'We all have a role': Jesuits, First Nations paddle towards reconciliation

A group of over 30 Jesuits, Indigenous and lay people are taking the first strokes towards a new relationship. They have embarked on a month-long canoe pilgrimage from Midland, Ont., to Montreal to promote reconciliation.

Trip meant to respond to the calls from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

The Canadian Canoe pilgrims paddle up the Georgian Bay from Midland, Ont., to the French River. (Dominik Haake/Supplied)
A group of over 30 Jesuits, Indigenous and lay people are taking the first strokes towards a new relationship. 

They have embarked on a month-long canoe pilgrimage from Midland, Ont., to Montreal to promote reconciliation.

"Our desire is true and real about helping to claim what we've been part of — the good and some of the very bad," said Kevin Kelly, 46, a Jesuit scholastic from Toronto during a stop at the French River Visitor Centre. 

"We don't have any expectations that this is a cure-all or that this is going to fix things. It's a simple step."

Working together, supporting each other 

Kelly helped organize the trip with another Jesuit scholastic named Erik Sorensen after finding inspiration from completing the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain over four years ago. 

Just as Kelly and Sorensen are answering the call to priesthood, they are also trying to respond to the requests of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission through this journey. 

"Truth and reconciliation, the calls to action are all about how do we work together," Kelly said.

"Not how do we continue to lead as the settlers leading the First Nations, Metis and Inuit. It's much more about how do we work together. How do we support each other?"
Kevin Kelly is a Jesuit scholastic from Toronto who helped organize the canoe pilgrimage. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

Sister Eva Solomon, whose spirit name is eagle woman, is on the voyage with her niece Betty Debassige to reconnect with their land. 

Solomon is a member of Henvey Inlet First Nation and the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., now living in Winnipeg. She said she sees the trip as a way to inspire healing, especially with the Jesuits, who ran a residential school in Spanish, Ont. 

'Willing to give my life too on this journey'

 "What it does say is it connects with their sense of saying we're sorry for what we did, and we will make this journey with you to say this is how sorry we are," Solomon said. 

"One of them today went into the water and could've drowned. He fell in at the rapids. So it's like I'm willing to give my life too on this journey ... That's how we become reconciled with the other."
Betty Debassige and her aunt Sister Eva Solomon, a member of Henvey Inlet First Nation and the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph, are paddling together on the canoe pilgrimage. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

Along with rapids, sun and rain, the canoeists had to be rescued during their first week on the water after encountering large waves on the Georgian Bay. Kelly called the experience a turning point for the paddlers. 

"That adversity is what really makes a group bond. What makes a group kind of recognize how challenging this is and how dependent we are on each other," Kelly said.

"There's nothing more clearly defined as building community as being six people in a canoe and making it go straight and getting through rapids and moving it forward, which is a beautiful analogy for what this project is about."

Reconciliation 'not going to happen overnight'

Paul Jacques, 30, from Chapleau, Ont., and a member of the Michipicoten First Nation is the navigator for the team. He said he is taking on the task to honour his ancestors on a route that pre-dates contact with Indigenous people. 

"There's been a lot of talk about reconciliation. The next step is to move forward with physical progress. Something concrete," Jacques said.

"This is definitely a conduit for that. I see that among the paddlers, we're reconciling with one another, so there's definitely forward progression."

Reconciliation may come for some along the journey, but Solomon stresses it will take time for many others. 

"It took us 400 years to get here. It's not going to happen overnight," Solomon said.

"We have to be patient and be respectful of where other people are on that journey."

Canoe route paddled 50 years ago

The paddlers are taking the same canoe route that 24 Jesuits took 50 years ago for Expo 67.  

Father Ronald Perron is a Jesuit priest from Sudbury, Ont., who made the original voyage.

"That was a thrilling time," Perron said.

"In the morning, the acidity in your muscles is always there ... Bear it up and it's going to be okay after 10 minutes."
Father Ronald Perron of Sudbury, Ont., paddled the same route as the canoe pilgrims 50 years ago. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

Perron met the new group of canoeists at the French River to offer his advice and encouragement.

He plans to follow the travellers to North Bay, Ont., on Monday. From there, the pilgrims will head east towards Ottawa and then Montreal. 

'What makes Canada stronger is when we understand each other'

Their final stop will be on August 15 at the Shrine of St. Kateri, who was the First Indigenous woman from North America to be canonized. 

Donations for the expedition are being accepted on the Canadian Canoe Pilgrimage website, where updates on the trek are being posted. 

"I think it's very important to recognize we all have a role in this kind of reconciliation whether we think we've been a part of it, any of the trauma, the abuse, the injustice that's happened or if we feel very distant from it," Kelly said.

"We have a role in recognizing what makes Canada stronger is when we understand each other. We understand where we're coming from. We understand cultural differences and we value those, and not only value them. We celebrate them.

"We learn about them. That's where we grow as a country and that's where we grow as people."

About the Author

Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: