At the centre of our experience in Perth was The Table Community Food Centre where Lynn McIntyre, Executive Director of The Perth and District Community Foundation, and Larry McDermott, Executive Director of Plenty Canada, teamed up with Lanark County Neighbours for Truth and Reconciliation and Community Food Centre Executive Director, Ramsey Hart and his team to create a memorable evening for the Connected by Canoe crew. Although, because of still persistently high water and a continuing monsoon, we were obliged to arrive in Perth by road instead of by water via the Tay Canal. A slight misjudgement of distance and weather saw us walking eleven blocks in the rain from our accommodations to The Table. This was suitable for the bevy of fearless canoeists, we are.
The Table was in full swing serving meals to all. On the menu this night was scrumptious vegetarian lasagna with salad, dessert, and unlimited ice water, coffee and tea—all served restaurant style by a swish of willing volunteers in cook’s caps and fancy aprons. Our hosts had cleverly planned the night so that as the regular thrice-weekly dinner crowd thinned out people interested in a meal and evening program, or just the evening program, filtered in toward the end of the regular dinner service time slot. By the time Ramsey Hart called the room to order, there were 60-70 people in the room – all there to speak about canoes and reconciliation.
Larry McDermott began speaking, making specific mention of the canoe-building project called The Valley of the Kiji Sibi: Celebrating our shared histories and future, that Plenty Canada and Lanark County Neighbours for Truth and Reconciliation have been working on with Chuck Commanda. As he spoke, he brought in canoe teachings and some of the lessons they had learned from Chuck’s grandfather, William Commanda, published in Romola Vasantha Thumbadoo’s book about William called Learning from a Kindergarten Dropout. Larry drew everyone’s attention to a quotation from William that was particularly apt for the occasion:
“The Mamiwinini journeyed over the waterways of Turtle Island, spinning a web of protection and prayer over the vast continent for countless years, passing over lightly but leaving an indelible trace of the branches of the great family tree that comprised eighty-four nations linked by both language and a deep connection to the land. As in that creation story they too were travellers, and the birch bark canoe was the expression of the journey of life through their world. The birch bark canoe granted them this heritage. Its ancient importance is etched into petroglyphs and visible in pictographs across the land.”
What followed from Grandfather Larry’s remarks were comments from Ardoch Algonquin leader, Mireille Lapointe, which, in turn began a natural flow of voices within the room about the world as it is and the possible worlds that could be, if we all took reconciliation seriously, and committed to doing something about it. In addition to sage contribution from a broad spectrum of First Nations folk in the room, other people like Kay Rogers, editor of At Home in the Tay Valley, a well-researched and sensitive history of the Perth area, added their comments to the mix. They acknowledged that it will take energy and movement on the part of all Canadians to see ourselves to any kind of “new normal” with respect to relations between Indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians. At one point, early in the evening, Ramsey Hart explained that The Table was to food what a library is to books and information. But it was more than that for the everyone in the Connected by Canoe discussion that evening in Perth. The Table became a metaphor, a microcosm, an exemplar of a frank and honest conversation, prompted by a Sesquicentennial canoe journey, that could and should be happening all across this country.
When the compulsion to talk finally started to fade, our night at The Table came to the most affirming conclusion when Algonquin historian and founder of the Lanark Drum Circle, Francine Desjardins, spoke to us about the centrality of water in our lives and then quietly led the group in the singing of a traditional water song. In our midst were people for whom the singing of our country’s national anthem is becoming increasingly problematic, for all that it evokes of the imbalances in the telling and celebrating of Canada’s history to this point. However, at the point in this gathering when O Canada might have been sung, instead, with her mellifluous voice and sacred rattle, she sang to the four directions. “Wishitaah doo-yah, doo-yah, doo-yah …” with a refrain that that caught perfectly the essence and spirit of the evening and of the whole Connected by Canoe project.
The following morning, our ‘floating conversation’ continued off-the-water for a second day in the fancy conference room of the Best Western Hotel in Perth. There was much to process from the night before, which led beautifully into Plan B programming. This included welcoming filmmaker Goh Iromoto to the crew and viewing the trailer for his acclaimed new film The Canoe. Then we had the privilege of hearing detailed and interactive life stories from a couple of our Express Leg participants. And then, of course, we moved on to our personal open-ended questions about the future of Canada. As difficult as it was to see rain still falling in great sheets out the window and know that we would not be paddling for at least another day, the conversation that happened in Perth and Westport, during our mornings off the water, were key to building understandings between and amongst all Connected by Canoe participants.
Back at the Museum in Peterborough, Marketing and Media Relations Manager Jessica Fleury, was working behind the scenes to fulfill our need for posters and materials to dress our pop-up Connected by Canoe Exhibit at the Smiths Falls Home Show. While we were at The Table the night before, Jessica had been busy designing a map and four other posters, which she forwarded electronically to Ingrid Bron at the Town of Smiths Falls for printing and mounting on gator board. While we were continuing our discussions at the Best Western Hotel the next morning, Jessica was able to create a PowerPoint presentation with images from the first part of the journey. We were able to loop it on a computer and animate even more our presence at the Home Show.
Now deep into Plan B, after a quick lunch in the Best Western conference room (thanks to Tim Horton’s who sponsored a bunch of breakfasts and lunches) we loaded the van and headed for Smiths Falls with a notion that the best deployment of resources at this point was to divide and conquer: one crew would go ahead in the van and do a thorough scouting of locks, dams, water levels, obstacles, land hazards, put-ins and take-outs downriver from Smiths Falls, and the other crew would tuck in our shirts, comb our hair and generally try to make ourselves presentable for some serious public relations work on behalf of the Canadian Canoe Museum, Connected by Canoe and its two dozen partners and ten sponsors. On both counts we were successful. The advance team determined that getting back on the water was possible below Smiths Falls. The Home Show team got a chance to chat about Connected by Canoe with a substantial portion of the 2000 people who visited the old Target store in the Smiths Falls mall that day.
That evening, thanks to the hard work of John Festerini and his team at Parks Canada and Ingrid Bron and the Town of Smiths Falls, we had a lovely mingling of politicians, paddlers from the Rideau Round Table, and other kindred spirits at a lovely setup in the lobby of the refurbished old stone mill that is the Parks Canada headquarters in the centre of Smiths Falls. With local brews on ice and music from award-winning First Nations (Upper Cayuga/Mohawk) singer/songwriter/actor and multi-instrumentalist, Andy Mason, conversation flowed easily over dinner. Walking back to our accommodations at the EconoLodge across the street (in the rain), having had a wonderful evening, there was a bit of a spring in everyone’s step knowing after two days of Plan B on dry land, the paddling would resume in the morning.