Dissonant Heritage Narratives

Case Study prepared by Sam Badach, Carleton University

Integrated Heritage: Conserving Industrial and Indigenous Heritage on Victoria Island, Ottawa, Ontario 

Keywords: Cultural Landscape, Industrial Heritage, Dissonant Heritage, Indigenous Heritage, Ottawa

LESSONS LEARNED  Victoria Island reflects a complex layering of industrial and indigenous heritage that collectively narrate the story of Canada’s early development. This heritage is attributed with different values and is expressed in different forms as tangible (Industrial structures) and intangible (Indigenous culture) constructs that require different approaches to their conservation. Numerous Industrial buildings have been designated as federally recognized heritage which informs and assures their preservation while additional indigenous led activities have been introduced to ensure the continuity of First Nations cultural presence on the island. Despite these efforts, the aforementioned are treated as isolated entities without formal recognition of the site as an integrated cultural landscape. More work needs to be done in preserving and celebrating the indigenous and industrial past of the Chaudière and Victoria Islands. The site needs to be addressed holistically with an all encompassing official heritage designation that balances indigenous and industrial heritage as inseparable parts of a diverse and multifaceted cultural landscape that together form a rich and fascinating narrative of Canada’s past.

DESCRIPTION Situated in the heart of Canada’s capital city in Ottawa, Ontario, Victoria Island is part of a cluster of islands that span the Ottawa River separating the provinces of Quebec and Ontario. The island is among four including: Chaudière, Albert, Amelia and Philemon (now a peninsula) all of which are organized around the Chaudière Falls, which has long been converted into a semi circular dam as part of a hydro electric complex. The islands are a testament to their industrial past with numerous abandoned industrial heritage buildings, a recently closed paper mill and power stations as part of the dam. Of the five islands, Victoria is the furthest south flanking the Ottawa river’s shore. The island is subdivided by the Portage Bridge. A second bridge, the Chaudière, defines its Western edge. Both connect the cities of Ottawa and Gatineau. While the other four islands are largely inaccessible to the public due to their private industrial occupancy and deteriorated state, Victoria Island is accessible as parkland. Additionally, Victoria island currently houses three federally designated heritage industrial sites, an operable hydro electric generating station, as well as a First Nation managed cultural attraction, which collectively reflect the dissonant heritage of the islands.


Pre-colonization: Paleo-Indian Period 6500 – 4000 BC

  • Formation and withdrawal of the Champlain Sea following the last Ice age, which gave birth to the Ottawa Valley
  • Archaeological evidence suggests the Ottawa river valley may have already been home to indigenous groups
  • Developments in pottery, agriculture, weaponry, birch bark canoes and snowshoes
  • Ongoing occupation of the Ottawa river valley by Indigenous groups

Early Explorers: 17th – 19th Century

  • Early 17th century saw the first European Contact
  • Chaudière and Victoria Islands became a major transportation node for missionaries, explorers and fur traders and was known to be a major place of rest and portage
  • Ottawa River was a crucial part of a network of lake and river systems that facilitated the early explorations westward
  • Thriving fur trade industry was very active in the Ottawa valley with many of the furs destined for European markets passing through the falls

Settlement and Industrialization

  • 1800 first European settlement established by Philemon Wright on the North shore of the Ottawa river
  • Extensive lumber resources and water power of the falls provided the ideal circumstances for what would become the most vital sawmill operation and most established hydro facility in the country
  • Industries gave birth to numerous settlements including ‘Bytown’, later the city of Ottawa

The Great Fire

  • 1900 a fire ravaged the Islands spreading to the North and South shores of the Ottawa River destroying the majority of Hull and a fifth of the City of Ottawa
  • E.B. Eddy and J.R. Booth, the two most successful industrialists, rebuilt their lumber and hydro empires which dominated the islands throughout the 20th century
  • 1910 ring dam constructed around the Chaudière Falls [1]


  • 1966 expropriation of Victoria Island
  • 1971 NCC acquires land adjacent to Wilson Carbide Mill for recreation
  • 1984 Wilson Carbide Mill federal heritage designation
  • 1991 Office of the Bronson Company federal heritage designation
  • 1991 Ottawa Electric Railway Company Steam Plant federal heritage designation
  • 1998 Ottawa Electric Railway Company Steam Plant adaptive reuse
  • 1998 Asinabka National Indigenous Centre feasibility studies initiated
  • 2000 Aboriginal Experiences Founded [2]
  • 2004 The Department of Canadian Heritage awards $50 000 for the development of the Asinabka National Indigenous Centre
  • 2005 #4 Generating station refurbishments and upgrades
  • 2009 restoration works begins on Wilson Carbide Mill

STAKEHOLDERS The Victoria and Chaudière Islands unique geographical location, size and complex history are responsible for an equally complex array of stakeholders with sometimes conflicting economic, political and social interests. Situated at the heart of the nation’s capital straddling the inter-provincial border between Quebec and Ontario, the islands span the Ottawa river separating the city of Gatineau and Ottawa in what is considered “Partnership Land” which ensures a shared federal, provincial and municipal governing presence. Additionally, the islands are considered part of the Census Metropolitan area of Ottawa-Gatineau which spans both the provinces of Quebec and Ontario.[3] Since 1966 the federal governing body known as the National Capital Commission (NCC) has acquired ownership of most of Victoria Island through expropriation. [4] The NCC, who helps oversee the planning, development, conservation and overall improvement of Canada’s Capital Region, considers Victoria Island as a National Interest Land Mass which is assigned to properties that are identified as being symbolically meaningful as a crucial part of the NCC’s long term aspirations for the Capital region. [5] The NCC leases some of the industrial properties on the island to various commercial enterprises including a rock climbing gym known as Vertical Reality and until recently, the Ottawa-Hull Naval Association which occupied the Office of the Bronson Company which ,according to the NCC, is soon to be leased to members of the Algonquin First Nations. (I. Badgley, personal communication, Jan 8, 2015).   Turtle Island Tourism Company occupies the far east portion of the island with its tourist attraction known as Aboriginal Experiences.[6] The only remaining private land ownership belongs to Ottawa Hydro to carry out its hydroelectric operations.iv Energy Ottawa owns and operates the facilities as an affiliate of Ottawa Hydro which is owned by the City of Ottawa. Questions of land ownership remain the most contentious issue with Algonquin First Nations laying claim to the island as unceded and unsurrendered Algonquin territory. They maintain that no treaties were ever signed and that the NCC have not been able to produce documents to demonstrate otherwise.


The Victoria and Chaudière Islands represent a vital part of Canada’s history. As a major economic and industrial center that spurred the early development of the nation born out of the early interactions between the land and the founding French, British and Native peoples, it may be appropriate to consider the Chaudière and Victoria islands as ‘The Cradle of Canada’. As an extension of this thought, even their geographical location as an ancient sacred indigenous site set within the Ottawa River in between Ontario and Quebec, symbolically and physically unite the French, British and First Nations while under the watchful eye of the Peace Tower. It may be argued that there is no other location in Canada that better embodies the history, culture, accomplishments, and aspirations of this nation. It is the story book of Canada and its story needs to be told. The pages of this story are etched in the landscape, the industrial relics and the indigenous memoirs of the Victoria and Chaudière Islands.

Industrial Heritage Victoria Island features three federally designated industrial heritage sites. The Parks Canada Agency and the Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office oversee the conservation efforts setting out a framework of policies, standards and guidelines as a means to protect the buildings heritage character.[7] The following designated heritage resources were assessed on the basis of their Historical, Architectural and Environmental value as described in the Canadian Register of Historic Places statements of significance. It is note worthy that while the contextual value of these buildings is understood, as expressed in their environmental assessment, the designation is restricted to the buildings footprint . The treatment of heritage resources as entities independent of their context limits the capacity in which their narrative can be understood and effectively conserved.

Exterior photo of Bronson Company Office[Online image]. (1991). Retrieved December 6, 2014 from  http://www.historicplaces.ca/en/rep-reg/image-image.aspx?id=4721#i1

Exterior photo of Bronson Company Office. (1991). Retrieved December 6, 2014 from http://www.historicplaces.ca/en/rep-reg/image-image.aspx?id=4721#i1

  • Office of the Bronson Company: Lying at the heart of Victoria Island , the Bronson Company Office was officially designated a federal heritage building in 1991 as a testament to the Bronson families industrial empire which saw leading developments in both the two dominant industries on the islands; forestry and hydro electric generation. As the administrative center of these pursuits, the building symbolizes, in some regard, the hub of much of this industrial development. The building is recognized for its 19th century residential architectural features and the quality of its fire proof construction. The Bronson Company Office is regarded as being a familiar building that contributes to the industrial aesthetic of its immediate context.[8]
  • Wilson Carbide Mill: Standing as a last remaining testament to the authority of the industrial heritage on the east side of Victoria Island, the Wilson Carbide Mill was designated as a federally recognized heritage building in 1984 . The mill is an architectural manifestation of industrialist, entrepreneur and inventor Thomas Leopold Wilson, who is the founder of the Ottawa Carbide Company for which this building was built in 1899. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada has recognized Mr. Wilson as being a person of national historic significance. Boasting a classically designed facade that masked its industrial functions, the Wilson Carbide Mill is celebrated for the quality of its construction, aesthetics and its innovative spatial arrangement. Additional value is attributed to its presence as a visual landmark within a picturesque landscape.[9]
  • Ottawa Electric Railway Company Steam Plant: The Ottawa Electric Railway Company Steam Plant is a reflection of the islands historical industrialization as well as a testament to Canada’s early 20th-century hydro electric industry. As an electrical source for Ottawa’s early streetcars, the plant is also tied to early developments in transportation. Indicative of industrial buildings of this type and era, the building is recognized for its materiality, craftsmanship and articulated openings. The steam plant is also recognized for its contribution to a larger landscape of industrial buildings on the islands.[10]

General view of the Carbide [Online image]. Retrieved December 6, 2014 from  http://www.historicplaces.ca/en/rep-reg/image-image.aspx?id=4634#i1

General view of the Carbide Mill. Retrieved December 6, 2014 from http://www.historicplaces.ca/en/rep-reg/image-image.aspx?id=4634#i1

General view of the Ottawa Electric Railway Company Steam Plant from the northwest[Online image]. (1958).Retrieved December 6, 2014  from  http://www.historicplaces.ca/en/rep-reg/image-image.aspx?id=4714#i1

General view of the Ottawa Electric Railway Company Steam Plant from the northwest[Online image]. (1958).Retrieved December 6, 2014
from http://www.historicplaces.ca/en/rep-reg/image-image.aspx?id=4714#i1

First Nations Cultural Heritage The Chaudière and Victoria Islands are deeply rooted in the history, values and cultural traditions of the people of the Algonquin Nation. As intangible heritage, the conservation of the values associated with Islands is dependent on the continuation of their cultural traditions, memories and stories. The Chaudière Falls and the adjacent islands, known to the Algonquin people as Akikpautik, have a long history of indigenous occupation. Archaeological evidence suggests that it has been a meeting place for aboriginals from across North America for thousands of years. As nomadic people, they used water ways and portage routes as a means of passage. The Akikipautik and the Ottawa river was once such a passage, linking Dows Falls to the Chaudière islands. In passing by canoe, is it said that these Indigenous peoples would pay tribute to the falls with prayer, for it was considered a sacred spiritual site. Long before the construction of the semi circular dam that has replaced the natural condition of the Chaudière Falls, its grandeur was considered second only to Niagara Falls. It is said that the falls would produce a howl that the indigenous interpreted as the messages sung from the womb of the mother earth and its constant mist was thought to transcend the prayers of the people to the great creator. To the Indigenous people, the Akikipautik symbolized the bowl of the sacred pipe and the place in which the wheel of life would spin.iii And so this sacred site was the place of many ceremonies as was documented by one of the area’s earliest explorers, Samuel de Champlain as he wrote:

Having carried their canoes to the foot of the fall, they assemble in one place, where one of them takes up a collection with a wooden plate into which each puts a piece of tobacco. After the collection, the plate is set down in the middle of the group and all dance about it, singing after their fashion. Then one of the chiefs makes a speech, pointing out for years they have been accustomed to make such an offering, and that thereby they receive protection from their enemies; that otherwise misfortune would happen to them.[11]

Despite the extensive industrialization of the islands and the damming of the Chaudière falls, the site remains, as it did for thousands of years, a sacred site for indigenous groups across the country.


Industrial Conservation Efforts While much of the industrial fabric of the Victoria and Chaudière Islands has been lost, the few relics that remain are being conserved following three different approaches: Restoration, Repair, and Reuse. In all three cases the projects inherently demonstrate many key principles of ecological sustainability as outlined in Jean Caroon’s book Sustainable Preservation: Greening Existing Buildings. In the first chapter, Historically Green – What Makes Existing Buildings Green, she described the many sustainable features typical of heritage structures which will be briefly explored as they apply to the conservation efforts described below.

  • Adaptive Reuse of the Ottawa Electric Railway Company Steam Plant and Office of the Bronson Company: Adhering to the principle of Long Life/Loose fit, is the adapted reuse of the Ottawa Electric Railway Company Steam Plant and the Office of the Bronson Company. The concept explores the inherent endurance and versatility of heritage buildings which allow for the buildings prolonged use by accommodating new contemporary programming.[12] The large interior volume of the Ottawa Electric Railway Company Steam Plant found a new use in 1998 when it was converted into an indoor rock climbing gym known as Vertical Reality. The spacious open industrial interior and high floor to ceiling volume easily accommodated the now 20,000 square feet of climbing walls. The industrial aesthetic of the exterior with its durable masonry walls has been largely preserved while disguising the significant interior transformation.[13] The Office of the Bronson Company also found new life following its decades long function as the administrative hub of the Booth families industrial empire. While it does not provide the spatial versatility as the Ottawa Electric Railway Company Steam Plant, its sturdy masonry and steel construction ensured its capacity for prolonged use. It was the home to the Ottawa-Hull Naval Association functioning as a bar and lounge until very recently.[14] The capacity of these buildings to accommodate new uses is one way in ensuring their industrial legacy remains while also contributing to issues of environmental sustainability while subsequently generating economic activity.
  • Repair of #4 Generating Station: In contrast to the adaptive reuse examples described above, the #4 generating station is unique in that it still maintains its original function as a hydroelectric facility. While not a designated heritage building, #4 generating station is an ongoing testament to the islands industrial past and future with its continued functional operation. The station was completely restored in 2005 to ensure its continued output of 61,000 MWh of renewable energy annually.[15] In response to its aging and outdated equipment , new turbines and automated sensors and monitoring systems were installed as part of its 2005 refurbishment, that resulted in its increased energy output by 20%. The hydroelectric facility is one of six on the Chaudière Falls and is an example of a Run of the River type hydro-generator which is considered to be one of the most efficient and environmentally responsible forms of energy production. By relying on the natural elevational differences of the Ottawa river, this system requires no flooding reservoir and produces no waste or carbon emissions.[16] During the restoration, effort was made to ensure that the original switches, meters and dials were conserved.[17] The #4 generating station specifically embodies two concepts as described by Caroon; repairability and passive survivability. Caroon demonstrates that by repairing instead of replacing, you reduce the need for new products while prolonging the life of existing constructions. This process reduces waste and offers employment potential for the local economy. As a hydroelectric facility the building epitomizes passive survivability which reflects the inherent need of historical structures to be self sustaining as they existed before contemporary energy and mechanical technologies.xii While this form of electrical generation is generally considered environmentally sustainable , it also has destructive implications on aquatic ecosystems and species. The American Eel, which has been a highly valued resource by First Nations people, was once abundant in the St.Lawrence water shed, but has since been classified as an endangered species. Dams act as barriers preventing upstream migration and are also responsible for the species 40% mortality rate due to the dam’s turbines.[18]
  • Restoration of the Wilson Carbide Mill: In 2009 DMA architects was hired by the National Capital Commission to carry out conservation efforts to the Wilson Carbide mill . As part of these efforts, measures were employed to improve the buildings seismic performance in addition to the use of traditional and contemporary techniques in stabilizing and restoring the original stone masonry walls and steel structure to ensure the buildings prolonged survival. Currently the Mill remains maintained as a ruin, awaiting future plans for its adaptive reuse.[19] The undertaking saw three phases of restoration beginning in 2009 with phases 1 and 2 completed in fall of that same year , and the final phase completed in 2010. These efforts saw the stabilization of the North and East walls using a masonry anchoring process using over 1000 Cintec anchors.[20] As part of this process, custom designed steel anchors from 21 inches to 15 feet, were set into a cementitious grout within predrilled bore holes, internally strengthening the masonry construction.[21] The NCC has since sought out additional restoration work as part of phase 4 of restoration. This phase will see the replacement of two steel lintels requiring the dismantling and reconstruction of existing masonry vaults and waterproofing of the foundation.[22] Of the four examples, the Wilson Carbide Mill perhaps best demonstrates the concepts of Durability, long life/loose fit and indigenous materials as described by Caroon. With its two foot thick masonry walls, the building is certain to last the test of time which also reduces its overall environmental impact by extending its initial embodied energy over an extended period of time. Masonry construction also tend to require less maintenance which further reduces its embodied energy during the course of its life cycle. And while the building currently awaits a tenant, like the steam plant, its capacity to accommodate a variety of new uses is maximized by its large open spatial qualities.

Through reuse, restoration or repair, these conservation efforts all demonstrate their capacity to reduce carbon emissions by maximizing their existing embodied energy. By extending the life and functional capacity of these buildings they offset the need for new construction which would require the energy intense processes of extraction, production and construction which these buildings have already undergone. xii Despite what method of conservation was employed, all four buildings address issues of sustainability while also ensuring the continuation of their industrial legacy.

Sustaining Indigenous Culture on Victoria Island: In the decades following the height of industrialization, First Nations people began to return to the island in the 1960’s to practice cultural traditions and hold various gatherings. In this time, elders would host sweat lodges, healing ceremonies, workshops and annual solstice and equinox pipe ceremonies. The grounds were also host to various political encampments and demonstrations which saw the gathering of First Nations people from across North America. In the last 15 years two initiatives have been undertaken in an attempt to conserve the indigenous heritage of Victoria Island and continue the momentum of the site’s active role in First Nations cultural traditions.

  • Aboriginal Experiences: As an official testament to the islands’ continued importance and roles in the cultural traditions of the First Nations people, Victoria Island became home to Aboriginal Experiences, a cultural attraction that seeks to “provide authentic aboriginal experiences to visitors of Canada’s capital region – to inform, enlighten, thrill and entertain.” Through traditional and contemporary performances, art and food, Aboriginal Experiences offers a means in which to practice and share Indigenous culture, set within a traditional summer village on the shores of the Ottawa river. A variety of programs and events are offered throughout the summer months for corporate events, bus tours and the general public. Visitors to Aboriginal Experiences may choose from various theatrical performances, drumming groups and First Nations dancers that tell traditional legends and teachings from Indigenous cultures. Aboriginal Experiences provides employment opportunities for First Nations artists, performers, designers and the like to demonstrate their craft in interactive workshops, performances and events. Lastly, the organization extends its reach off-site as part of educational initiatives at schools, providing study guides and themed discussions to follow performances. Aboriginal Experiences is a step towards attaining cultural sustainability by keeping the indigenous presence alive on the Islands through the continuation of the community’s cultural teachings and practices. By also engaging and promoting the craft and talents of those immediately within the community, Aboriginal Experiences, to some extent, also provides economic sustainability. But with this in mind, the question arises as to what extent is this just a theatrical stage set tailored towards people of non-Indigenous ancestry? Is this then to some extent continued subordination of First Nations people and exploitation of their cultural practices for the sake of mere entertainment? How can Victoria Island continue to facilitate and renew the traditional practices that once took place there authentically?
  • Asinabka National Indigenous Centre: A new vision has emerged in recent decades that is gaining momentum among the Algonquin First Nations. This vision would see to the construction of the Asinabka National Indigenous Centre on Victoria Island, as well as the extensive restoration of the Chaudière Falls and adjacent islands into something reminiscent of their pre-industrial condition. As early as the 1970’s the idea was being explored, with the announcement that a site would be allocated for a National Indigenous Center by former NCC Chair, Jean Pigot. Since then the proposal has been developed by architect Douglas Cardinal in conjunction with Algonquin leaders and community members that would see the construction of a large complex. This would include a Spiritual Healing Center and a Peace Building Center. These facilities would feature numerous spaces including a conference center, meeting halls, galleries, studio spaces, an auditorium, archives, library and research center, and various educational spaces among others. The facility would demonstrate a united indigenous presence in the nation’s capital while promoting and revitalizing indigenous ideologies, traditions, language, culture, peacemaking and environmental stewardship. Since the project’s official initiation in 1998, it has received $50,000 in funding from the Department of Canadian Heritage in 2004. According to a Report on the Vision for the Asinabka National Indigenous Centre, the project has also received the NCC’s apparent endorsement during a Circle of all Nations International Gathering in August of 2006.[23] More recently the execution of this vision has become more doubtful, following the approval of a large scale project which will see the industrial remains of the adjacent Chaudière and Albert Islands transformed into a large scale mixed use urban redevelopment. This uncertainty was further validated in a recent interview with Archaeologist Ian Badgley with the National Capital Commission, when he verified that there are no projects being undertaken by government or any private enterprise that would commemorate the island’s indigenous heritage. (I. Badgley, personal communication, Jan 8, 2015).

Projects such as Aboriginal Experiences and the vision of an Asinabka National Indigenous Centre demonstrate a growing dialogue concerning the need for an official Indigenous presence on Victoria Island. Indeed, according to Archaeologist Ian Badgley and Analyst Tammy McEnroe with the National Capital Commission, there has been increasing emphasis and interest in First Nations issues within the organization in the last 10 years. Unlike the industrial relics that are scattered across the islands, this progression is hard to measure as tangible evidence, but it is indication of a growing movement towards indigenous cultural renewal.

  • [1]  “Brief History – Vision Chaudière”. (n.d.). Retrieved November 18, 2014, from http://visionchaudiere.ca/brief-history/
  • [2] Aboriginal Tourism Association of BC,. (2015). Aboriginal Experiences In the Heart of Ottawa (1st ed.). Vancouver. Retrieved from     http://www.aboriginalbc.com/assets/corporate/NATOC2013-Trina_Mather_Simard-Aboriginal_Experiences_Arts_and_Culture.pdf
  • [3] Thumbadoo, R. (2014). URGENT Re: Repatriation of Chaudière Island.
  • [4] National Capital Commission,. 90-225(F) 150 Middle Street. Ottawa.
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  • [10]  Parks Canada. (n.d.). Ottawa Electric Railway Company Steam Plant, Canada’s Historic Places. Retrieved January 8, 2015, from http://www.historicplaces.ca/en/rep-reg/place-lieu.aspx?id=4714
  • [11] Chaudière Falls in the Outaouais Region. (n.d.). Retrieved November 20, 2014, from         http://www.ameriquefrancaise.org/en/article-719/Chaudière_Falls_in_the_Outaouais_Region.html
  • [12] Carroon, J. (2010). Sustainable Preservation: Greening Existing Buildings. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley.
  • [13] Vertical Reality Inc. (2008, January 1). “New Routes and New Bouldering Problems Just For You.”. Retrieved December  10, 2014, from http://www.verticalreal.com/home/index_e.p
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  • [15] Ontario’s River Alliance. (2014, July 12). Chaudière Falls Generating Station, Ottawa River – Ontario Rivers Alliance. Retrieved December 8, 2014, from http://www.ontarioriversalliance.ca/chaudiere-falls-generating-station-ottawa-river/
  • [16] Energy Ottawa. (2014, January 1). Energy Ottawa – Generation. Retrieved December 8, 2014, from http://energyottawa.com/generation/
  • [17]  Vision Chaudière. (2015, January 1). Hydro Power Generating Stations – Vision Chaudière. Retrieved December 6, 2014, from http://visionchaudiere.ca/the-district/hydro-power-generating-stations/
  • [18] Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. 2010. “Dam the American Eels.” Redefining Conservation, ECO Annual Report, 2009/10. Toronto, ON : Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. 50.
  • [19] Welcome to DMA architectes. (n.d.). Retrieved December 7, 2014, from                            http://www.desnoyersmercure.com/
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  • [21] Cintec Worldwide. (n.d.) “The System.” . Retrieved December 6, 2014, from http://www.cintec.com/cintec/the-system.php
  • [22] National Capital Commission,. (2013). Tender Addendum. Ottawa.
  • [23] Commanda, W. (2010, February 14). The Vision for Asinabka. Retrieved January 8, 2015, from http://ottawa.ca/calendar/ottawa/citycouncil/occ/2010/11-19/cpsc/02- report on the vision for the Askiabka.htm