An intrepid group of about 30 pilgrims — made of First Nations, Jesuits and laity — will be replicating the 800-km journey taken by missionary St. Jean de Brebeuf in the 1640s from Midland, Ont., to Montreal. To mark Canada’s 100th birthday in 1967, a group of Jesuits followed the same trade route to Expo in Montreal.
Fifty years later, as Canada celebrates its’ 150th anniversary, the route will be the same, but the motivation is much deeper.
“It is serving as a response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission by, on a fundamental level, bringing together two cultures — First Nations and non-First Nations,” said Erik Sorensen, project manager of the 2017 Canadian Canoe Pilgrimage. “It is reconciliation on a very practical and individual level … by letting them encounter each other and develop friendships and relationships. That is very practical reconciliation.”
The group is expected to begin paddling July 21 from Midland along the shores of Georgian Bay. The route will see them head north to take the French River to Lake Nipissing, then following the Mattawa River to the Ottawa River to the St. Lawrence. They hope to arrive in Montreal Aug. 15.
After about eight hours a day in a canoe, the group will spend the majority of nights camping in the wilderness, joining together in prayer each evening and making a number of stops in municipalities to refresh.
“It will be physically demanding,” Sorensen said. “These large, six- or eight-person canoes are challenging to paddle and even more challenging to portage. To pick them up and carry them a couple kilometrers across dry land requires a fair bit of physical excursion.”
Details about the trip can be found at www.canoepilgrimage.com. It’s expected to cost about $100,000 and those selected will have to fundraise their share. Any additional funds collected will be used to produce learning material and resources, said Sorensen, who professed his first vows with the Jesuits in 2014.
For him, the extended exposure to First Nations people during the trip is what can spark true reconciliation.
“That prolonged encounter is what this trip is all about,” said Sorensen, a 26-year-old from Red Deer, Alta. “With this prolonged experience it steers the group into the opportunity for the people participating to really encounter each other in more than a superficial way — more than an afternoon meeting would. It is in that encountering that relationships will be formed and there will be the opportunity for mutual healing.”
Andrew Starblanket, a First Nations who intends to make the pilgrimage next summer as part of the core group, agrees that there is much healing possible by bringing people together in this way.
“It is more than just a canoe trip,” he said. “This trip will bring nations together to help support not only the First Nations but all people. (It) will bring together many different creative minds from many different nations so we can heal what was so devastating to many.”
Starblanket, who lives on a reserve in Saskatchewan with fellow Cree, said the wounds of the past manifest themselves today in the “hard time” he has with saying “I love you to my family.”
He blames the residential schools and the impact they had on his mother.
“It was like imprinted on her and it affected her parenting,” he said. “I have yet to find out why.”
But it isn’t only the First Nations who need reconciliation, added Starblanket.
“It’s hard to tell a story that is history and that is bad, especially for certain churches and religious that had a negative influence on many,” he said. “(So) the Church needs healing too, and this is a good way for them to heal and for all of us to heal.”
Sorensen said there will be a number of public events along the route, and he is encouraging ways for those who want to join the pilgrimage.
“We’re also inviting people to come and paddle with us for two or three days at a time if they want to come and experience the pilgrimage aspect of it,” he said.