Dressed in traditional clothing from the fur trade era, a group of Métis youth prepares to embark on an epic journey starting from the Rideau River in Ottawa.
Over the next three months, they’ll paddle nearly 2000 kilometres all the way to Thunder Bay to raise awareness of Métis culture and history. Josh Szajewski, 21, from Kenora, calls it the opportunity of a lifetime.
“It's really exciting to learn more about my culture,” said Szajewski, after putting on a traditional Métis sash. “And to experience what the voyageurs would have had to do back in the old days, and to get a chance to do something similar is something that not many people get to do.”
The expedition is funded by the Métis Nation of Ontario. Ten young Metis people from across the province who are either post-secondary graduates, or still in a post-seconday program, will make the journey. Eight will paddle in a large canoe, while two will drive along in a van to provide ground support. The journey is expected to take 90 days.
“Epic is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days by youth. And this truly is an epic journey,” said 23-year-old Beth Clapin from Ottawa, who’s assigned to ground support. “So that's a very appropriate word, and I'm kinda speechless about what we're doing here."
'I feel like one of the most important things we can do for our community is spread the word and show other people … our traditions.' -Beth Clapin
Clapin says she was raised Métis, in Ottawa, but she’s learned a lot more about her culture and history since getting involved in the expedition. The group spent the last three weeks in Thunder Bay and Midland, Ontario for training. They learned about outdoor survival and how to be cultural ambassadors.
“I feel like one of the most important things we can do for our community is spread the word and show other people our crafts and our traditions,” Clapin said.
The expedition aims to retrace the historic voyages of the Métis who migrated west in the 18th and 19th centuries. Along the way, the team will stop in 23 Ontario communities to give presentations on Métis culture and how it contributed to the formation of Canada.
They’ll paddle the Rideau Canal to Kingston for the first leg of the journey, then follow the Lake Ontario shoreline to Toronto. They’ll take the Humber River north, and after a series of portages and rivers they’ll enter Georgian Bay at Wasaga beach, and follow the north shore of Lake Huron and Lake Superior all the way to Thunder Bay.
“It's interesting, because the first month or so it's all urban settings,” said Szajewski. “And then when we get to Lake Superior, it's completely different because it's 100% in the wilderness.”
Guide Jeremy Brown was part of a similar trip from Thunder Bay to Batoche, Saskatchewan in 2005. He says paddling up to ten hours a day will be a challenge, but it'll be worth it for everyone involved.
“People are living vicariously through us as we paddle along the historical routes,” he beams. “So it just really makes me feel proud to do what my ancestors did.”
The expedition is scheduled to end on August 22 in Thunder Bay, in time for the Metis Nation of Ontario’s Annual General Meeting.