Chaudière Falls sound and light show tells history of Indigenous and European involvement

Miwate illuminates the Chaudière Falls. Photo courtesy of the Ottawa Celebrations Bureau

By Nathaniel Dove

A sacred waterfall in the heart of Canada’s capital, its majesty obscured by industrial activity since before Confederation, will be under a spotlight this month as part of the Ottawa 2017 celebrations marking the country’s 150th birthday.

Entitled Miwate — Anishinaabe for “dazzle with light”— the sound-and-light spectacle hopes to draw crowds to the historical falls to the west of Parliament Hill.

The Indigenous name is no accident. Chaudière Falls is a sacred site for First Nations people — a gathering place and spiritual centre for thousands of years — and with the Miwate spectacle Ottawa 2017 organizers say they hope to “evoke the culture of Indigenous people.”

Miwate was designed not only to entertain but also to inspire a better understanding of the history of the falls. By collaborating with Indigenous people on the show, Ottawa 2017 officials said they wanted to create a more inclusive environment.

The goal of Miwate is “to pay tribute to Indigenous people, to showcase the beautiful natural feature in downtown Ottawa,” and to extend the Canada 150 program into fall, said Ottawa 2017 executive director Guy LaFlamme.

The attraction was planned and is being carried out in partnership with the Pikwàkanagàn First Nation, an Algonquin community based at Golden Lake, west of Renfrew.

The purpose of the Pikwàkanagàn involvement, said Chief Kirby Whiteduck, was “not necessarily to celebrate Canada’s 150th, but … to kind of educate people and make people aware of Indigenous people, Algonquin people and a bit of our history and our culture.”

The Pikwàkanagàn First Nation is participating, said Whiteduck, to educate people about “what’s happened to us and the fact that we’re also still here.”

Visitors enter the site from Booth Street and walk about 100 metres to the first water retention basin. There they will be met with educational panels, developed by the Pikwàkanagàn Algonquin people, that will explain the presence of Indigenous people in the region for thousands of years.

The panels describe the challenges of the first contact with Europeans, and LaFlamme says the story “isn’t being whitewashed.” They address darker elements of Indigenous and European interaction, including residential schools. LaFlamme said that while it was decided that the Pikwàkanagàn First Nation, as host nation, would be the lead contact on the project, the presence of other Indigenous people, including Inuit and Métis, is also recognized.

LaFlamme stresses that it’s a “powerful, emotional experience as you walk towards the falls.” He describes “intense” lighting effects and a unique soundtrack, which includes music from the Ottawa-based Indigenous electronic music group A Tribe Called Red and Pikwàkanagàn’s own hand-drum ensemble the Wildflowers.

Miwate is a creation of Moment Factory, the Canadian multimedia company that has designed concert stages for the likes of Madonna, Ed Sheeran and Muse, and lighting displays for such brands as Microsoft and Holt Renfrew. They were also responsible for the Kontinuum sound and light show that recently ended a two-month run at the Lyon LTR station in downtown Ottawa. More than 300,000 visitors saw that show.

The inspiration for the Chaudière Falls project came years ago when LaFlamme was a senior vice-president at the National Capital Commission. There had been discussions, he said, about somehow allowing people better access to the once-thunderous waterfall, which has been tamed over the past 170 years by the lumber industry and hydroelectric installations. Canada 150 and Hydro Ottawa’s recent Chaudière Falls expansion project provided the perfect opportunity to incorporate better public access to the site, said LaFlamme.

LaFlamme said there is no contradiction between Miwate, further hydroelectric development of the falls and the fact that the cataract is a natural phenomenon sacred to Indigenous people. For one thing, the hydro development is being done on the edge of the falls and is designed to provide public access, he said.

The intention is to “evoke the sacred nature of the site” and that the production will really just “increase and intensify” the beauty of the waterfall.

The light show can be viewed from 7-10 p.m. until Oct. 22 and from 6:30-10 p.m. between Oct. 23 and Nov. 5.

The display lasts about 30 minutes before it repeats.

This story was produced in collaboration with the Carleton University journalism program and Centretown News.

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