustrated with how people treat the land stolen from Indigenous people. So grain of salt and all that, right?).