by Stephen Dafoe
Morinville lawyer Andrew Lawson recently returned from a two-week canoe trip. But unlike many Albertans who hopped in a canoe while camping this summer, Lawson’s journey was one of geographical distance as well as one with miles travelled in creating building blocks for Truth and Reconciliation.
The Ontario iteration of the Canadian Canoe Pilgrimage ran from July 20 to August 15. Inspired by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the trip was designed to promote a dialogue between Canada’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.
“Fifty years ago the Jesuits had, in conjunction with the Centennial and Expo, paddled a traditional fur trade route from Midland .. up to the Georgian Bay, French River, and on to Montreal,” Lawson explained. “There was an initiative to reenact that, but tied into the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and involving Indigenous people.”
Lawson did a two-week portion of the Canadian Canoe Pilgrimage, following a traditional First Nations’ trading route travelled by the likes of Samuel de Champlain, St. Jean de Brébeuf and other early Europeans.
“There was about a third Jesuits, a third Indigenous, and a third tag-along, and I was part of that third of tag-along,” Lawson said, adding the initiative was to encourage discussion, communication, and plan for other initiatives in line with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. “It was a great opportunity and a super experience.”
Lawson set out from Midland on July 19, heading out into Georgian Bay.
“There was some interesting weather that you get in Georgian Bay and waves, which provided a challenge,” Lawson said, adding they continued up the French River, ending at North Bay – a distance of 375 kilometres, just less than half of the 850-kilometre total. The paddlers completed the journey near Montreal in Kahnawake Mohawk Territory on Aug. 15.
Though physically challenging, the physical journey was one Lawson was accustomed to, having cycled 300 kilometres through Guatemala as a fundraiser for Cause Canada and maternal health in 2015.
What was perhaps a greater journey, and one with more distance yet to go, was the emotional and intellectual purpose of the trip.
“It was a great initiative [with] interesting discussion with individuals of faith and others of no faith, and with Indigenous [people],” Lawson said.
“It brought a certain amount of reality to it as well. I was talking to an Indigenous person about diet in the residential schools and some of the problems that have arisen from that both in previous and this generation, and then hearing about it on The National [news show] about some of the research that’s been done.”
Lawson also recounts stopping along the French River and being met by Fish and Wildlife officers wanting to just check in with the travellers. Lawson said the commentary after the encounter was about how different it would have been if the paddlers had been Indigenous people only.
“It was a good opportunity to exert one’s self physically, to have great conversations with a variety of people, and to expand one’s horizons in terms of insight,” Lawson said.
He noted he feels a responsibility to carry on with the conversation and understanding, both with his knowledge and communicating that knowledge to others.
“It’s a great concept, but it becomes a lot more complicated when you try and put some practical steps to it in terms of what it means practically in terms of change. Certainly, it begins with a discussion, and that was really insightful for myself.”
After the journey, the local lawyer says he has a much greater, awareness, understanding and appreciation of the broad impact that colonization has had on Indigenous peoples.
“There is a desire and interest on all sides for there to be understanding, communication, and change,” he said. “the question and difficulty is what does that change look like – and that is part of the ongoing discussion.”