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  • Writer's pictureAnna Robertson

Historic first for GVHS

First Indigenous president appointed to historical society

Former Kitigan Zibi chief and renowned educator Gilbert Whiteduck appointed president of Gatineau Valley Historical Society. Google images photo

Gilbert Whiteduck has recently been appointed president of the Gatineau Valley Historical Society (GVHS), a historic first for the organization in terms of Indigenous representation on the board.

“It’s really a first that an Indigenous Algonquin Anishinabe has held this role,” Whiteduck said about his appointment in late February.

His role with the GVHS began over a year ago, when he joined the board as vice-president; he’s been a trailblazer for Indigenous social justice and education during a long and distinguished career in public service.

The organization has traditionally centred its work in the Chelsea area, but in Whiteduck’s view, it represents the region from the La Vérendrye Wildlife Reserve near Val-d’Or all the way to the Ottawa River.

“I love reading about and thinking about the history of the area,” said Whiteduck. “One of our goals is to reach somewhat further up north in the Gatineau Valley and to make the [GVHS] more inclusive,” he explained, adding that “there are a lot of stories to be told.”

With his new appointment to the GVHS Whiteduck said he hopes to bring a more “two-eyed” way of looking at history in the region. Along with the history of logging, mining, railroads, and settler development in the area, which has traditionally been a focus of the GVHS’s work, Whiteduck said he’s hoping to introduce a “combined perspective,” which considers both non-Indigenous and Indigenous experiences.

Whiteduck said he is interested in highlighting his peoples’ history and how settler development in the area “impacted us and continues to impact us,” adding, “Now we are at a juncture which will take decades of work to resolve.”

Whiteduck considers his appointment as president to be an important step: “Although being part of the society is not reconciliation as such, it kind of fits into that spirit. It’s about people being more open. It’s all about working together and collaborating, sometimes having some differences and that’s okay.”

“Any board is richer if there is a diversity in the membership,” said GVHS board member Cindy Duncan McMillan about Whiteduck’s appointment. “Having [former] chief Gilbert Whiteduck of the Kitigan Zibi community agree to serve as our new president will improve our board, adding a fresh new perspective, a wealth of life experiences, a knowledge of our land, our river and our geography.”

Whiteduck comes from a long line of leaders from Kitigan Zibi, an Algonquin Anishinabe community near Maniwaki, and acted as chief from 2008 to 2015. A committed educator, he has served more than 33 years in the education system as a teacher, guidance counsellor, school principal, and director of education.

Whiteduck has lived in Kitigan Zibi throughout his life, with the exception of times away completing his three university degrees. He earned a Master of Education from the University of Ottawa in 1991; he has held the position of elder in residence at the University of Ottawa; taught university courses; and has been involved in numerous reconciliation initiatives in recent years.

Among his many roles and responsibilities, Whiteduck is currently serving as the treatment co-ordinator at the Wanaki Treatment Centre in Kitigan Zibi, which provides help to First Nations and Inuit people with addiction issues. He said he also plans to sit down with Chelsea Mayor Pièrre Guenard, councillors, and senior administrators of the Chelsea municipality to discuss the role of Indigenous people in the area.

“We’re embarking on a dialogue session…to become better informed about Algonquin Anishinabe issues and what the territory represents,” explained Whiteduck, noting that land in the region is “unceded territory,” meaning it was never legally ceded or given up to the Crown through a treaty or other agreement.

Whiteduck said a lot of progress in the area of Indigenous and non-Indigenous understanding “is happening in many ways because of individual citizens taking it up and doing a lot of reading themselves and trying to learn” about the issues.

One common misconception held by non-Indigenous people, Whiteduck explained, is that Indigenous people live “up north” and that the area around the Gatineau Park, for example, is not relevant to Indigenous history. He noted that Indigenous people have traditionally had a rich relationship with the area, but aren’t present there today.

“We are trying to retrieve our relationship and would like to take on a role of co-managing the park and working together to protect it,” Whiteduck said. He noted that the park is managed by the National Capital Commission (NCC) and Indigenous people have historically found it “hard to get in” and to play a significant role within that organization.

About his appointment, Whiteduck said he’s honoured but, “it’s not about me, it’s about opening doors and encouraging others,” in his community.

“We really need to do something to reach out to young people,” Whiteduck said. With respect to the GVHS, he commented that, in addition to collecting historical artifacts, “it’s about getting the message out there.” The organization currently hosts monthly information sessions about issues of historical importance and Whiteduck said he would like to see the GVHS playing a role in the education system to help young people better understand the shared history in the region.

Another initiative Whiteduck said he is particularly passionate about is the Gatineau River being given personhood. “I’m trying to find allies. I’m finding more and more people in the Wakefield and Chelsea areas are supportive of that idea — linking all the communities up and down the river in a common purpose,” he said. He added that, for him, “it’s not just an Indigenous thing, it’s a people thing.”

Whiteduck said he’s considering running for federal office in the next election.

The GVHS will be hosting events about the railway in the region March 27 and the Paugan Dam, April 25. For details visit the organization’s website.

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