The Walrus

Rediscover­ing Canada by Canoe

Four trips that united Canadians and propelled them toward a common goal

- By Sydney Loney

Ken Powell learned to paddle as a kid in Ontario’s Algonquin Park and has since traversed lakes and rivers throughout Canada. When he heard about Connected by Canoe, the Canadian Canoe Museum journey from Kingston to Ottawa in a Montreal-style craft, he was immediatel­y on board. “The canoe is symbolic of the history of Canada,” says the former ccm board chair. The trip, which took place in May 2017, in partnershi­p with Community Foundation­s of Canada, served as a floating conversati­on that connected paddlers with one another and with the stories of the nation. The historic vessel taught them to move forward as one, both physically and mentally, which set the tone for deep discussion­s about the country’s past and future. “It created this amazing opportunit­y to talk — and to talk freely,” says Powell. The voyage brought together men, women, young, old, First Nation, Inuit, and a new Canadian, 20-year-old Erick Mugisha, who arrived from Kenya last year. “Almost my whole life I’ve lived in a desert, with no idea of the relationsh­ip between a canoe, a paddle, and water — the source of life, beauty, and serenity,” says Mugisha. He was struck by how the experience united total strangers. “We started as a group of paddlers, but we became a canoe community. Even the hard work of portaging made me understand that in unity there is strength.” On the water, there were frank conversati­ons about the injustices suffered by Canada’s Indigenous people, as well as a sharing of ideas for how best to address lingering inequaliti­es. “We talked about reconcilia­tion,” says Powell. “How all of us can pull the country together and provide a positive, even influentia­l example to the rest of the world.” James Raffan, the ccm’s director of external relations, hopes the expedition will be the first of many. “Connected by Canoe is an idea that will spread,” he says. “In addition to being a canoe trip (with all its attendant joys and challenges), it’s also a floating conversati­on about the future of the country. It’s about drawing on our history of self-propelled travel in this nation of rivers

and exploring the idea of the canoe as a vessel of reconcilia­tion.” It’s this sentiment that informed several other canoe expedition­s that set out across the country this summer. In July, the Pulling Together Canoe Society pushed thirty canoes off the shores of British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast for a ten-day journey to Vancouver. The 300 paddlers included members of First Nation communitie­s, the West Vancouver Police Department and the Royal Canadian Navy. “It got people out of their comfort zones and put them side by side to accomplish something together,” says Rhiannon Bennett, the society’s president. “It was a chance to discover what working together feels like; it helped build relationsh­ips and taught us to have more compassion for one another.” A canoe is an immediate equalizer for people from diverse background­s, says Bennett. No one’s better, no one’s stronger— it’s just paddles working together to guide the craft through water. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re eleven or sixty, as long as you paddle in sync,” she says. As a member of the Musqueam Band, she’s involved in canoe revitaliza­tion and encouragin­g her community to return to the water. “To be in a canoe and paddling in the waters of your ancestors is a really powerful thing.” Connecting with the past and retracing ancestral roots was the focus of the 2017 Canoe Expedition, organized by the Métis Nation of Ontario (mno). For three months this summer, seventeen Métis youth paddled and portaged 2,200 kilometres across the province, following historic fur-trading routes while stopping in communitie­s to share their history and culture. Like the ccm and the Pulling Together Canoe Society journeys, the mno expedition connected Canadians to their country and to one another. “Canoeing is a great opportunit­y for anyone, not just the Métis people, to get out and enjoy Canada,” says 19-year-old Tomas Lucas. A highlight for him was participat­ing in educationa­l events along the way. “I learned a lot about the voyageur way of life, the struggles my people had

to go through, and how they overcame them and endured to this day,” he says. His specialty became explaining furs and trapping (a history he didn’t know much about until he embarked on the journey), but he also got to share other aspects of Métis culture. “I really want all Canadians to know about the joie de vivre our people have — we love to jig, sing and play the fiddle,” he says. “It’s really fun to be among our people.” Sometimes, connecting with people onshore is the most rewarding experience. For Mike Ranta, who set out from Bella Bella, BC, in April, for his third crossCanad­a canoe voyage with his dog, Spitzii, it’s the people he meets that make the journey memorable. “Everywhere we stop, the First Nation communitie­s open their arms to us,” says Ranta. “There’s always someone looking out for us with a plate of food or a cup of coffee. Their welcome gives you a feel for how this nation was built, and we owe them a debt of gratitude.” Ranta collects driftwood so he can carve miniature canoes for children he encounters en route. Wherever he goes, people are keen to sign his canoe. “Getting in a canoe is an opportunit­y to test who you are as a person, and I think every Canadian respects the canoe and understand­s its significan­ce,” he says. “It’s the reason Canada is such a great country — it’s where we started from.” When the Connected by Canoe paddlers finally pulled their vessel up on the shore of Dow’s Lake in Ottawa, former ccm board chair Bill Morris was struck by the beauty — and fragility — of our outdoors. “It was some of the younger paddlers on the trip who reminded us about the need to better respect our environmen­t,” he says. Another trip highlight was the way each member of the group worked to make the voyage a success. Even when snow fell or winds kicked up and the waves made paddling tough, everyone pulled together. “It was pretty uplifting,” he says. While celebratin­g Canada’s sesquicent­ennial, the group also took time to reflect. “It was both a celebratio­n and a realizatio­n that there’s still so much we have to work on as a country,” he says. “Now we just need to find a way to expand the expedition, so people across Canada can share similar experience­s.”

 ??  ?? Paddlers from the Métis Nation of Ontario follow the fur-trade routes of their ancestors. The Pulling Together Canoe Society launches canoes off BC’S Sunshine Coast. Paddlers set out for their ten-day journey.
Paddlers from the Métis Nation of Ontario follow the fur-trade routes of their ancestors. The Pulling Together Canoe Society launches canoes off BC’S Sunshine Coast. Paddlers set out for their ten-day journey.
 ??  ?? Paddlers on the Connected by Canoe trip glide into Ottawa for the final leg of their ten- day journey.
Paddlers on the Connected by Canoe trip glide into Ottawa for the final leg of their ten- day journey.

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