Canada C3 ship aids cultural exchange between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people

The conversations that both Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants are having on board a former Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker, the Polar Prince, are helping them understand each other — and the country — better.

Journey from Toronto to Victoria through Northwest Passage spurs conversations and understanding

Emma Berthou and Khairunnisa Intiar are pictured aboard the C3 ship, the Polar Prince, off Quebec's Magdalen Islands. (Ossie Michelin)

The conversations that Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants are having on board a former Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker, the Polar Prince, are helping them understand each other, and the country, better.

Travelling since June 1 from Toronto to Victoria via the Northwest Passage as part of the Canada C3 Program — C3 stands for "coast to coast to coast" — the ship brings Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants together. It's a signature project of Canada 150, funded by Canadian Heritage.

And the topic of Indigenous Peoples and reconciliation comes up again and again.

"We learned about Indigenous culture in elementary school and high school in a very generic, vague way," said Anna Velasco, who was born and raised in Vancouver.

"So for me to have an Indigenous person sitting beside me in my cabin, or next door, or sitting across from me at dinner has been very eye-opening, and it makes me feel closer to my colleagues on C3, learning how to respect their culture as a non-Indigenous person."

The C3 ship, a former Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker called the Polar Prince, is travelling from Toronto to Victoria via the Northwest Passage. (Canada C3 Program)

Velasco, who identifies as Filipino-Canadian, said that after living and working in New York City for over five years she felt the need to rediscover Canada and the people who live here from a new perspective.

Participants applied for the C3 program by submitting a short video explaining why they wanted to go on the ship. Organizers selected a diverse cross-section of participants from across the country, including Indigenous people, non-Indigenous people who are born in Canada, and newcomers to the country.

More than 5,000 people applied for approximately 200 spots on the journey. While those who are selected have their expenses covered on board the ship, they are expected to help staff with cooking and cleaning as well as take part in cultural and educational activities on shore.

Melanie Rose Frappier and Anna Velasco visit the Pessamit First Nation in Quebec as part of their Canada C3 journey. (Canada C3 Program)

"On each and every one of the 15 legs, we stop in Indigenous communities," said C3 founder and expedition leader Geoff Green.

"I would say it's the thing we do most. We're certainly looking at the environment and we're doing science and we're looking at diversity and inclusion and youth engagement, but reconciliation has been the most profound cross-cutting part of the journey so far."

A place for learning

The Legacy Room — the first of its kind — rests at the heart of the ship. With the lingering scent of sage smoke, it is a place to welcome guests, perform ceremonies and display Indigenous cultural Items.

Some of the items were brought on board by C3 and others were gifted to the ship from the Indigenous communities they visit. Most importantly, it is a place for conversations and learning.

"The Legacy Room — and beyond that, the whole ship — is the perfect opportunity to bring non-Indigenous and Indigenous people together to have those discussions," said youth ambassador Melanie Rose Frappier, who identifies as Métis Aninshnaabe from Sudbury, Ont.

"These serious discussions are what we need in order to enhance our Canadian ways. Canadians need to know better in order to do better."

For Khairunnisa Intiar, it was her first opportunity to get to know Indigenous people in Canada.

A Muslim Indonesian immigrant, Intiar first came to Canada for university and now lives in Moncton, N.B. She said she did not have the opportunity to learn about Indigenous Peoples in school.

Anna Velasco takes a photograph of C3 staff member Emmett MacDougal learning to make bannock in the community of Ekuanitshit, Que. (Ossie Michelin)

"Generally as a non-Indigenous person you always hear about the First Nations, but you never hear about the specific groups like the Ojibwa or Innu, or the other groups like Métis or Inuit," Intiar said.

"It was really interesting to learn the specifics. The Indigenous people on board have been teaching each other through conversations about their nation or group, and the difference in languages and cultures. Looking in from the outside, it's often grouped together; we fail to see the diversity of Indigenous communities. This trip has really broadened my perspective."

'This is just the beginning'

C3 hopes the ship will have an influence far beyond its 200 or so participants and the over 100 destinations. It aims to reach more than 20 million Canadians through social media, digital classrooms and other partners. Both a book and a documentary are in the works.

"I hope this is just the beginning, and not the end when we get to Victoria, but the beginning of something that will continue for years to come," said Green.

"You have to capture people's imagination and inspire them, but also touch their hearts to get true change and commitment to take place, and I think this journey can do that."

Ekuanitshit Chief Jean Charles Petashue, left, presents the C3 program with a set of traditional Innu snowshoes. Expedition leader Geoff Green sits to his right. (Ossie Michelin)

Green freely admits that while he is proud of his country, a lot of the Indigenous participants do not feel comfortable celebrating 150 years of Confederation.

Aryn Lessage of the Garden River First Nation in Ontario, said her family warned her about being associated with a project linked to Canada 150, but she chose to go in order to help people better understand the Indigenous world.

"I was surprised by the amount of information some of the non-Indigenous people didn't know coming aboard. They didn't understand why Canada 150 would be a contentious issue, and not understanding or even being aware of some of our cultures or histories or diversities," Lessage said.

"So I'm really happy that Canada C3 has brought people from across the country onto the same ship to have some of those issues explained and explore some of the unknown."

After 15 legs and 150 days of travel, the Polar Prince is slated to reach its final destination of Victoria on Oct. 28.