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Pilgrimage lands in Pembroke

By Stephen Uhler, The Daily Observer

A long journey is coming to an end, leaving all it touched richer for the experience.

 

The Canadian Canoe Pilgrimage (CCP) came ashore at Riverside Park beach Sunday afternoon for a rest stop at the Sisters of St. Joseph, where they held Mass and took in a meal, before continuing on their journey the next day.

The pilgrimage involves more than 30 Indigenous, Jesuit, English and French Canadian paddlers who have been on an 850-kilometre canoe journey, held in the spirit of reconciliation. Participants range in age from 18 to 67 years old.

Starting in Midland, they are en route to the Kahnawake First Nation, located close to Montreal, where the group plans to reach by Aug. 15. This journey retraces the traditional First Nations canoe trade route that was travelled by early European settlers such as Samuel de Champlain and Jean de Brébeuf, who were welcomed and guided by the Indigenous Peoples.

This also retraces the path taken by two dozen Jesuits 50 years ago in 1967, when they made the same journey in celebration of Canada's centennial. This year, Canada has been marking its 150th year.

This journey is different. The CCP is a project inspired by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) with the hope of encouraging intercultural and interreligious dialogue and learning. Being together on a tough canoe trip also has a way of binding people together.

“There's been some amazing days, and some very challenging days,” said Kevin Kelly, a Jesuit studying at Regis College in Toronto to become a priest. He acted as the spokesman for the group.

“The weather, the struggles of camping, of navigating the canoes, the challenges of the terrain, all aid in us getting to know and trust the other, which is the key to reconciliation,” he said.

There has been a lot of soul searching and sharing among the participants of the pilgrimage. Along with that is the knowledge the Jesuits themselves had a hand in the residential school system, operating one of them, as part of an effort to erase Indigenous identity. This journey is as much for them to atone as it is to reconcile with the people affected by it.

Kelly said the whole journey has been remarkable, from the amount of media coverage they have been receiving to the support they've received from the churches, the mayors of municipalities and juts people who want to assist them. Along the route, they have been joined by other groups of paddlers for shorter stretches.

“This has been touching a lot of people,” he said.

Where ever they have been put up for the night, the pilgrimage members will put on the Kairos Blanket Exercise, involving their hosts. They held one with the residents of the Sisters of St. Joseph convent, where they were staying.

Named after a social justice group of churches and others, the exercise is an interactive learning experience that teaches the Indigenous rights history that is rarely taught. The Blanket Exercise covers over 500 years of history in a one and a half hour participatory workshop.

Blanket Exercise participants take on the roles of Indigenous peoples in Canada. Standing on blankets that represent the land, they walk through pre-contact, treaty-making, colonization and resistance. They are directed by facilitators representing a narrator (or narrators) and the European colonizers. Participants are drawn into the experience by reading scrolls and carrying cards which ultimately determine their outcomes.

While running through the exercise, the blankets are folded over and over again to represent the erasure of Indigenous rights and title as the colonizers gradually whittled them down through legal means. One is struck by how small the blankets are by the end of it.

By engaging on an emotional and intellectual level, the Blanket Exercise effectively educates and increases empathy.

Following the exercise, a circle was formed so everyone could share their feelings on what they just experienced. One described it as a very powerful and awakening exercise.

Kelly said he would like this trip to be repeated every year, but in shorter, 200 km segments. He said he believes it has become a powerful tool for reconciliation.

For more information about the CCP, and to donate to support their efforts, visit: www.canoepilgrimage.com.

SUhler@postmedia.com