Montreal to Kahnawake: one pilgrimage, many quests

This summer, a group of people spent three days walking from Montreal to Kahnawake. The Mohawk community is a short drive from the big city, but in many ways they're worlds apart. Every pilgrim was striving to bridge the physical and cultural gap and each one had personal reasons for being there.
A group of pilgrims from Concordia University arrive at the Mohawk territory of Kahnawake on their walk from Montreal. (Matthew Anderson)

The Theology 234 summer course at Concordia University in Montreal is all about pilgrimage.  And it involves a very special practical element: a 36-km walk from the Old City of Montreal to the Mohawk territory of Kahnawake.  

It only takes a little while to get to Kahnawake from Montreal by car -- but many Montrealers may never visit.  For a small group of students, though, arriving in Kahnawake is the culminating event of a meditative journey on foot that connects them with indigenous culture, with Canada's history, with their own life histories and with each other.

On day 3 of the pilgrimage, with nearly 36 kilometres behind them, the group nears Kahnawake from Montreal's old city centre. (Amanda Klang/CBC)

This summer, CBC Montreal producer Amanda Klang joined the pilgrimage, and met several people on the way, each of whom had their own reasons for walking.

Ella Stewart is a psychology and theology major at Concordia, and she went on the pilgrimage in hopes of feeling a deeper connection to the history of the area. But there is an emotional motivation behind her quest as well, involving her own ancestry.

Ella says, 'My great grandmother was Mohawk, and we don't really know a lot more because, quite frankly, a lot of effort was made to hide it...and that's basically all I know.'

The Eastern Door of the Long House on the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory. (Matthew Anderson)

Retired McGill Social Work professor Michael Loft is an important companion on the journey; he was born and raised in Kahnawake and is a grandfather of five. He has a passionate sense of mission.    

For me it's about potential; it's about reaching these young connect with them as best I can… to try and make them feel safe with me, make them feel like I am hearing them, to prepare the ground for them to take Indigenous affairs seriously.- Michael Loft, Professor of Social Work (retired), McGill University 

Michael recalls the difficulty of coming to terms as a young man with the immense losses Indigenous people have experienced in the wake of colonization.

Orenda Boucher is a Coordinator at Concordia's Aboriginal Student Resource Centre.  She grew up in Kahnawake as well; her own dedication to activism comes from deep in her own ancestry.

When the homes of many Mohawk families were expropriated by the government in the 1950s for the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, Boucher's ancestors had their home taken away against their will.

'Sitting underneath the Seaway are the remnants of homes of hundreds of people,' she explains. 'My great-grandparents were one of the last families to leave; they chained themselves to their house and had to be forcibly removed. So you can imagine the legacy that that's left behind.'

In the 1970s, Boucher's grandparents established the Kahnawake Survival School, a high school that connects Indigenous students with their culture.

Neda Abbasi came to Canada from Iran. She was moved to take the pilgrimage because Indigenous culture wasn't a part of her initial understanding of Canada.   

In the course of the experience, she has reflected on her own struggle to feel a sense of belonging.

'This is really helping me, knowing this country from the very beginning', she says. 'And all these things that I'm hearing here are kind of reconnecting me back to my own roots and things that I had deep in me… There are many things that you cannot learn from just books and universities; [rather by] simply from interacting with other people.'.- Neda   Abbasi
Longtime activist Dr. Kenneth Deer conducts a tour of the Kahnawake Cultural Centre for Concordia Academic Staff. (Matthew Anderson)

The Montreal-Kahnawake pilgrimage is organized by Concordia Theology Professors Matthew Anderson and Sara Terreault.

Click LISTEN above to hear Amanda Klang's documentary.