The canoe is a not just a vehicle for transportation in Canada. It’s part of our culture. Indigenous peoples used it for millennia to traverse the waterways. When the French settled in New France (northeastern North America) and began fur trading, they hired Indian and Métis guides and learned from them how to make birch bark canoes for their long journeys from Montreal into the hinterland. The voyageurs were the professional paddlers of the fur trade, and great stories and song have been recorded about them. When the English came, they used the canoe as their main mode of transportation, as did Jesuit missionaries who came to convert the local residents to Christianity.
The canoe is so much a part of our history that it has crept into our sex life. The line, “A Canadian is somebody who knows how to make love in a canoe,” has often been attributed to Pierre Berton, a popular writer of Canadian history (though apparently he denied having said it).
When I was a child, every summer my family would load up the car with a tent and supplies, strap our canoe on top, and head “up north” for a vacation. Up north from Southern Ontario meant Muskoka, North Bay, Haliburton Highlands, the Kawarthas, and Algonquin Park. I know how lucky I was to have had that experience.
Indigenous People and Jesuit Priests
One of the most famous Jesuits in Canada was Jean de Brébeuf. In 1649, he and other missionaries had been living with the Hurons (Wendat First Nation), when it was captured by the Iroquois. The captives were tortured and killed. Brébeuf was considered a martyr, was beatified in 1925, and canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church in 1930. Of course, since history is written by the victors, we don’t know the names of the Huron who were also killed.
Fast forward a couple of centuries, and the Jesuits were part of the religious groups that ran the residential schools that injured so many Indigenous children and their descendants. Four years ago, during the tenure of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Jesuits “formally acknowledged their role” in the harm that was done. This year, some Jesuits and Indigneous people are participating in a reconciliation effort in canoes.
The Canadian Canoe Pilgrimage
Designed to “encourage dialogue, reconciliation and friendship,” and following “the Calls-to-Action outlined in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” a group of Indigenous and Jesuit paddlers embarked on a 850 kilometre-trip together. They started on July 21st at Sainte-Marie among the Hurons and the Martyr’s Shrine in Midland, Ontario and are expected to arrive in Montreal on August 15th. The Canadian Canoe Pilgrimage will follow the traditional route of the fur traders, travelling and portaging along the historic waterways between Lake Huron and the St. Lawrence River.
The trip organizer Erik Sorensen, a 27-year-old preparing to become a Jesuit priest, told CBC News reporter Harvard Gould, that the concept of reconciliation was big and broad. But, “I think it really starts at that individual and personal level, and if we’re going to have reconciliation here in Canada with Indigenous, Métis, [and] Inuit, it really has to start at that personal connection. That’s really what this is about.”
It’s a great first step—Canadian style.
The painting of the voyageurs in the canoe is Shooting the Rapids, 1871 by Frances Anne Hopkins (1838–1919)