Canoe pilgrimage is riding the wave of reconciliation
July 25, 2017 — The path to reconciliation between Canada and its First Nations’ people will ultimately be a long journey. Too large of a schism has developed among the two cultures over 400 years, with the newcomers overwhelming the founding nations.
But it’s a path that needs to start somewhere.
The Canadian Canoe Pilgrimage is a small starting point aiming to kickstart the reconciliation process. Inspired by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the pilgrimage — two-and-a-half years in planning — set off from Ste. Marie Among the Hurons in Midland, Ont., July 21 on a month-long, nearly 900-km canoe journey expected to end Aug. 15 at the Kahnawake First Nation near Montreal. Among the stops along the route will be North Bay, Mattawa, Pembroke and Ottawa.
Bringing together different cultures in the Canadian mosaic, the pilgrimage hopes to foster respect, trust, dialogue and friendship, the building blocks of reconciliation.
The goal is to have the diverse core group of 30 Indigenous, Jesuit, English- and French-Canadian paddlers (with others joining at stops along the way) become immersed in each others’ customs and traditions for an entire month.
“We’re working together, both sides in a sense, coming through this,” said Kevin Kelly, a Jesuit scholastic who is among the pilgrimage’s organizers.
Significantly, the pilgrimage is happening during Canada’s 150th anniversary, 50 years after the Jesuits embarked on a similar journey for Canada’s centennial celebrations, a pilgrimage that embraced ecumenism as opposed to reconciliation.
The journey will take paddlers along a historic route travelled by Samuel Champlain, St. Jean de Brébeuf and other settlers alongside their First Nations’ guides. Beginning at Midland, the group will follow the shores of Georgian Bay to the French River and move inland toward Lake Nipissing. Crossing the lake, the pilgrimage will paddle along the Mattawa River to the Ottawa River, then down to the St. Lawrence before finishing in the Montreal area at Kahnawake.
It’s been a long and complicated relationship between Canada and its Indigenous peoples since the first Europeans arrived four centuries ago. And it’s quite clear First Nations’ people have not fared as well as the settlers. While the newcomers found wealth, Indigenous nations have become mired in poverty and its corresponding effects. Efforts are being made to correct historic wrongs, perhaps the greatest being the Indian residential schools system that saw young Indigenous people taken from their families and placed in government-funded, church-run schools. The goal of these schools was assimilation into a European culture and cutting the youngsters off from their familial and cultural roots.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report in 2015 included 94 Calls to Action, many of which focus on education.
“That’s what we’re tapping into,” said Kelly.
That means sharing in the process with Indigenous peoples.
“Our interest as Jesuits is working with Indigenous peoples. We are recognizing from our experiences of colonization, and certainly we had a residential school so we know what those realities were like, and we really believe the step forward in this must be coming to terms with those things,” said Kelly.
The simplicity of the pilgrimage is what makes it so powerful, Kelly believes.
“There’s no agenda, we’re not setting out to at the end have a statement on reconciliation or a process for dialogue. This is about the very fundamentally human practice of how do we better communicate in a space where we’re going to be together exclusively for a month. The informal and the simple are really important ways of getting past the things that structure us.”
Still, the pilgrimage will not be without its share of complexities. There’s the inevitable conflicts within the group — how can there not be in a small group together 24/7 for a month? And there remain trust issues among many Indigenous. While a number of First Nations along the route will be welcoming the pilgrimage, hosting the group overnight, holding celebrations, sharing their customs and accommodating Mass, others are casting a cautious eye toward it.
While they will allow the group to stay on their land, they will not be drawing any attention to the paddlers.
“We’re OK with that, we understand what that looks like,” said Kelly. “They may not be ready for this. We’re just at the start of what moving forward in reconciliation out of the TRC looks like. It’s not like it’s done and everybody’s on the same page. It’s really a work in progress.”
The group is working with KAIROS in reaching out to communities along the way to spread the message of reconciliation. And Kelly is hoping the diverse participants, who come from all walks of life from points across Canada, will take this life-changing experience and “go back to where they’re coming from to share this experience.”
Kelly and the group understand that their pilgrimage is only the starting point in healing a fractured relationship.
“It’s in a single activity like this, being together for a month, figuring out how do you canoe, camp, struggle through challenges, struggle through hard work, fatigue, that’s where you get to know the other.”
It may sound exhausting, yet Kelly takes inspiration from another Jesuit, Pope Francis.
“If you are going to make things happen, the Pope talks about reality is far greater than ideas. Ideas are important, but putting them into practice is critical.”