Connected by Canoe: Rethinking Canada One Stroke/One Conversation at a Time (Part 4 of 4) — A Personal Reflection

It was clear from the outset of the Connected by Canoe Journey that the emotional water level was already high.  During our first media interviews at the send-off event in Peterborough on May 2, Algonquin canoe builder, Stephen Hunter, was in tears as he described the bark canoe model he’d brought with him. His grandfather had made more than one hundred years before.  Listening to him talk to the reporter with an involuntary gush of emotion was a first indication that the idea of bringing indigenous and non-indigenous people together with the canoe as a focus might have potential for the two sides of this cultural divide closer together.

 
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Instead of letting that moment sit as an unprocessed one-off moment of high emotional amplitude, we left that news conference, got in a canoe and paddled together for more than a week.  In a bar in Smiths Falls, after our formal responsibilities to the trip were done for the day, that moment with the model canoe came up again in conversation.  But this time, Stephen pulled out his phone, which contained the most remarkable series of old black and white photos of his family (including his grandfather the canoe builder) growing up in and around Bancroft, Ontario. 

When I beheld the model canoe on Day 1 of our journey, I had imagined his grandfather’s weathered hands, but in these totally arresting photos we saw the whole guy—fishing, logging, hunting, relaxing, building canoes, kibitzing with his brothers, with his family, alone, as a young man, as a middle-aged man, and as an old man just before he died.  It was an absolutely unforgettable moment in space and time. A group of almost-accidental canoe compadres were learning about the life of an Algonquin family in Ontario’s mid-north in a room filled with the clatter of beer glasses and the strains of an earnest young singer/songwriter on the stage whining his way through the entire Neil Young songbook, whether we liked it, or not.  “There is a town in north Ontario…”

 
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At the table that night we had musician and outdoor educator, Glen Caradus, who connected to things he saw in the photos to tell the story of Adventure in Understanding, a program he’d led for the past few years (founded by the Peterborough/Kawartha Rotary Club in partnership with Curve Lake First Nation and the Canadian Canoe Museum). It involves a big canoe trip from Peterborough to Curve Lake First Nation involving a mix of indigenous and non-indigenous youth with a smattering of Rotary international exchange students.  Glen related how, in the context of those canoe journeys, that family details of the participants flowed naturally into those conversations too in ways that enriched understandings on both sides of the cultural divide.  It occurred to me as the banter went back and forth, that none of this would have been shared had Connected by Canoe not brought these lifelines together in one place.

Listening to all this, in the corner of our booth, was Bill Buxton who, in his real life is Director of Research for Microsoft International, who just happens to be crazy for canoes, particularly bark canoes.  Bill would say things like, “technology is not good, nor is it bad, but it is definitely not neutral,” which, of course, was a bit like putting a cat in the henhouse because everybody had something to say about that. Because we were in a canoe, there was time and frame of mind to noodle the idea around with a bit of back and forth.  But, on this occasion in the noisy Smiths Falls bar, he chimed in that “if we thought for a moment that there was any difference between the level of design and technological sophistication between the fanciest cell phone and a bark canoe, then we were all sorely mistaken.”  Anyway, Bill listened to Stephen’s stories about his grandfather that flowed out of the photographs on his phone, and then he listened to Glen’s stories about Adventure in Understanding.  And then we left it at that.  But several days later, Bill quietly suggested to Glen that he knew a Cree youth in the town of Pelican Narrows in Saskatchewan that he’d like to help join this year’s Adventure in Understanding journey.

 
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That was how the Connected by Canoe ‘floating conversation’ went.  Unable to paddle because of epic rains, flooding and record water levels, we went into the woods near Westport with Stephen and his mentor Chuck Commanda for an opportunity to see the trees and the natural resources therein through their eyes.  The conversations that flowed from that experience led to a discussion of the bark canoe build that Chuck is doing this summer in Perth with Plenty Canada and the Lanark Country Neighbours for Truth and Reconciliation.  When in Perth, we got a chance to meet the people involved in this project, we got a chance to see one of Chuck’s beautiful canoes, and we got a chance to hear some words from Chuck’s grandfather, William Commanda about the centrality of canoes in Algonquin culture.  All priceless opportunities. 

But while the discussion about this was going on in the canoe, another member of the Connected by Canoe Express Leg crew listened intently asked what she might do to help with that kind of thing.  To this, Canadian Canoe Museum General Manager, Carolyn Hyslop, explained that the museum had planned a public build with Chuck in July which would happen as long as sufficient funds could be raised to cover costs.  Shortly after this participant left the journey and went home, a donation to cover the shortfall came quietly.   Moved in significant ways by her experience with Connected by Canoe, she made a personal contribution toward reconciliation, knowing that these funds will help bring indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians just that little bit closer together through the auspices of the Canadian Canoe Museum.  She had seen the process in action and wanted to help spread the power of the idea.

 
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The most affirming thing about Connected by Canoe was how quickly people who heard the story of the project “got” the idea, once they realized that we were not simply going from one place to another in a canoe.  “This is not so much a canoe trip, as it is a floating conversation about the future of Canada involving a diverse mix of indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians,” we would say to anybody who was interested.  And then, we would add, “Everyone who is participating has been asked to bring an open-ended question about the future of Canada that they are prepared to explore in whatever ways make sense during the journey.”  There would be a pause, and a smile of recognition, and people would say, “Ohhh, cool.  That’s an interesting idea.”  And it is a generative idea, as long as we can figure out how to keep the Connected by Canoe momentum going. But before visiting that briefly, I’d like to take one more narrative foray into the power of the canoe-as-vessel-of-reconciliation idea to move individual perspectives on Canada.

The question I brought to Connected by Canoe was this: “What will a reconciled Canada look like?” When this was first decanted to the group, someone asked, “How can we be re-conciled when we weren’t conciled in the first place.  It is a fallacy to suggest that all was sweetness and light on Turtle Island before the European invasion.”  I’m still thinking about that.  But the essence of the question, as we bandied it back and forth in the canoe and in discussions in Peterborough, Kingston, Seeley’s Bay, Westport, Smiths Falls, Merrickville, Kemptville, Manotick and Ottawa, was really about what we, as Canadians, need to do to make good the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to enact a plan to nourish and grow a fairer, more equitable, and more united country, going forward?  In the mix of sensations and in the wash of emotions released and revealed by the process of paddling from Kingston to Ottawa up the historic Rideau Waterway, strangely perhaps, the beginnings of an answer to the question arose from my growing and now quite profound discomfort with singing our national anthem.

 
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O Canada, our home and native land.  True patriot love, in all thy sons command.  With glowing hearts, we see thee rise, the True North strong and free.  Ton histoire est une épopée, des plus brillants exploits. God keep our land.  Glorious and free.  O Canada, we stand on guard for thee. O Canada, we stand on guard for thee. 

Oh Canada. We can do better than that. Our home on Native Land, maybe. But the whole jingoistic tone of the lyrics.  The square metre of the music, as if written to march our boys off to war. The references to what sounds like a narrowly Christian God. The quasi-military notion of standing on guard… against what? Ourselves? The True North, “strong and free” where more than three-quarters of households are overcrowded and food insecure?  I’m a first generation and would-be-proud Canadian for whom these musical lines and lyrics are increasingly sticking in my craw.  Glowing heart?  No.

 
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At the magical Connected by Canoe evening in Seeley’s Bay, I asked Mayor Joe Baptista (who’s a wonderful singer and musician) if he would lead us in singing the national anthem to close the night.  It seemed like something we could and probably should do to close out the night.  But even only two days into our ‘floating conversation’ I knew that there were First Nation members of our ensemble for whom this would not be a highlight.  But I asked the Mayor anyway.  And he complied.  But he complied in the most remarkable way.  Instead of just asking people to stand, after what had been a moving and inspiring night of sharing with the 100+ people who were there, he asked everyone to come forward and stand together cheek-by-jowl, as it were.  And we sang like that.  It was a seriously memorable moment of togetherness.  But all I could see in the crowd was my fellow paddler Shaelyn Wabagijig, from Rama First Nation, just standing there with a flat look on her beautiful weather-burnished face.

Asking a proud Anininaabe woman, who had given the audience earlier in the night the most amazing performance of a traditional water song sung with a drum, to sing O Canada was, in that moment, like asking her to celebrate publicly 150 years of settler-imposed strife for her people.  In spite of the Mayor’s excellent and enthusiastic musical leadership and standing amongst family, friends and neighbours in my home community, I was completely overcome by the moment and just stopped singing to make room for the flood of emotion that was welling up from deep within.

 
 

The legacy of Connected by Canoe, for me, is a realization that if we are to make any meaningful progress at all toward reconciliation — as individuals, communities, as a nation — we need to be doing things together. But for those of us on the settler side of the divide, I think we need to be thinking in terms not of minor tweaks to how we do, and have done, business, but of significant, even symbolic, grand gestures to show that we are serious about a collaborative rebuilding of the country.  One such grand gesture just might be setting aside O Canada for now and coming at the whole idea of a new national anthem from a different point of view.  Maybe the country we’re talking about is too rich and complex and idea to be captured in one song or ten songs.  Maybe the national anthem is the sigh of the wind, the patter of rain, the rush of the river, the heartbeat drum of the land itself or the sound of quiet voices around a crackling campfire.

I do know the feel of the closing of the transformative Connected by Canoe evening at The Table Community Food Centre in Perth was very different from our night in Seeley’s Bay, moving as it was.  After all was said and done in that community conversation in Perth, Algonquin singer and drummer, Francine Desjardins, spoke about how the canoe connects us to the rivers of the nation and to the waters that flow through our bodies and our lives.  And then she led the assembled company in a water song sung to the four directions: “Wishitaah doo-yah, doo-yah, doo-yah, Wishitaah doo-yah, doo-yah, doo-yah-hey…”  That gesture, that song sung communally, was a much better fit to the tone and spirit of the night.  Maybe, with the fusion of musical motifs and voices from east, north and west, it has anthem potential?

 
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What brought all of this together, what released all this love, all this productive ferment was the canoe.  The Connected by Canoe project affirmed the space created by the vessel itself in this nation of river and in this river of nations is sacred, or can be sacred, if we bring it into our lives with the belief that this simple, beautiful device has things to teach us, still, as we search for new ways forward.  The Canadian Canoe Museum is not the only organization in the country bringing Canadians together with canoes. There are other courageous individuals and organizations doing more or less the same thing, in all regions of the country.  The potential revealed in this journey from Kingston to Ottawa into, for some of us, the heart of new realizations about reconciliation, was that the Connected by Canoe idea, or brand, is one that could be used to unite these efforts under one banner. This might gain even more traction than any of our projects might get individually.

Please stay tuned for updates on the Connected by Canoe page on the Canadian Canoe Museum website.  Watch for a continued flow of response to the project from participants.  And, by all means, think about how you might get some kind of Connected by Canoe project going in your life or your community.