Connected by Canoe: Rethinking Canada One Stroke/One Conversation at a Time (Part 1 of 4)

The original idea behind Connected by Canoe was to take Sesquicentennial greetings from The Canadian Canoe Museum to the 700+ delegates from across the country attending the annual conference of the Community Foundations of Canada.  The message was that while the canoe has played a pivotal role in shaping Canada’s past, it also has lessons for taking the country forward into its next 150 years, if only to show that by being ‘in the same boat’ and ‘pulling together,’ Canadians of all backgrounds, regions and persuasions can come to a new or renewed sense of the country as a whole.  At its core, Connected by Canoe was a test of the canoe as vessel of reconciliation, asking “Can a canoe journey be a workable floating forum for bringing indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians together?”

As such, Connected by Canoe was less a conventional voyageur canoe trip (although it was, travelling the 204 km from Kingston to Ottawa along the historic Rideau Waterway) and more a ‘floating conversation’ about the future of Canada.  Participants were invited to bring with them an open-ended question about the future of Canada that they were prepared to explore with fellow-paddlers and with folk in the communities where we stopped along the way. (These questions are listed here and written answers will be added to the Connected by Canoe web page by participant in due course.)    And then, in Ottawa, the single 16-paddle Montreal canoe was joined by four other big vessels filled with CFC conference delegates and other paddlers from the National Capital region. 

The project was so impactful to participants as well as to community members along the way that we’re exploring the idea of packaging the essence of the project for other individuals, organizations and municipalities—considering this journey in May 2017 as a pilot—so that others might pick up the idea in the future and run with it as companion projects under the Connected by Canoe banner.  For now, though, here’s a quick taste of what happened along the way from Kingston to Ottawa on this first Connected by Canoe journey.

 
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After a send-off event at the Canadian Canoe Museum where John Good, Executive Director of the Community Foundation of Greater Peterborough and museum board member, Bill Lockington, presented participants with a branded water bottles, we moved to Kingston for a ceremonial paddle in Canada’s First Capital City’s Inner Harbour.  It was a blustery, wet day but the spirits of a couple of dozen kayakers and a pace boat from the Canadian Coast Guard kept everyone smiling.  After our first strokes on the water as a team, we were all happy to move inside the River Mill Restaurant where, as guests of Executive Director, Tina Bailey, and the Community Foundation for Kingston and Area, we were formally greeted by the Kingston’s Mayor, Brian Patterson, and Town Crier, Chris Whyman.  Chris caught the essence of what we were setting out to do in his proclamation: 

 
 

Whereas the Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee and other indigenous peoples have lived in and transited the Cataraqui River system from what is now Kingston, long before the Europeans came, within a nation of rivers from coast to coast to coast, in which the canoe and its northern expressions the kayak and umiaq are still the most appropriate vehicle for accessing most of this country; 

And whereas 400 years ago, the Aboriginal Peoples across Canada welcomed Samuel de Champlain and those who followed from across the oceans; 

And whereas the canoe embodies the spirit of the natural materials from which it is made, and the essence of the people who have made them through the centuries, it was a vessel that was freely shared with newcomers by the Aboriginal Peoples of this continent, and became integral to the building of Canada as it is today;  

And whereas the canoe in its many forms connects people to the land, to the waters, to the past, to the present and to each other; 

Now therefore be it proclaimed that through the Connected by Canoe Journey, the Canadian Canoe Museum intends to show that the canoe, as a vessel of reciprocity, respect and reconciliation, reminds us that all are in the ‘same boat’ and that ‘pulling together’ is a way to build new possible futures for Canada and all Canadians.   Let the journey commence. 

Here ends this proclamation.  God bless the united Canada.  Meegwetch.  Niá:wen.

 
 

After an uneventful night at the Kingston East Motel, we had our first circle the following morning to introduce ourselves and share our reasons for joining the expedition.  With something of a rotating cast for the days of the journey from Kingston to Ottawa, we began with about half men and half women of a diversity of ages from 23-60+, from a variety of walks of life and representing our 24 partners, 10 sponsoring organizations and a cross-section of regions as well as First Nation, Métis and Inuit communities across the country. After a blessing of the waters and the canoe conducted by Algonquin canoe builders Chuck Commanda and Stephen Hunter, we were in the canoe doing some paddling practise and safety manoeuvers by about 9:30 in the morning and soon after that were making our way north toward Seeley’s Bay, our next stopping place.

Our hosts in Seeley’s Bay were the members of the Seeley’s Bay and Area Residents Association who had arranged a magical voyageur’s evening complete with over a hundred participants including a clutch of indigenous studies students from Rideau District High School in nearby Elgin, Ontario, who took turns after dinner speaking about their vision for the future of Canada.  Our contribution to the program included a traditional water song from Shaelyn Wabegijig and an introduction to Inuit throat singing by Kristin Kownak. 

 
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Kristin surprised everyone when, after her solo performance, she mentioned that throat singing is typically done by two women … at which point she said that she and Shaelyn had practised for a few minutes in the bathroom at Sunny Acres Resort (where we were staying in Seeley’s Bay) and were going to do an impromptu throat singing duet in the collaborative spirit of the evening.  The throat singing was so popular in Seeley’s Bay, that two of the people who had been present at the dinner in the Community Hall the night before met up with us the next day at Chaffey’s Locks to request a special tutorial, right there on the lawn of the lock master’s house while the rest of us chowed down on a picnic lunch!

After months of planning and organizing, how wonderful it felt to be on the water with such a diverse group of people, all talking about the future of Canada.   With sixteen people in the canoe, there was always someone to engage.  Surrounded by spectacular scenery and committed to the idea of actually trying to pull together to make the canoe move through the water, with all of the conversation going on, it was often difficult for even the seasoned canoeists to paddle in stroke. 

 
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But the longer we stayed on the water, the more synchronized we got as a group and the more disappointed we all were when we were met by one of our contacts from Parks Canada at Davis Lock, just south of Westport, to let us know that with water levels in the Rideau System being at an all-time high and with heavy rains in the forecast, they were recommending that we get off the water for a few days, for our own safety.  As if to emphasize the truth in this warning from our friends at Parks Canada, it was raining by the time we paddled up to The Cove in Westport.  Overnight, what started as a downpour turned into a three-day deluge of near biblical proportions.

Undaunted, Robin Jones, the inimitable Mayor of Westport, joined us for dinner, and we spent a lively night talking about her work in policing in the Nishnawbi-Aski Nation that has morphed in recent years into municipal politics.  The choice to avail ourselves of local accommodations (instead of tents) turned out to be an excellent call, particularly on this nasty wet night as we snuggled into our beds in the welcoming rooms of The Cove Country Inn (and restaurant) with the gracious hospitality of our hosts Mary and Terry Cowin and their ever-accommodating staff.

The beauty of a canoe trip that is actually a ‘floating conversation’ is that when the water is raging and it is impossible to put a boat in the water, you can still have a conversation.  With the rain still falling with a vengence, with the help of the Cowins, we hunkered down around a board table in The Cove the following morning and, for the first time, took turns unpacking our open-ended questions about the future of Canada.  It was a fascinating process where comment or response to one person’s query would lead to the decanting of another question which, in turn, would send us off in another direction.  By the time noon rolled around, we had emptied a number of coffee pots and had enjoyed a free-ranging conversation that took us places that no one expected to go. 

 
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Determined to keep the momentum of the actual journey going, we packed up our things, loaded them in the van, blessed and bailed the canoe (which by this time was at least half full of water at the Westport wharf), loaded it onto the trailer and headed up to Foley Mountain Conservation Area for a picnic lunch and afternoon program organized by our two Algonquin bark canoe builders.  Working as a team, while Chuck and Stephen scoped out the woods for their canoe-builder’s-walk-in-the-woods activity, part of the crew got a roaring fire going in the downpour, while others prepared gourmet sandwiches under a picnic shelter.

The walk in the woods was magical because in addition to experiencing first-hand the steps involved in the harvest of natural materials from which to construct a bark canoe, we learned from Chuck and Stephen the deep significance of the canoe to the Algonquin people.  If it was not evident to everyone at the beginning of our Connected by Canoe journey that getting in a canoe is tantamount to connecting back to the beginnings of time in North America, it certainly was by the time we started making our way back to the van from the back woods of Foley Mountain.  And again, as if right on cue in some preordained set of events, by the time we travelled by road to Perth for our next evening event, Chuck had managed with a few phone calls to get one of his handmade bark canoes on display at our dinner at the Community Food Centre in Perth, which allowed everyone to see and to appreciate the beauty and artistry involved in this craft of yesterday, today and tomorrow.