January 6, 2017 — This summer an intrepid group of about 30 pilgrims — made of Jesuits, First Nations and others — will be replicating a 500-mile canoe journey taken by missionary St. Jean de Brebeuf, SJ, in the 1640s from Midland, Ontario, to Montreal.
In 1967, to mark Canada’s 100th birthday, a group of Jesuits followed the same route to Montreal. Now 50 years later, as Canada celebrates its 150th anniversary, the route will be the same, but the motivation is much deeper.
Andrew Starblanket, left, Krista Bowman and Erik Sorensen, SJ, will be part of the canoe pilgrimage.
The group will begin paddling July 21 from Midland along the shores of Georgian Bay. The route will see them head north to take the French River to Lake Nipissing, then following the Mattawa River to the Ottawa River to the St. Lawrence. They hope to arrive in Montreal Aug. 15.
After about eight hours a day in a canoe, the group will spend the majority of nights camping in the wilderness, joining together in prayer each evening and making a number of stops in cities to refresh.
“It will be physically demanding,” said Erik Sorensen, SJ, project manager of the 2017 Canadian Canoe Pilgrimage. “These large, six- or eight-person canoes are challenging to paddle and even more challenging to portage. To pick them up and carry them a couple kilometers across dry land requires a fair bit of physical excursion.”
For Sorensen, who professed his first vows with the Jesuits in 2014, the extended exposure to First Nations people during the trip is what can spark true reconciliation.
“That prolonged encounter is what this trip is all about,” said Sorensen. “With this prolonged experience it steers the group into the opportunity for the people participating to really encounter each other in more than a superficial way — more than an afternoon meeting would. It is in that encountering that relationships will be formed and there will be the opportunity for mutual healing.”
Andrew Starblanket, who intends to make the pilgrimage, agrees that there is much healing possible by bringing people together in this way.
“It is more than just a canoe trip,” he said. “This trip will bring nations together to help support not only the First Nations but all people. [It] will bring together many different creative minds from many different nations so we can heal what was so devastating to many.”
Starblanket, who lives on a reserve in Saskatchewan with fellow members of the Cree tribe, said, “It’s hard to tell a story that is history and that is bad, especially for certain churches and religious that had a negative influence on many. [So] the church needs healing too, and this is a good way for them to heal and for all of us to heal.”
Sorensen said there will be a number of public events along the route.
“We’re also inviting people to come and paddle with us for two or three days at a time if they want to come and experience the pilgrimage aspect of it,” he said.