Midland, ON, July 24 - A group of Indigenous Peoples, non-Jesuits and Jesuits embarked on a 850-kilometre canoe pilgrimage from Midland, Ontario, on July 21, in response to the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“We are retracing this historic route on the 150th anniversary of Canada as a nation, but more importantly we are trying to work for reconciliation,” said Erik Sorensen, SJ, a Jesuit scholastic and director of the canoe pilgrimage. “As a member of the Jesuits, a group that had a residential school that played an integral role in colonization efforts by early Europeans, there is a collective healing that I am participating in and we are changing the way we do things.”
The paddlers began the pilgrimage at Sainte-Marie among the Hurons and Martyrs’ Shrine at the historic site of the Jesuit mission to the Wendat First Nation dating back to 1638. The Wye River route follows the path of 17th-century Jesuit missionary St. Jean de Brebeuf and his First Nations guides.
During 28 days of paddling, the paddlers will travel from Midland up Georgian Bay; across the French River, Lake Nipissing, the Mattawa and Ottawa Rivers; and end near Montreal on August 15. The pilgrims will canoe for eight hours a day and then camp out each night, joining together in prayer each evening.
“The goal of the pilgrimage is to promote a deeper-intercultural dialogue and understanding. That's also part of my goal, understanding and building that relationship,” paddler Lise Langridge explained.
Speakers at the launch included the mayors from Midland, Penetanguishene, and Tay who spoke about reconciliation and bonding with the land. Paddler Sister Eva Solomon, CSJ, performed a traditional blessing with tobacco for the group.
Jesuit Father Peter Bisson, Provincial of the Jesuits in English Canada, stressed the diversity of the paddlers: “Indigenous people and non-indigenous people, French and English speakers, men and women, Canadians and Americans will be canoeing together and praying together across religious traditions.”
The pilgrimage’s purpose echoes the work of St. Jean de Brebeuf and his companions, explained Jesuit scholastic Adam Pittman, community outreach coordinator for the event. “They wanted to dialogue. I don’t think it was for the purpose of forcibly converting people, I think it was about dialogue and trying to bring a sense of who our God is in a very positive way.”
“It’s been a blessing being part of this project because it’s completely changed my view of really who we are as the Jesuits in Canada,” Pittman said.
The canoe pilgrimage has a rich history for the Jesuits in Canada. Fifty years ago, for the country’s 100th birthday, a group of young Jesuits had the first canoe pilgrimage for EXPO 67, the world’s fair in Montreal, to promote ecumenical dialogue among peoples of all faiths. This year’s pilgrimage is doing the exact same route and staying overnight in the same locations as the Jesuits did in 1967. Two of the paddlers from the 1967 group attended the launch in Midland, Jesuit Fathers Tony Van Hee and Terry Fay.
On July 31, the feast of the Jesuits’ founder St. Ignatius of Loyola, Provincial of the French Canada Jesuits Fr. Erik Oland, SJ, will join them in North Bay to celebrate Mass. One night the group will camp out on the lawn of a priest in his 80s who remembers the 1967 pilgrims staying there when he was a deacon.
Another stop on the journey will be the reserves in Dokis along the French River, where the chief will be waiting at the water's edge at to welcome them. The chief and elders will hold a traditional feast for the paddlers, and then there will be an opportunity for them to give presentations on who they are and why this is important to them. “Then we’ll give a presentation on why we’re doing the pilgrimage, why reconciliation is important and how we plan to move forward,” said Pittman.
Photos by: Moussa Faddoul