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Northern Ontario First Nation 'rekindling' interest in dogsledding with help from N.B. musher

The chief of Fort Severn First Nation says a chance email from a sled dog owner trekking from Manitoba to the east coast may help revive interest in the traditional mode of transportation in his community.

Fort Severn planning to work with sledder Justin Allen as he rides from Churchill, Man. to Saint John

The chief of Fort Severn First Nation in northern Ontario says he hopes interest in dogsledding can be revived in his community. (Submitted by Justin Allen)
Leading by example... Fort Severn First Nation Chief Paul Burke hopes to re-introduce to the young people in his community the importance of culture from the back of a dog sled 9:26

The chief of Fort Severn First Nation in northern Ontario says a chance email from a sled dog owner planning a trek from Manitoba to the east coast may help revive interest in the traditional mode of transportation in his community.

Just before Christmas, Paul Burke said he received a message from Justin Allen, a Saint John, N.B., man who has been in Churchill, Man., for the past five years training and racing sled dogs. Allen is making the 3,000-kilometre journey home on his sled.

"He was [contacting] me to ask for permission to come through our community," Burke told CBC Thunder Bay's Superior Morning. "A little light just went off in my head and I said 'well, this would be a perfect opportunity for the youth in my community.'"

Paul Burke is the chief of Fort Severn First Nation. (Jody Porter/CBC)

Fort Severn is the northern-most community in Ontario, located over 850 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, near where the Severn River meets Hudson Bay.

Burke said dogsledding, the traditional mode of winter transportation in the far north, has all but "died in our community," with the popularization of snowmobiles for transit and other modern conveniences like television and social media.

"They've lost interest in our culture, our history and it's so rich," he said, adding that elders in Fort Severn have also expressed an interest in "rekindling" interest in dogsledding among younger generations.

"We've forgotten how," Burke said.

Community youth to travel with Allen

That's where Allen's planned visit comes in.

The musher will be leaving Churchill toward the end of January, Burke said. The plan is to have local members of the Junior Canadian Rangers, alongside senior members meet up with Allen in Shamattawa First Nation in northern Manitoba.

The rangers will then travel with Allen back to Fort Severn, which will give the teens a chance to experience mushing and learn what it takes to maintain a dog team and other necessary skills. Burke said he's also asked Allen to stay in Fort Severn for a few days and give a talk at the community's school.
Allen's journey mapped out from Churchill, Man. to Saint John, N.B. His trek takes him through Ontario's far north. (Submitted by Justin Allen)

Community members would then escort Allen to Peawanuck, the next First Nation on his journey. A documentary crew is also travelling with Allen.

Burke's own passion for dogsledding came from an experience he had as a youth, he said.

"I had an opportunity to ride in a dogsled when I was in my youth — maybe 12 years old — and I've never forgotten," he said. "I was so amazed, just the speed and it's quiet, you don't have the noise of an engine."

"It was surreal."

You can listen to Fort Severn Chief Paul Burke's interview with Superior Morning host Lisa Laco by clicking here.

With files from Sarah Trainor