Long before French explorer Samuel de Champlain arrived in what is now Ottawa in the early 1600s, Indigenous Peoples had been living, meeting and trading in the area for thousands of years. The Algonquins named the region “Odawa” which means “traders”—the word from which Ottawa is derived. And Indigenous Peoples even taught the Europeans vital skills such as how to navigate the mighty Ottawa River, survive the cold winter season and use maple sap. Explore these and other fascinating stories about Canada’s Indigenous Peoples in the many attractions, tours and events in Canada’s capital.
NOTE: Most businesses and events mentioned below are currently closed due to COVID-19. However, you can still access outdoor monuments and sites, as well as virtual content for many of the museums and events. For instance, the Summer Solstice Indigenous Arts Festival and the National Arts Centre are offering online programming.
Canadian Museum of History
Canada’s most visited museum, the Canadian Museum of History, is located just across the majestic Ottawa River in Gatineau, Quebec. The beautiful undulated structure, designed by Indigenous architect Douglas Cardinal, features countless symbols that reflect Canada’s landscape.
The museum’s Grand Hall is home to the world’s largest indoor collection of totem poles (as well as spectacular views of Parliament Hill and the Ottawa River). Look up at the domed ceiling at the end of the hall to see Morning Star, a painting by Alex Janvier. Known as one of Canada’s great Indigenous artists, Janvier was a member of what was called the Professional Native Indian Artists Incorporation (commonly referred to as the “Indian Group of Seven”).
The massive Canadian History Hall presents 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.
And don’t miss the First Peoples Hall’s extensive collection of artifacts and detailed dioramas which provide a compelling look at Canada’s First Nations, Indigenous and Inuit peoples.
Canadian War Museum
The Canadian War Museum is a living memorial to Canada’s military history, including themed sections that deal extensively with conflicts involving Canada’s First Peoples before and after European contact.
The Early Wars in Canada – Canadian Experience Gallery, explores how the wars of the First Peoples, the French and the British shaped Canada. Discover everything from Indigenous warfare, to the founder of the province of Manitoba and Métis spiritual leader Louis Riel, to the Northwest Resistance of 1885 and more.
National Gallery of Canada
The beautiful National Gallery of Canada is home to the world’s largest collection of Canadian art, including Indigenous and Inuit art. Visit the permanent Canadian and Indigenous galleries to see 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
The Canada Goose Arctic Gallery at the Canadian Museum of Nature presents interactive exhibits, multimedia and fascinating artifacts about 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 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.
Ottawa Art Gallery
The always free Ottawa Art Gallery (OAG) presents local, regional and national art that reflects diversity and social change. As you browse the bright and modern building in Downtown Rideau near the ByWard Market area, you’ll see contemporary and historical Indigenous art featured in rotating exhibitions, as well as artwork information provided in Indigenous languages periodically. The OAG also has outreach programs and special events that highlight Indigenous culture.
Indigenous Experiences (formerly Aboriginal Experiences) brings Indigenous history and culture to life through engaging and authentic programming. From May through October, visitors can get to know Canada’s First Nations through traditional music and dance performances, storytelling, as well as displays and crafts. Programming takes place in a covered area outdoors on the shores of the Ottawa River directly below the Canadian Museum of History, across from Parliament Hill.
Groups can reserve special packages that include authentic indigenous meals and interactive Pow Wows. Groups also have the option to experience the Ottawa River as the First Peoples and early explorers once did – on the water. The Canadian Odyssey experience includes a guided tour of the Canadian Museum of History, as well as a 90-minute expedition aboard a traditional Montréal canoe with a costumed interpreter.
Jaime Koebel, an Apeetagosan/Nehiyaw (Métis/Cree) woman who resides in Ottawa, started Indigenous Walks in 2014. The tours discuss Ottawa’s art, culture, history and landscape from an Indigenous perspective through different themes, including an Indigenous Women Tour.
Omega Park is known for its year-round Canadian wildlife safaris and fun activities, but it also highlights Canadian Indigenous culture. Walk along the First Nations trail to experience the history of the area’s First Nations through totem poles, sculptures and traditional structures. You can also feed fish in the lake and picnic amongst nature. Bring some carrots to feed the friendly deer!
MONUMENTS AND SITES
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 in downtown Ottawa, the National Aboriginal Veterans Monument honours the contributions of Indigenous Canadians in war and peacekeeping operations. More than 7,000 First Nations members served in the First and Second World Wars as well as the Korean War. An unknown number of Inuit, Indigenous and other Indigenous people also participated.
Across from the Canadian War Museum at Lebreton Flats is the compact but meaningful Pindigen Park. The site celebrates the Anishinabe philosophy of harmony between people, land, water and earth. You’ll find interpretive panels in Algonquin, English and French, as well as illustrations and steel silhouettes of Canadian animals.
A five-minute walk from the Canadian War Museum and Pindigen Park takes you to a bridge connecting the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, and an island overlooking a water cascade. You can get up close to the churning water from the on-site mixed-use development project called Zibi. Public spaces such as Pangishimo Park (meaning “sunset”), provide a unique vantage point.
Indigenous Peoples consider this part of the Ottawa River as sacred because they used it as a main transportation route, and they met and traded on the islands. The Algonquin, who thought the natural water formation resembled a cauldron, named it “Akikodjiwan”, which was translated by early French explorers as “chaudière”. In the early 1900s, the Chaudière Falls were dammed to produce hydroelectricity for local lumber mills. The current operation is now eco-friendly and protects wildlife such as endangered American eels.
Indigenous Theatre (National Arts Centre)
The National Arts Centre (NAC) is home to the first national Indigenous Theatre department in the world! All presented works are based on, performed by, or created by Indigenous artists. Programming is meant “to foster and preserve Indigenous artistic practices and create welcoming spaces of cultural resurgence and inspiration”. Each season is planned around a specific theme and features both well-known and emerging artists who perform in English, French and multiple Indigenous languages.
Summer Solstice Indigenous Festival
This Summer Solstice Indigenous Festival takes place in Ottawa’s Vincent Massey Park each June. In honour of National Indigenous Day (June 21), you’ll find some of Canada’s best Indigenous talent here performing music, dance, theatre and more. There’s even a pow wow competition featuring drums and various forms of traditional dance! This festival is family-friendly.
Odawa Pow Wow
Taking place towards the end May each year, the Odawa Pow Wow offers an Indigenous dance and singing competition as well as an Indigenous arts and crafts market. This is also a great place to sample Indigenous cuisine!