Day 6

Dianne Whelan is travelling Canada's Great Trail as a first step to reconciliation

This year, the 24,000-km Great Trail, a network of recreational hiking trails connecting Canada's three coasts, will be completed as Canada celebrates its 150th anniversary. Dianne Whelan is travelling the trail every step of the way as a way of reconciling with the land and Canada's indigenous peoples.
Dianne Whelan is travelling the entire 24,000-kilometre route of Canada's Great Trail, which will be completed this year. (Dianne Whelan)

Canada's Great Trail is due to be completed this year — and Dianne Whelan intends to travel all 24,000 kilometres.

Also known as the Trans-Canada Trail, the Great Trail will connect all three Canadian coasts, passing through some 15,000 communities along the way.

Documentary filmmaker and writer Dianne Whelan has been on the trail since 2015. And as she tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury, she finds it fitting that the trail will be completed in Canada's 150th year.

Dianne Whelan takes in the scenery of the District of Muskoka, Ontario, while travelling the Great Trail in the fall of 2015. (Dianne Whelan)

"The trail is this beautiful symbol," she says. "It's an umbilical cord that connects us all."

When all 432 of its trails are connected, the Great Trail will be among the longest in the world. Its trail network includes of traditional First Nations paddling routes, railway lines, and historical fur trade routes.

"It has the story of this land wrapped into it," Whelan says. "Not only is it the story of the people of this land; it's the story of this land as well."

Whelan, whose previous work has included films shot on Mount Everest and in the High Arctic, says she was drawn to the trail as a storyteller and adventure lover. 

But she also sees her journey as a form of personal reconciliation — both with the land and with Canada's indigenous people.


A short film about Whelan's journey by Ontario filmmaker Jeremy Munce, as published on her website:


A journey of reconciliation

Whelan's journey comes amidst a renewed focus on reconciliation with Indigenous communities, which has become a major theme of Canada's 150th anniversary celebrations.

The theme holds special personal meaning for Whelan, who learned in her thirties that her family heritage includes Mi'kmaq ancestry.

Despite having enjoyed "all the rights and privileges of being a white woman," the filmmaker says learning about her Indigenous ancestry has given her a greater sensitivity to Indigenous issues here in Canada.

Some of the most important things in life are not spoken of; they're felt and experienced.- Dianne Whelan

She sees her journey on the Great Trail as an opportunity to reconnect with Canada's history, as well as the traditional knowledge of Canada's Indigenous communities she has encountered along her route.

"I'm gathering wisdom on this journey from a lot of elders, and I think that will be an important part of the discussion in terms of how we might want to move into the future," she says.

Reflecting on time spent with Mi'kmaq elders along the trail, Whelan noted that the Mi'kmaq language does not include a word for "sorry," but rather a phrase for "making things right."

There is still a great deal of work to be done on that front, Whelan says. But the trip has also given her a great deal of hope for the future.

"Some of the most important things in life are not spoken of; they're felt and experienced," she says, adding that she has witnessed "a resurgence of culture" in the indigenous communities she has visited.

Dianne Whelan on the Great Trail. (Dianne Whelan / 500 Days in the Wild)


From coast to coast to coast

Whelan returned to the trail this week in Blind River, Ont., after a brief respite to visit her family.

The next leg of her journey will take her by snowshoe along the Voyageur Trail to Sault Ste. Marie and beyond, before paddling across Lake Superior and up the 'Path of the Paddle' to Kenora, Ont. — more than 2,300 kilometres in total.

The route may be daunting to some, but Dianne Whelan says she's right at home on the trail.

"I'm more fearful now when I come into the city because everything is moving here very, very quickly," she says with a laugh.

All told, Whelan estimates it will take her about two and a half more years to reach her final destination in Victoria, B.C. In the meantime, she's grown accustomed to living with limited resources - and carrying all her own gear.

"I joke with everybody that my 'animal spirit' is a turtle these days," Whelan says with a laugh. "My home is on my back, and I just work with the environment."

Whelan plans to write a book about her journey, and will also document her experience on the trail in a film. She hopes her story will help to highlight the need of modern technology and science to work with traditional wisdom.

"Being out on the land, you reconnect to something that's really old," she says. "It's actually going back home. It's not as alien as it might seem to a lot of people."

The website for Whelan's film "500 Days in the Wild" features this map outlining the route she will take along Canada's Great Trail: