“It’s knowing what our children are heading for that gets me out of bed every morning!”
That was my grandmother talking, my kookum. Me, I was just home from getting my PhD in physics at a European university. She had detected my cocky certainty about just about everything. My beloved kookum was inviting me back down to earth, to home. I was looking forward to making up lost time with her, hearing her warm voice tell me stories from her legendary knowledge of all things about Nogojiwanong, this “place at the end of the rapids” in our Anishinaabe language. I needed to get reacquainted with the land here.
“Now you can lift your nose out of those windy papers and do something for your community.” My grandmother wasn’t shy about giving me guidance. I’d come back with a brain full of knowledge about “the effect of altered global wind patterns on wind turbine design,” and hungry to apply it. “Get those winds moving the big turbine blades of community,” she exclaimed to me. “Aambe. Get going!”
By 2030, the climate crisis had worsened, as predicted. Not that every prediction and warning came exactly true, but worse enough to cause my youngest sister severe anxiety that only retreated when she was in the eco-garden program at her high school or with kookum gathering medicines in the forest. Cities were scrambling to redesign themselves in adaptation to alarming rises in temperatures and infrastructure costs.
Kookum’s emails to me through the late 2020’s, often told me how she was being invited to bring her knowledge and experience as a First Nations’ Elder into workshops, demos and sit-ins in the Nogojiwanong region. “I show them how to do it ‘in a good way’,” she wrote. Her ability to bring peace to tense situations brought her invitations to lead or simply lend her presence at many tense citizen actions and meetings, like the night activists calling themselves C.A.N.O.E. unrolled a huge banner off the roof of City Hall during a Council meeting just as the building’s electricity had gone out. As Indigenous Knowledge became recognized for its inherent value in the climate crisis, it was sought more and more in local planning efforts.
So, at the family ‘welcome home’ feast, she had immediately convinced me to accompany her to just one meeting to “feel your feet in the river again,” as she put it. One meeting. Ha!
Here I am, after ten meetings of the Peterborough Square Redevelopment Advisory Committee, given the task of presenting its Report at today’s Watershed Peterborough Municipal Council meeting. I had been more nervous at my PhD defense.
The Committee Report is recommending a daring change to the centre of downtown Peterborough.
Jokingly known as “The Square Heads,” this Advisory Committee is composed mainly of local entrepreneurs and engineers, equal number of women and men, and my kookum as Traditional Knowledge Holder. I am the “guy” chosen to present the Committee’s recommendations. How did I get from wind turbine physics to civic politics? My grandmother!
Since 2033, local citizen advisories have more authority and power than ever before. Citizen participation in determining a community’s future is recognized as essential to localizing responses to the climate crisis. What’s good for Moose Jaw is different from what’s good for the Kawarthas. What’s good for Rice Lake may not be good for Lake Louise. Local people, well informed by local Indigenous Knowledge, play a meaningful role in decision-making.
Just before we enter the meeting, kookum pins a small, beaded canoe on my jacket. She tells me the story of the night when activists in C.A.N.O.E (Council Action Now Or Else) unfurled a banner from the roof down the front face of City Hall with the same canoe symbol on it. “Don’t tell anyone,” she whispers, “but I was on the roof that night.”
I wink at her in the public gallery as I step up to deliver the Review Committee’s Report.
I remind everyone of Peterborough Square’s history. Its flagship store had been Eatons, one of the many Eaton department stores across Canada in the 20th century. But the Square had fallen on hard times by 2033. Non-resident ownership seemed uninterested in keeping it adapted to harsher and harsher climate impacts. Previous plans to redevelop the site had always fallen short of final approval. These failures had much to do with climate stressors playing havoc with political, economic and financial resources among all levels of government.
The Square’s lower level had served intermittently as night time shelter for houseless persons; the food court a daytime food relief centre. Offices in the building were disappearing as more employees now work remotely.
The outer, street level ‘plaza’ area, with its steps down to the lower level, is the initial proposed reconstruction area with more to follow. Its daring “anchor design feature” is a solar dome. Kookum says the dome reminds her of a sweat lodge. “Maybe it could be called madoodooswaangamig (Anishinaabemowin for sweat lodge.) Not a bad idea when you know that the sweat lodge is a place of rebirth (aaniji-nda-daadizing.)
I take my place at the mic. I explain the image on the first slide − a prototype of a dome which has a ‘skin’ of curved, semi-transparent, solar panels creating the domed shape. “Spaces between the panels provide supplementary lighting for operating cost efficiency and inside plant growth for better air quality. That outer, solar-panelled shell is powerful enough to provide energy to both the dome and the whole Square. Under the dome will be a large gathering place called the Common Ground for public use by citizen groups allied around community-building, now recognized as vital to climate crisis survival. Yes, the modern design is revolutionary among the traditional, existing streetscape.” I notice squirms of discomfort from some Councillors. “But the city will inevitably become visually very different as no-carbon solutions are more and more deployed.”
When I finish, the silence in the room is unexpected and unnerving. Is my presentation not clear? Do they like it or hate it? Suddenly I hear my kookum’s voice from the quiet gallery − “ehenh. Yes.”
This breaks the silence and Councillors weigh in.
“This dome ‘thing’ is ugly. Sticks out like a sore thumb.”
“This design doesn’t fit with the brick facades of the older downtown streetscape.”
And the predictable “it’s too expensive.”
I answer: “The Committee understands your concerns. But the rest of the downtown will change too as the cost of maintaining the historical look of it grows beyond the ability of citizens to fund. And finding authentic yet eco-friendly materials is difficult and expensive. There’s also the new national building code requirement for renewable energy sources. No fossil fuels allowed.”
Questions taper off. Maybe this redesign is getting traction. Final approval (or not) will come at the next Council meeting. Certainly opponents of the dome are sure to be busy in the interim.
A comment from the Mayor is encouraging. “The ‘look’ of a downtown stands for values, family histories, attachments to previous good times. You are challenging all that. That’s enormous change you’re asking for. But the climate crisis writing is on the wall. Like it or not, we must adapt.”
At this, a dozen or so youth in the public gallery suddenly stand up together, and led by my grandmother’s hand drum, begin singing “Mother Earth wants us here. Do you?”
In the end, the Dome in the Square was approved. Grandmother cut the ribbon on opening day.