Dunnville to Port Maitland: The End of the Road, but Not the Journey

I didn’t think I was going to get any breakfast this morning. Nothing in Dunnville seemed to be open early on a Sunday. I detoured through the centre of town, hoping to find something. And I did: a diner, serving the usual diner breakfast (bacon and eggs, toast, coffee). Quite a surprise. 

Already the air was heavy and humid. It was going to be another scorcher. The server shut the diner’s front door and turned on the air conditioner. It did nothing except stir the sticky air around. I sat in my booth, eating and sweating. Then I headed off for Port Maitland.

It wasn’t a long walk, just 13 kilometres, mostly on the shoulder of the North Shore Road. That road runs beside an abandoned canal, probably a legacy of the Grand River Navigation Company, judging from the stonework visible at what used to be locks. The canal is now a wetland, filled with frogs and water lilies: a quiet place, compared to the busy road running alongside it.

I stepped over the bodies of a dozen birds, mostly sparrows, lying on the shoulder. One was a Baltimore oriole–the second dead oriole I’ve seen on this trip. Some of my friends have complained about the photographs of roadkill on this blog, but it’s one of the things you see when you’re walking. I wonder if anyone has studied the number of animals and birds that are killed by traffic. The number must be pretty high.

My map told me when to leave the North Shore Road and I followed its advice. There were two roads to choose from, both running parallel. One was paved, the other gravel. I chose the paved one. Almost immediately it turned into a narrow, rutted track. Then it ended. Another track led to the gravel road, and it led me into Port Maitland.

Port Maitland is surprisingly industrial. There’s a chemical factory, a freight yard, and (a reminder of home) a decommissioned fertilizer plant belonging to Mosaic, the giant potash company. The port used to be even busier, but now it’s mostly used by fishing boats and pleasure craft. I saw the  sign that marks the end of the Grand Valley Trail. I took off my boots and waded into the Grand River. It’s sluggish there and has a heavy, fishy, fecal, smell. I put my boots back on and walked through a cottage development to a sandy beach on Lake Erie. I took off my boots again and rinsed my feet in the lake. I’ll bet it’s been a long time since anybody went to Lake Erie to get clean. Poor Lake Erie: it’s too shallow to handle the vast amounts of waste we dump into it every day.

The cottage development is jealous of its privacy and I half expected somebody to tell me to move along, but nobody did. I sat on the edge of the breakwater. A fellow wearing a Tilley hat came over to say hello. He lives in the development year round. In the fall, he sees deer and fox through his windows. It’s not easy, though, being so close to the shore during winter storms, and it’s quite isolated. We talked about Dunnville. He told me that Walmart almost opened a store there. It would’ve ruined the downtown. “My friend was complaining about it and I told him to call the Indians. They’d put a stop to it,” he said. “He did, and they came down and planted their flag and the Walmart people left town.” I said that was interesting, because I’d just finished walking through the Haldimand Tract and all this land used to belong to the Six Nations. “Yeah,” he said, “they say they own everything. They own the CN Tower. They own the domed stadium.” (He must’ve been referring to the Mississaugas at New Credit.) “What are we supposed to do about it now?” 

I’ve been wondering the same thing. How do we pay what we owe First Nations? After all, the Haldimand Tract isn’t the only place where land was stolen. The settlers aren’t going anywhere. First Nations have legitimate claims. What’s the path forward? There has to be one. 

My sister, Pam, my niece, Maggie, and my grandnephew Calvin came down to pick me up and take me back to Brantford. We were supposed to meet some Mohawk elders there. My neighbour, Ed Doolittle, had suggested I contact Jan Longboat at Six Nations. If nothing else, I had to see her garden. “It’s amazing,” he told me. “Like nothing else on the reserve.” 

Jan had called some people and arranged a potluck lunch. There was a traditional Mohawk statement of love, respect, and gratitude before we ate. It went on a long time. “And that’s the short version,” the speaker said. He summarized the blessing in English. It was a glimpse into Longhouse theology and it was beautiful. Then we ate. Afterwards, we went around the table, introducing ourselves. One woman is a survivor of the Mohawk Institute. She described how hard it’s been to talk about what happened in that place. Then I was asked to talk about my journey. I explained why I’d decided to make this walk–about my discovery of the history of the Haldimand Tract, my shame at what I learned, and my decision to walk to support the Save the Evidence campaign–and told a few stories of mishaps I’d had along the way: the skunk, the pit bull, the portapotty, the leaky water bag. “Thank you for caring about this history,” one said to me. “Thank you for making this walk.” It’s only a gesture, I replied, a gesture towards reconciliation. And besides, I’m not the only one who cares about the wrongs done in the Haldimand Tract and at the Mohawk Institute. Many settlers have acknowledged that the land in the Haldimand Tract was stolen. And many have made gifts in support of Save the Evidence.

If you’re one of those people, please accept my heartfelt thanks. And if you haven’t donated to Save the Evidence, there’s still time. You can donate online here or you can mail a cheque to the Woodland Cultural Centre, P.O. Box 1506, Brantford, Ontario N3T 5V6 (attention Save the Evidence). Your gift will make you a part of an important project: creating a museum or interpretive centre about residential schools in a former residential school. It’s a way you can make a gesture towards reconciliation, too. We can’t be allowed to forget the genocide that happened in such institutions. This project is a way to keep us from forgetting.

One of the people there was Bill Squire, a member of the Mohawk Workers. He handed me a thick envelope of material on the history of the Haldimand Tract and explained his perspective on what’s happened here and what we can do to make it right. The place where we were meeting used to be a museum about Six Nations history called “Kanata.” It’s also on the site of what used to be the Mohawk Village. Bill’s ancestors lived there–he’s traced them–and he is adamant that the land still belongs to the Mohawks. “We never sold it,” he said. Rather, it was taken during the purported general surrender of 1841, along with whatever remained of the Six Nations land in the Haldimand Tract outside of the current reserve. I said that settlers missed a tremendous opportunity by not meeting the Haudenosaunee as equals in the Haldimand Tract–an opportunity to learn from each other, to build something together. “It’s not too late,” Bill replied. And he’s right.

But first Canada has to acknowledge that it has a treaty with the Haudenosaunee–or, as I should have been calling them throughout this blog, the the Onkwehonwe (a word that translates as “original people”). Haudenosaunee is a political term, I think, referring to the Six Nations Confederacy; Onkwehonwe, on the other hand, is a term of identity. And that treaty is, of course, the Haldimand Proclamation. What could that document possibly be if it’s not a treaty? That recognition would be a good first step. Then, somehow, we need to address the mess our ancestors left for us when they stole most of the land in the Haldimand Tract. Reconciliation won’t mean very much if it doesn’t address the question of land: it’ll only be breath, empty words. Paying our debt isn’t going to be easy, but I think we could do it the same way I accomplished this walk: one step at a time.

I can’t tell you how honoured I felt to have my walk end this way–how moved I was that these people would come to hear about my experience. I never expected anything like it. They gave me gifts: sweetgrass, books, a beaded zipper toggle bearing the flag of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. We talked about the possiblity of people from Six Nations walking together through the Haldimand Tract. Walks like that have happened in other places. Why not here? I hope it happens; I’d like to be a part of it. I wanted to get individual portraits of everyone there. I thought that would be a way to get at how meaningful the afternoon was for me. But it was getting late and some people were ready to leave, so  I had to settle for a group shot. 

My walk is over. In one way it ended this morning, when I waded into Lake Erie. But meeting those elders this afternoon tells me that my journey continues. I’ve only just begun that walk. And I don’t yet know where it’ll take me.

Cayuga to Dunnville: A Walk Up River Road

For most of today’s 29 kilometres, I was on one road: River Road. It’s a quiet road on the south side of the Grand that winds along parallel to the river, through wood lots and beside fields of corn and winter wheat and strawberries. By quiet, I mean there’s little traffic, not that there’s nothing to listen to. I could hear innumerable birds twittering and chirping, the wind sighing through the trees, grasshoppers shirring in the wheat fields. And, of course, the steady tramp of my boots on the pavement.

I ran across my first rude driver this morning. He chided me for having the audacity to walk along the road. But this road, it’s part of the Grand Valley Trail. Look, you can see one of their waymarkers just over there! He wasn’t interested. In his mind, I was in the wrong for daring to walk along a country road on a beautiful summer morning.

Mostly, though, the motorists who share the roads with me have been pretty good during the past two weeks. They’ve gone out of their way to give me space. Almost everybody drives too quickly, but who’s not guilty of doing that? Nobody has thrown anything at me and nobody has deliberately passed too closely. Sometimes drivers even wave–especially farmers when they’re behind the wheel of their tractors. The same farmers are less likely to wave if they’re driving pickup trucks. I wonder why that is. 

And sometimes passing motorists go out of their way to be kind. Late this morning I came to an odd intersection. I was just getting out my map to see which way to go (turn left, carry on straight ahead) when a minivan pulled up. “Where’re you headed?” he asked. I told him. “You’re going the right way,” the driver said. “Just turn left and you’ll stay on River Road to Dunnville.” He was right, of course, and I didn’t end up taking a wrong turn that would’ve lead to a lot of backtracking.

Later I passed by a woman pruning a shrub in her garden. She had to be in her eighties. She was born on a farm just up the road, she told me. Her father owned three farms in a row. Now her daughter lives on one of them and her son on the other. She lives on the third. I told her what I was doing, about the Save the Evidence campaign and the plan to create a museum or interpretive centre in the former residential school in Brantford. “Oh, yes, those were terrible places,” she said. “You hear a lot about them nowadays. I wonder what the people who came up with those schools were thinking.” I told her about my blog and asked if she had a computer. “Oh, no,” she said. “I’m not very computer literate.” She didn’t want me to take her picture. “I’m in my gardening clothes,” she said. “I’m not very photogenic.” We wished each other well and I started off down the road. It was a very pleasant interlude. 

I greeted a few cyclists along the way as well (River Road is a marked cycling route), but aside from the occasional passing truck or motorcycle I was alone with my thoughts–and the birds. I saw a red-tailed hawk coursing above the lawn of a farmhouse. I saw the flash of an American goldfinch heading for cover in the trees. I disturbed a turkey vulture as it was eating a particularly ripe piece of roadkill. And I saw countless robins and sparrows and red-winged blackbirds. 

I thought my antagonist today would be the heat. The forecast high for Cayuga was 32 degrees. I don’t always do well in the heat, and I’ve learned from experience the signs of heat exhaustion: irritability, nausea, headache, muscle weakness. So I need to get where I’m going before I start cursing and belching. But the closer to Lake Erie I got, the stronger and cooler the breeze became. And, in fact, the high temperature in Dunnville was only 28 degrees. 

That’s not the only way Lake Erie makes its presence known. The sky here is very different from the sky further upstream.  All day there was a strange light in the distance, a kind of haze, as if I’d be able to see the lake just over the next hill. It didn’t, of course. I’m still a good 10 kilometres from the lake. But I can tell I’m getting closer.

As I walked along, I thought about the effect that the forced surrender of 1841 would’ve had on Haudenosaunee languages. You see, the different nations who make up the Haudenosaunee Confederacy settled in different parts of the Grand River valley: the Mohawks in the north, for example, and the Cayugas in the south. Some of the names of villages along the river attest to this pattern of settlement: Onondaga would’ve been where the Onondagas had a village, Cayuga would’ve been one of the Cayuga villages. This pattern of settlement would’ve helped to maintain the six languages that are spoken by the Six Nations. Now, though, everybody is crammed together on one crowded reserve. English would function as a useful common language. Add to that the lasting effects of residential schools, and those languages are in trouble. There are efforts to save Mohawk and Cayuga: they’re taught in schools on the reserve, and the Six Nations Polytechnic offers degree programs in those languages. But what will happen to Oneida and Onondaga and Tuscarora? And those languages–all Indigenous languages–are important: they are tangible evidence of different ways of seeing and thinking about the world. The loss of even one of them diminishes all of us.

I also wondered what it would’ve been like had the settlement of the Haldimand Tract been on terms set by the Six Nations. I’m sure things here would’ve been different. We would’ve learned more from the Haudenosaunee. The society that resulted from that contact would’ve been, to paraphrase John Ralston Saul, more Indigenous. That’s not what happened, of course. The colonizer can never admit to learning from the colonized, even when borrowing their technologies and their languages: Canada is named after an Indigenous word, for instance, and the canoe one of our national symbols. At least it’s not too late for that learning to begin: despite our efforts to eradicate them, Indigenous cultures and languages still exist.

Eventually, River Road came to an end and I found myself on the shoulder of a busy highway, walking in to Dunnville. The Grand is very wide here. The bridge at Dunnville is the last crossing. My motel turned out to be on the western edge of town, a long walk on tired, hot feet. If I want to eat at the best restaurant in town, Debb’s Cuisine, I’ll have to walk back to the bridge. I’m not sure I’m up for it. 

Don’t forget about the Woodland Cultural Centre’s Save the Evidence campaign. They are raising money to create a museum or interpretive centre about residential schools in the former residential school in Brantford. It’s an important project: we cannot be allowed to forget the cultural genocide that was perpetrated in those institutions. You can donate online here or you can send a cheque to the Woodland Cultural Centre at P.O. Box 1506, Brantford, Ontario N3T 5V6. My walk ends tomorrow, but the Save the Evidence campaign will continue. It deserves your support. 

If by some chance you’re in Dunnville and would like to join me on a short walk to Port Maitland, e-mail me through the link on the “About” page or leave a comment on this post and we’ll make plans to meet. 

Dinner in Cayuga: Joy and Gratitude

When I talked to the faith keeper at Six Nations back in December, she told me to pray for gratitude and to look for joy in this walk. I’ve tried to do both things. I’ve experienced many moments of joy: seeing a cardinal in the trees, drinking cold water on a hot day, catching the ozone smell when it begins to rain. Tonight, more joy: dinner at Twisted Lemon in Cayuga. I haven’t eaten food like that in ages. What a meal. If you’re in the neighbourhood, you need to experience it. I’m grateful I had the opportunity.

Caledonia to Cayuga: A Walk Beside the River

Dr. Shauneen Pete, a professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Regina, has been posting lists of things she’s grateful for on Facebook. She’s inspired me to write a list of things I’m thankful for on this walk through the Haldimand Tract.

1. The weather. I’ve had sunny days and only a little rain, on the afternoon I walked into Conestogo. That wasn’t a problem: it rinsed some of the dirt off my hat. Walking in the rain isn’t so bad, anyway. You just put on your raincoat and keep walking.

2. The places I’ve stayed. None of my reservations got lost; I’ve had a bed to sleep in every night. And most of the places I’ve stayed in have been pretty decent–and even when they weren’t, it was only for one night, so what difference does it make? No bedbugs, either. That’s every traveller’s nightmare, but I haven’t run across any. In his book about walking the Ulster Way, Beyond Belfast, Will Ferguson recounts getting scabies at one bed and breakfast. That hasn’t happened to me, either.

3. Connecting with old friends. I met up with old friends in Paris and Kitchener. Other friends drove down from Toronto to see me in Cambridge and Brantford. I hadn’t seen some of them for nearlhy 20 years, but we picked up right where we left off. I’m very grateful for that, and for the trouble they took to see me.

4. Meeting people on the trail. It doesn’t happen often–I haven’t encountered many pedestrians on this walk–but when it does, it’s important. I knew this journey would be relatively lonely–I’ve walked in Ontario before, so I know what it’s like–and talking to the few people I meet on the trail has been very encouraging. Take the folks I met in the coffee shop yesterday at Six Nations. Their supportive words meant a lot.

5. Adversity. If it weren’t for skunks and pit bulls and getting lost and 37 kilometre days, I wouldn’t have had anything to write about in this blog. Those experiences might be frightening or frustrating or exhausting when they happen, but they’re the stories I’m going to tell when this walk is over.

6. The privilege to make this walk. I’m very aware that I’m only able to make this walk because I’m privileged enough to have money and time to do it. Lots of people all over the world are making much longer walks, from Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria to Europe. They carry their few belongings in plastic shopping bags, not a high-tech backpack. They wear flip-flops, not hiking boots. They’re hounded by the police. Their paths are blocked by tall fences and razor wire. They sleep outside, not in B&Bs and hotels. Those of us who live in relative peace and security shouldn’t forget that such lives are an accident of birth. Had I not been born in Canada, I might’ve become one of the millions of refugees trying to find a safe place.

7. Shade. There’s nothing like entering a shady forest on a hot day, or even pausing for a moment under a tree.

8. Rest breaks. Finding a good place to stop for five minutes, to take off my pack and sit down and maybe eat something, feels great. I’ve taken  breaks in all kinds of places: in ditches, on stumps, on big rocks, on church steps, under trees, on park benches and picnic tables. A place to rest always appears when I need it.

9. My phone. I never thought I’d say it, but I’m grateful for my smartphone. It tells me how far I’ve walked when I start to wonder why I feel so tired. It keeps me in touch with friends and family. It takes photos when my camera dies. It could save my life in an emergency. I’m glad I have it and I wouldn’t want to make a walk like this without it.

10. The support I receive from people online. Every like, every share, every comment, every click-through to the Save the Evidence web site–it all means more than you could imagine. So does every gift you make, whether I hear about it or not.

My walk is almost over, but you can still make a gift to Save the Evidence. You can donate online or you can send a cheque to the Woodland Cultural Centre at P.O. Box 1506, Brantford, Ontario N3T 5V6 (attention Save the Evidence). Your support of the Woodland Cultural Centre’s campaign to create a museum or interpretive centre in the former residential school in Brantford is tangible evidence of your commitment to reconciliation. It’s a way to acknowledge the wrongs of the past and to begin building a new relationship with Indigenous people in this country. Four of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action deal with education for reconciliation–for making sure that children (and adults) are able to learn about things like residential schools and treaties. Your support of the Save the Evidence is a way to show you understand the importance of those calls to action.

For much of this morning I walked on a footpath beside the Grand River. Sometimes I was in a forest; other times I walked along the edges of fields of hay, winter wheat, and peas. It was lovely.

Then I was back on the shoulder of Highway 54. I stopped at Ruthven Park to take a look around and have a break. Ruthven Park is the site of a mansion built by David Thompson, a member of the Canada West parliament. It was built in the 1840s. The house faces the river rather than the road, because the river was more important as a means of transportation in those days. And Thompson was one of the backers of the Grand River Navigation Company, which built canals and locks on the lower Grand River. Some of the money from the Six Nations’ trust fund was invested, without their consent, in that company, and it was lost when the canal boom went bust in the 1850s. Thompson clearly had a lot of money: it’s an imposing edifice, no question. I’m told that if you tour the house, you learn the entire history of the Thompsons and the other families who lived in the house until the 1970s. Next time I pass by, I’ll take the tour.

I could’ve paid for a tour of the interior of the building, but I was feeling a little self-conscious. You see, I’d had some trouble with my Camelback. Actually, it’s made by Osprey, but it’s the same idea: a bag of water that fits in my pack, and a hose I drink from. It’s easier than fumbling for bottles of water, and it holds enough to see me through a long walk (most of the time). Anyway, I hadn’t been able to fill it at the B&B this morning; the bathroom sink was too shallow and that was the only source of water. No problem, I thought, I’ll buy some water along the road. And, yes, when I got to the village of York (so there are, or were, two Yorks in Ontario?), the general store was open and I bought a litre and a half of water.

But after I filled the bag, I didn’t quite get the lid on right, and it leaked. It happens sometimes. Before I got it fixed, though, water ran down my back and my walking shorts got soaked. From behind, I must’ve looked as if I’d wet myself. The Incontinent Rambler: in his Depends and his Tilley hat he walked from one end of the Haldimand Tract to the other. Embarrassing.

I didn’t want to drip on any antique Persian carpets inside Ruthven Park, so I sat at a picnic table outside and ate an energy bar. Then I carried on walking up the shoulder of Highway 54. The Grand Valley Trail headed off on a detour into the woods, but I was close to Cayuga and was craving a club sandwich (something I haven’t eaten in years) and a Coke, so I stayed on the road. When I got to the village I stopped at the information booth and asked if there was a diner nearby. They young women there sent me to a pub and I ordered a club sandwich and a Pepsi. When I was finished, I felt a little deflated. The meal hadn’t lived up to my roadside imagination. I don’t suppose it could have.

I’m staying at the Carrousel Bed & Breakfast. I’m sitting on the back deck writing this, listening to water splashing in the koi pond and birds chirping at a nearby feeder. It’s very nice. Tomorrow I’ll head to Dunnville on quiet roads on the other side of the river. If you’re in the area and would like to join me, send me an e-mail at the link on the “About” page and we’ll arrange to meet up.

One last thing: I was thinking yesterday and today about the people who complained during the occupation at Kanonhstaton in Caledonia–you know, the ones who said that the occupation was evidence that there’s one law for Indigenous people in this country and one law for non-Indigenous people. You know, I’ve been thinking that they’ve got a point, but not the way they think they do. After all, when has the government taken land that belonged to settlers and sold it to someone else without permission or compensation? When has the government demanded that settlers get a pass signed by a local agent before they could leave their town or village or city? When has the government prevented settlers from hiring lawyers to represent them in court? When has the government incarcerated settlers’ children in so-called schools where they were physically and sexually abused? Okay, there are a few examples of that one–the Mount Cashel Orphanage, for example. The laws have penalized Indigenous people, put them at a disadvantage, not settlers. A little attention to Canada’s past, and present, makes that abundantly clear.

Ohsweken to Caledonia: Journey to Kanonhstaton

I was worried about dogs today. You see, when I was at Six Nations back in December I saw a lot of dogs roaming free. I almost hit one that wandered out into the road in front of my car. But most of the dogs I saw today, or heard barking in the distance when they heard me crunching past on the gravel shoulder of the road, were tied up. Maybe it’s because I was walking on busy roads. I don’t know. Maybe I was wrong about dogs wandering around loose.  There was one angry fellow on Tuscarora Road, but he was afraid of crossing the street to get at me. And there was a nursing female who walked with me for a while. She wasn’t interested in me at all. She was just looking for something smelly to roll in. As dogs do.

And, yes, there was that pit bull. I was walking along, looking at a text from my friend Richard, not paying attention–lulled into a false sense of security, I suppose. There was a house in the woods, right next to the road. I didn’t see it. I didn’t see the four dogs outside it, either, until I was right on top of them. Three of those dogs were tied up. One wasn’t. A pit bull. A very angry pit bull. His body was muscular. His jaws were powerful. His eyes were full of rage. He was less than six feet away.

I quickly crossed the road. Not too quickly. I didn’t want him to think I was running. I made soothing noises. He wasn’t mollified at all. I was his enemy. He came closer, sizing me up. I could tell he was deciding which leg (or testicle) to tear into first.

And then I threw him a dog biscuit. It broke his concentration, just for a minute. He ate it and I increased the distance between us. He was behind me, still angry, but I was making tracks away from him. He kept barking, but I was far enough away now that I was no longer a threat to him. Or him to me.

I’m glad the other three dogs were tied up. I wonder why he was loose. It doesn’t matter. I got away. You’ll understand that I didn’t take his picture.

So in the end walking across Six Nations was just about as dangerous as walking down a grid road in Saskatchewan. I walked past the corner where I’d almost hit that dog back in December. He was nowhere to be seen.

I turned onto Sixth Line. Lisa, my host at The Bear’s Inn, had told me to go this way. It was a more direct route, she said, than Highway 54. It’s a busy road, but not as busy as the highway, I suppose. I got to a little diner and stopped for coffee. I’d discovered that The Bear’s Inn serves breakfast–I’d missed it yesterday because I was writing until 10 o’clock–but the coffee wasn’t ready when I left. I sat down. People inside had seen me walking along the road. They asked me what I was doing and I told them. “I’m walking the Haldimand Tract to raise money for the Woodland Cultural Centre,” I said. I was finally in a place where the words “Haldimand Tract” meant something, where they didn’t require a history lesson to be understood. They were impressed and encouraged me to keep going. It was a nice moment.

But, of course, what I’m doing is just a gesture towards reconciliation–and a small gesture at that. Your support of the Woodland Cultural Centre is more tangible. It shows that you know the truth about Canada’s colonialist past (and present) and that you want to do something about it: you want to help create an interpretive centre about residential schools in the former residential school building in Brantford. You can donate online here or you can send a cheque to the Woodland Cultural Centre, P.O. Box 1506, Brantford, Ontario N3T 5V6 (attention Save the Evidence). Aside from my own learning, and the pleasure I get from this walk, it really has meaning only in the gifts you make to Save the Evidence.

I started seeing gas stations and smoke shops and I knew I was close to the edge of the reserve. And then, at an intersection, I left it. The houses looked the same. The road looked the same. Only the signs now said I was in Haldimand County instead of Six Nations. I got to Highway Six–the bypass around Caledonia. Lisa said that if I walked up Highway Six, I’d get to Kanonhstaton, “the protected place,” in Mohawk. That’s the Douglas Creek Estates housing development that was the site of the big occupation ten years ago. I wanted to see it when I was in Caledonia; I wanted to understand where the place was in relation to the town, and I wanted to take photos for this blog. I followed a farm track down to the shoulder of the highway. It was incredibly busy, packed with speeding cars and trucks. I couldn’t see any housing development. I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to live beside this race track. I crossed the Grand River and got to a bridge over Highway 54. My map didn’t show any other roads leading into Caledonia. I checked Google Maps. It didn’t know where Kanonhstaton was. This is nuts, I thought. I’m going to get killed on this highway. I’m clearly in the wrong place. I crossed the bridge over Highway 54, scrambled down the abutment, and walked into Caledonia.

Caledonia is a pretty town. It looks prosperous. The B&B where I’m staying, Heron House on the Grand, is on the east side of town. It has a nice view of the river. A reporter had called me when I was having coffee and we were going to meet there. I texted her when I got to Caledonia. “I’m here,” I wrote. She said she’d leave Brantford right away. But I wasn’t exactly at the B&B. I was still trying to find it. I walked quickly, hoping that she wouldn’t get to Caledonia before I found Heron House. (The name is accurate, by the way: I saw a heron fishing upstream.) But that didn’t happen. We sat in chairs by the river and I told her what I was doing and why. She took some photos of me. She asked me to offer tobacco to the river and took a picture of me doing it. Now I’m not sure that was a good idea. Does that photograph trivialize a spiritual practice? Did I make a mistake by agreeing to it? I don’t know. I guess I’ll find out.

I’m always nervous about being interviewed. I worry that I’ll be misunderstood, that I’ll say something that’s not correct, that I’ll come across like I’m half-crazy. I hope it went well. The article should go up online tonight, and I’ll find out soon enough. But the point of being interviewed is to take the opportunity to tell other settlers about the history of the Haldimand Tract and the Save the Evidence campaign. If not for those two things, I wouldn’t bother to do any interviews.

Afterwards, I asked my host where I could find Kanonhstaton. She explained. “It’s just on the edge of town on old Highway Six, past the Canadian Tire.” Oh. Old Highway Six. That was my mistake: taking the bypass. I should’ve known when there was no easy way to get from Sixth Line onto the highway. I walked back downtown, ate lunch, then headed for the edge of town on what used to be Highway Six. Caledonia is lucky that bypass was built. For one thing, the old bridge over the Grand River wouldn’t stand up to all that truck traffic. I kept walking. Finally, just past the Canadian Tire, there it was.

There’s not a lot to see. It’s a field, now, surrounded by a fence, with a gate that’s designed to look like the Haudenosaunee Confederacy flag on one side, and the Two-Row Wampum on the other. There are broken street lights and, in the distance, one single house. And a “no trespassing” sign. The gate was open but I didn’t go in. I’m told that people are still occupying the house. The province now owns the land. It compensated the developer and that was that. But nothing has been solved. Not really. I took some photographs and headed back to the B&B. Altogether, I walked 28 kilometres today–a good day’s walk.

I can see why the developer was surprised by the reaction from people at Six Nations. There’s a housing development right next door. A mall with a Canadian Tire. A lot across the street is for sale. Why would this piece of land be any different than all the rest? It’s a good question, because most of the town, as far as I can see, would fall under the Hamilton-Port Dover Plank Road land claim. That road is now Highway Six–the old Highway Six. In 1834, the government of Upper Canada expropriated the land to build the road. The following year, Six Nations agreed to lease land extending for a half mile on either side of the road to the government. Then the government turned around and sold that leased land. It decided that by leasing the land, Six Nations had surrendered it–a ridiculous conclusion to reach, but there you are. That was 150 years ago. Settlers have forgotten all about this. People at Six Nations have not.

My host says that the problem during the occupation was the division between the elected council at Six Nations and the Confederacy Chiefs. There’s something to that. The political division on the reserve doesn’t help anybody. But Canada imposed the elected council on Six Nations. In 1925, the RCMP kicked the Confederacy Chiefs out of their meeting house–with their service weapons drawn, I’m told–and installed the elected council in their place. That interference in the internal affairs of Six Nations, mandated by the Indian Act, is just another example of Canada’s continuing colonialist approach to relating to First Nations. So who’s to blame for that political division at Six Nations? Canada.

The real villain in the Douglas Creek Estates/Kanonhstaton occupation was, if we’re going to be honest, the politicians who decided in the 1850s to sell land that didn’t belong to the Crown–and our federal government, which has been dragging its heels for three decades, refusing to negotiate the Plank Road land claim, along with 28 others launched by the Six Nations elected council.

The reporter asked me what can be done about situations like this one–and Six Nations isn’t the only reserve with land claims that the federal government is refusing to address. The answer is, I don’t know. I assume that wiser heads than mine, on both sides, could find a solution–if the federal government would only sit down at the negotiating table. I’m sure it will be expensive. But Canadians owe a debt to First Nations–one we can’t possibly pay in full. After all, we were supposed to share this land. And we’ve turned out to be very bad at sharing.

I’ll be heading to Cayuga tomorrow morning, walking down Highway 54. It’s a short walk. Get in touch (there’s an e-mail link on the “About” page) if you’d like to join me.

Ohsweken: A Day of Rest

Today was my second day off this week. I’d tried to set up meetings with different people here at Six Nations, but they all fell through (although there’s a plan to meet with elders who know about the history of the Haldimand Tract in Brantford when my walk is finished). I didn’t mind, though, because that gave me a true rest day with nothing to do but wander around and take a nap.

After I wrote yesterday’s blog post this morning, I ate breakfast at a diner just down the street. For a change I ate a fruit salad instead of eggs and bacon. That made me feel virtuous. Then I walked six kilometres or so to Chiefswood, the  childhood home of the poet and performer Pauline Johnson. I’d never been there even though I grew up not that far away. A young woman named Kari (she just finished a degree in history at McMaster and is planning to go back for a second degree in Indigenous Studies) took me on a tour of the house. Johnson is an interesting figure. Her father, George Johnson, was a Mohawk chief and her mother, Emily Howells, had been born in Bristol. Apparently Pauline learned about storytelling from her Mohawk relations, especially her grandfather, John Smoke Johnson, who told his grandchildren stories in Mohawk, a language Pauline only partially understood. However, she wasn’t all that interested in her father’s culture and thought that her Indigenous heritage was only good as a way to market herself. The Mohawk name she adopted, Tekahionwake, reflects this division: it literally means “double wampum” or “double life” (depending on which internet source you consult). Unlike her brothers, Johnson escaped having to go to the Mohawk Institute; instead she was mostly educated at home, although she did attend the same high school I did, Brantford Collegiate Institute. Surprisingly, B.C.I. doesn’t make a big deal out of its famous graduate. 

The house itself was built in the 1850s by George as a wedding present for Emily, and it’s a fascinating place. It has two front doors: one faces the river and the reserve, and the other faces the road and the world outside the reserve. Many distinguished guests visited the home, including Lord Dufferin, the Governor General of Canada; Homer Watson, the painter (I walked past his home in Kitchener); the Marquess of Lorne, another Governor General; and the inventor Alexander Graham Bell. According to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Pauline developed elegant manners and an aristocratic air growing up in such surroundings.

And yet there seems to have been an unhappiness in the home, perhaps related to the Mohawk Institute. Johnson’s brothers died young (one was apparently an opium addict) and none of George’s children had families of their own. Of course, with Johnson’s difficult international touring schedule, it would’ve been almost impossible for her to settle down and become a proper Victorian mother. And she had to perform: she needed the money she earned from touring, and she was on the road constantly. During the first half of those performances, she would wear European clothing; in the second half, she would wear buckskin–another suggestion of a divided consciousness, perhaps. She died of breast cancer in Vancouver in 1913. When the last remaining family member, Johnson’s sister, Eliza, died in the 1930s, the house was left to the Six Nations. In the 1970s it became a museum. Many of the furnishings inside belonged to the Johnson family, including a table topped with porcupine-quill work. I didn’t know much about Johnson before my tour today, but I’m inspired to read her work after visiting Chiefswood. 

I sat under the big maples outside for a while and walked through a tall-grass prairie restoration project. Then I headed back into the village and had lunch at a place that serves salads and smoothies. Back at The Bear’s Inn, I talked to the owner, Lisa. She was raised by her grandmother, a survivor of an Indian boarding school in the United States, and she told me about how much her grandmother had been damaged by the experience. She had learned to be ashamed of who she was, and she passed that on to the children in her care. Later in life she became more interested in being Oneida, but it took years to shake that school’s legacy.

That story is yet another reason to support the “Save the Evidence” campaign, to make sure that nobody forgets what was done in institutions like the Mohawk Institute. You can donate online here or send a cheque to the Woodland Cultural Centre, P.O. Box 1506, Brantford, Ontario N3T 5V6 (attention Save the Evidence). 

Lisa told me that even though the reserve has a bigger population than surrounding towns, its economy has lagged behind because for years banks wouldn’t make loans to businesses at Six Nations. That’s changed, now, and two chartered banks have branches in Ohsweken. I suppose I can’t avoid mentioning that one of the biggest economic drivers here is the smoke shacks that line the roads. First Nations people are exempt from paying tobacco taxes in Ontario, and visitors to the reserve who pay cash can pay the same low price for cigarettes. You build an economy on whatever advantages you can, I guess. But one side effect of cheap tobacco is the number of smokers on the reserve. My friend Tom says there are a lot of wealthy people at Six Nations, and I did walk by some mansions today, but statistically incomes are lower than in the rest of Brant County, and unemployment is higher. Of course, health problems like smoking are correlated with low incomes. It goes without saying that the Haudenosaunee aren’t the only people who smoke. Still, I remember the faith keeper I talked to in December telling me that tobacco lost its sacredness when Europeans took it back across the ocean. Maybe that’s true. Something that was part of a spiritual practice has become an addiction.

Lisa suggested that I walk to Caledonia through the reserve instead of down Highway 54. It’s a more direct route and it’ll let me avoid the traffic on Chiefswood Road. It’ll also take me past Kanonhstaton, or Douglas Creek Estates, the housing development on disputed land that was occupied by people from Six Nations back in 2006. When you make people wait a century and a half for justice, sometimes the frustration boils over. I was hoping to see Kanonhstaton while I was in Caledonia, so I’m willing to risk angry reserve dogs in order to take a look. I did throw a Milk Bone to a timid Jack Russell this afternoon, just to add to my canine karma. Lisa also told me that people from outside Six Nations dump unwanted pets on the reserve. Who would do such a thing? Do we always have to act as if we have no relations?

 Maybe I’ll get by the dogs unscathed. I’ll let you know tomorrow. If you’d like to run the gauntlet with me, e-mail me through the address on the “About” page or comment on this post and we can arrange to meet up.

Brantford to Ohsweken: The Longest Walk

When I was walking yesterday, I decided to structure this blog post differently than the rest. I was still thinking about what I’d experienced the day before, during my tour of the Mohawk Institute building in Brantford: how walking through that building made me feel, what it made me think about. And how it convinced me even more that the project envisioned by “Saving the Evidence”–developing a museum or interpretive centre in the former residential school in Brantford–is extraordinarily important.

So: if you’re reading this, think about making a donation to the “Save the Evidence” campaign. You can donate online here or you can send a cheque to the Woodland Cultural Centre, P.O. Box 1506, Brantford, Ontario N3T 5V6. You don’t have to make a huge gift. I’m walking about 300 kilometres during this pilgrimage through the Haldimand Tract. If you gave a nickel for each kilometre I’m walking, that adds up to just $15. Sure, it doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s more than just the money (although the money’s important): it’s a sign of your participation in this project, your recognition that what happened in residential schools was a tremendous wrong, and that you want to have a different kind of relationship with First Nations from now on.

Go ahead, make the gift: I’ll wait. Here’s a photograph of some pretty roses to look at while you’re making your donation.

Feels good to contribute, doesn’t it? Thank you to everyone who has made donation to “Save the Evidence”–I’m grateful for your support, and the good people at the Woodland Cultural Centre are grateful for your support, too.

Yesterday’s walk was long–the longest walk I’ve ever made, in fact: 37 kilometres. It wasn’t supposed to be that arduous. Google told me it was only 22 kilometres from Brantford to Six Nations. But I didn’t take the route Google recommends. Instead, I followed the Grand Valley Trail along the river for most of the day. It was a beautiful walk (until I reached Brant County Highway 54), but it was also long and difficult.

I left my mother’s house at about 7:30 and headed towards the river and a place where I’d be able to get up on the path that runs along the top of a flood-protection dike along the Grand. I’d taken my friend Geoff’s advice and taken a lot of stuff out of my pack, so it was lighter and I was feeling pretty good. I walked past the hospital and down a steep hill I used to ride my bike down on the way to school. I traveled along the riverside footpath, past cyclists and dog walkers, underneath the Lorne Bridge (the major river crossing in Brantford) and over an old railway bridge that’s been converted for pedestrian use. A fly fisherman was trying his luck downstream. On the bridge I met a fellow who was watching fish spawning in the shallows below. He pointed them out to me. We talked for quite a while, but he didn’t want his picture taken. He’d been caught by some internet phishing scam, he said, and he was extra careful now about the information he shares online. Fair enough.

I’d been walking for about an hour at this point and I needed to find a washroom. The situation got more urgent with every step I took. It wasn’t something I could deal with by ducking behind a tree for 30 seconds, either. By the time I got to Lion’s Park, it was all I could think about. I came this close to having to squat behind a bush and use the little plastic shovel I carry for such emergencies (I hadn’t taken Geoff’s advice about leaving it behind). I tried the arena at Lion’s Park. It was locked. I was out of options and it looked like I was, well, shit out of luck. I headed for the trees along the river, hoping the city crew working nearby wouldn’t catch me in the act. Then, suddenly, salvation:

The faith keeper wanted me to ask for gratitude when I offer tobacco to the Creator. Well, I can tell you that I’m grateful to whoever put that portapotty there, in the corner of a baseball diamond, and for whoever left the gate open so I could get to it without climbing the fence. Because of their thoughtfulness, disaster was averted.

I climbed the long hill on Mount Pleasant Street and turned onto Tutela Heights Road, which is named after the Tutelo village that used to be here, on the bluffs over the river. I walked past the Bell Homestead. That’s the house where the parents of Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, lived when they immigrated from Scotland. Although Bell actually made the first working telephone in Boston, apparently he came up with the idea right here, in his “thinking place” overlooking the river. There’s an interesting museum there, but I figured (rightly, as it turned out) that my walk was going to be longer than anticipated. I did chat briefly with a gardener (dressed in period clothing) and got directions to the Grand Valley Trail footpath that was just ahead on the left.

The footpath took me through pines, then a mixed hardwood forest, then alongside a cornfield before ducking back into the forest again. It was lovely: cool and shady, with birds singing all around me. Then it ended, and I was on busy Cockshutt Road. I followed the trail directions and turned on Newport Road. There the trail seemed to end. It was supposed to lead me up onto Brant County Road 18 on the bridge above. Where was I supposed to go? Eventually I figured it out: I crossed the ditch, scrambled through the thick brush, and climbed the steep slope onto the bridge itself. Problem solved. And I saw some pretty cool graffiti underneath the bridge, including the Haudenosaunee Confederacy flag and some good advice.

Brant County Highway 18 was busy and I was glad to get to the turnoff onto Salt Springs Church Road. A woman was selling strawberries at the corner but I wasn’t in a position to buy any (I couldn’t carry them) and she wasn’t in a conversational mood. She definitely didn’t want her picture taken, either. I kept walking. It wasn’t long before I got to an old Methodist church that had started out in 1822 as a mission intended to Christianize the Indigenous people in the area. I sat on the steps and ate some lunch (mostly trail mix). There’s a historical plaque explaining the church’s history. It says that “After 1834, a rapidly increasing proportion of its membership consisted of white settlers who were replacing the Indians in the area.” I was irritated. First of all, I thought, those settlers were actually squatters, homesteading without permission on land that had been deeded to the Six Nations. And that verb, “replacing,” neatly normalizes an injustice, turning it into some kind of unstoppable historical process, something that just happened and not something people did to other people. When are we going to start telling the truth about our own past? We can’t move forward until we come to understand, without distortions or lies, what has actually taken place in Canada. I know, it’s silly to get mad about a historical plaque, but it’s part of a pattern. After all, my own five decades of ignorance about what happened in the Haldimand Tract is one of the main reasons I’m making this walk.

I was passing a farm when I encountered my first angry dogs of the day. One was a little timid, staying back behind the other, who was bolder (and, I think, angrier). I made calming sounds and threw them each a dog biscuit. It worked: they were still angry, but I got past them without getting bitten. Before I walk again, I’ll have to dip into my stash of Milk Bones and fill my pockets. A bad bite could end this pilgrimage, and I don’t want that to happen.

Salt Springs Church Road was nice but I’d already walked 22 kilometres and I knew that I had a long way to go. The map told me to stay on that road, but I saw a sign: no exit. What should I believe? The map or the sign? The sign, always the sign. The signs know. The map doesn’t. So I turned early and headed up to Brant County Highway 54.

Brant County Highway 54 just about finished me. It’s a very busy road. I was walking on the shoulder, of course, and cars and trucks were roaring past just feet away. The shoulder itself was made of a deep, soft, sandy gravel that made walking very difficult–kind of like walking on a beach, but for 10 or more kilometres. I thought there might be a place to sit and get something cool to drink in Onondaga, but there wasn’t. So I sat under a tree and called Christine. One of our cats is very sick and if he doesn’t improve we’ll have to say goodbye to him before I get back to Saskatchewan, and I needed to hear how he’s doing.

Then I was back on the road, stumbling up the shoulder. My feet felt like someone had been hitting them with a hammer and I was getting badly chafed. Then I ran out of water–because I drank it, this time, not because I spilled it on someone’s floor. I stopped at a variety store at Six Nations and bought some more. I told the woman behind the counter what I was up to and gave her a card. My camera’s battery was flat and my phone was on life support, so I didn’t get a photograph of her. I stopped at a gas station to use the washroom and bought a Coke and some sweetgrass. Then I kept going.

I didn’t get any more photographs of anything, including the Solidarity Day celebration at Six Nations, but I can tell you about it. It was like a fair. There were rides and cotton candy and booths where people were selling all kinds of different things. People of every age were there and everyone seemed to be having a good time. I saw the elected chief in the distance but I didn’t get a chance to introduce myself to her. Don’t send an introvert to a party. (Introverts unite, separately, in your own homes.)

I sat under a marquee and watched a blues band tear through a mix of original and classics like “My Babe” and “Staggerlee.” They were really good. I wondered whether Robbie Robertson was right about house parties at Six Nations–that they turn into jam sessions because so many people here are excellent musicians. I talked to a few people but didn’t explain why I was there or why I’d walked from Brantford. The reason: I looked around and saw people who were the right age to be survivors of the Mohawk Institute and I didn’t want to bring the shadow of that terrible place into the celebration. I even regretted wearing my “Save the Evidence” t-shirt. I think that was a mistake. After the band finished its set, I set off. The inn where I’m staying was still six kilometres away.

It was a long, long walk into Ohsweken, mostly because I was exhausted. I encountered another angry dog, but the busy traffic on Chiefswood Road kept him at a distance. I met the first pedestrians I’d seen since I left Brantford: three young guys who were part of a road-construction crew. “You’re the first people I’ve seen walking since I left Brantford,” I told them. “What?” they asked. I don’t think the idea of walking to Ohsweken from Brantford made any sense to them. Maybe they were right; maybe it doesn’t.

I’m staying at The Bear’s Inn, just on the edge of Ohsweken. It’s very nice, but to get breakfast or supper I have to walk back into the village. Last night I was just too tired to do any such thing. I took off my boots, stripped off my sweaty clothes, and went to bed. I woke up tired this morning and I have to go into Ohsweken to get some coffee. That’s okay. I’m here. I made it. And tomorrow I’ll be back on the road again.

My friend Kathleen asked what I think about when I’m walking along these roads and paths. The answer is, it depends. If I’m on a Grand Valley Trail footpath, I’m usually thinking about how lovely it is and where the waymarkers are. If I’m on a busy road, I hope the drivers see me and that nobody makes a sudden lurch towards the shoulder when I’m in the way. If I’m getting tired I wonder how far I’ve walked and how far I still have to walk and I keep checking the GPS app on my phone. At intersections I think about which way to turn and hope my map can give me some guidance. Sometimes I sing, usually old Lightfoot songs. Sometimes I’m thinking about this blog and what I’m going to write and trying to remember the things I’ve seen and people I’ve met. Sometimes I’m not thinking about anything in particular at all.  For a while, earlier in this walk, I’d be occasionally overwhelmed with sadness and shame because of the history of colonization, because my ancestors did things in my name (stealing land, building residential schools) that I think are wrong. At those times I have to remind myself that I’m not responsible for those things that happened in the past, but that I am responsible for what I do now that I now those things happened. I didn’t feel that sadness and shame yesterday, though. Maybe that’s because of my tour of the Mohawk Institute. Or maybe it’s becaue I met people at the Woodland Cultural Centre who were generous and friendly. I don’t know. If this is a spiritual journey, as the faith keeper told me it would be, then maybe I’ve turned some kind of corner and left something behind. If that’s the case, I’m happy to lose it.

Brantford: Touring the Mohawk Institute

I didn’t walk today. I’m happy about that, because it was incredibly hot. I’m back on the road tomorrow, though, and I’m hoping that the weather forecast promising cooler temperatures is correct. In any case, by this time tomorrow night I’ll be at Six Nations. Tomorrow is, of course, National Aboriginal Day (I bet you didn’t think you’d see a link to the Department of Indigenous Affairs on this blog, did you?) or, as I was told some people at Six Nations prefer to call it, Solidarity Day. I like Solidarity Day better. It speaks to the solidarity First Nations have shown in resisting Canada’s colonial approach to Indigenous people, and it also opens up the possibility that solidarity between First Nations and settlers is possible. Maybe we should all start calling June 21 Solidarity Day. What do you think?

My big accomplishment today was not bursting into tears when Jessica Powless from the Woodland Cultural Centre took me through the old Mohawk Institute dormitory building (pictured above). What an appalling institution. What a terrible history. The first school on this site opened in 1828. It burned down in the 1850s and the government built another one, which burned down in 1903. The current building was completed in 1904. It would’ve been drafty and uncomfortable, cold in the winter and hot in the summer. There was an orchard out front and a farm out back: after a certain point the kids were taken out of school and put to work as unpaid labour (the boys on the farm, the girls in the kitchens). The government wanted the children educated, but not too educated, you see. And the church wanted to run the school as cheaply as possible. Fifteen thousand children went through that place until it closed in 1970. In the Mohawk Institute’s final years I was across town in a regular public school. There but for the grace of God.

I saw the dormitories where the children slept, the kitchen and dining room where they were served oatmeal (the huge oatmeal cookers are still there). That’s why survivors (and others) call it “the Mush Hole.” The dining room was also a place where children were shamed publicly; for example, kids who had wet the bed were forced to walk around the room wearing their soiled sheets around their necks. Then, after we saw what was upstairs, we went down into the basement. “The sexual abuse primarily happened in places like the laundry and the boiler room,” Jessica told me, “because the noise of the machines would cover up the sound of the assaults.” Elsewhere in the basement is a room where a makeshift boxing ring was constructed, where staff members sometimes encouraged pairs of boys to beat each other until one of them was unconscious. Sometimes children tried to run away–the reserve is relatively close by, so it would’ve been tempting to try to run–and when they were caught they were locked into a dark closet in the basement. The other children would’ve heard them crying, and that was supposed to act as a deterrent.”One of the worst things about the school,” Jessica said,”was that the children learned to prey on each other. They ended up forming gangs. It was like a prison.” No kidding. No child should ever have been incarcerated in a place like this.

And yet signs of the children’s resistance are everywhere. They wrote their names–or their numbers, since ever student was assigned a number–anywhere the staff wouldn’t see them. They opened up crawl spaces in the dormitory walls and hid treasures there: quilts brought from home, marbles, sticks of gum. Remember, everything the kids brought with them was confiscated by the staff when they arrived. Boys and girls were supposed to be separated (they lived on different sides of the building, attended separate classes), but a crawl space on the top floor links the two dormitories. Elsewhere Jessica showed me a charred beam where someone tried to burn the building down. That’s how the earlier school buildings burned, too, it seems. They weren’t just fires; they were the children fighting back.

And even if it had been all chocolate milk and apple pie for those children, the school was intended to strip them of their language and culture, to make them ashamed of who they were. That was their goal, their purpose, their intention. They were instruments of cultural genocide. Let’s never forget that. Nor the intergenerational effects of the trauma those children experienced.

Jessica corrected some of my misconceptions about the “Save the Evidence” campaign. The $1 million goal is just for the first phase of the project: fixing the roof. Unless that’s done this year, the building might not be salvageable. The second phase will involve upgrading the HVAC systems to 21st century standards. The way it is now, artifacts have to be kept in the other building (it was built in the 1950s as classrooms). Then, in the third phase, a museum or interpretive centre–something that will educate visitors about residential schools–will be created. So even with the money the province has committed to the campaign, there’s still a long way to go before the fundraising will be completed.

I couldn’t take any pictures inside (signs are posted everywhere asking people not to) and maybe it’s just as well. It’s the kind of place you have to experience to understand. That’s why it’s so important to support the “Save the Evidence” campaign. You can donate online or send a cheque to the Woodland Cultural Centre, P.O. Box 1506, Brantford, Ontario N3T 5V6 (attention Save the Evidence).

Most of the residential school buildings in other parts of Canada have been demolished. Many of them were on First Nations and, as Jessica told me, it’s completely understandable that people would want to see those buildings, the source of so many painful memories, destroyed. But what Six Nations is setting out to do is very different and, I think, very brave. They want to use the building to educate people–settlers–about what happened here. Despite the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, many of us know little about residential schools. I completely understand that. I grew up here–I used to work just down the road–and I had no idea what went on in this place. And we need to know. We need to understand. We need to get angry about the things that were done in our names. And then we need to try to make the future different from the past.

That was my day–or at least part of it. I also took in the art exhibition at the Woodland Cultural Centre and was very impressed by the range of work that’s been included. I thought about the way that art can create a meeting place for settlers and Indigenous people, a place where we can perhaps come to understand each other. I talked to a reporter from the Two Row Times, Jim Windle, about my walk through the Haldimand Tract. I had lunch with my friend Tom. I dropped in on Bonnie Whitlow at Laurier Brantford; she was a tremendous help to me when I visited Six Nations last December. I hope I see her tomorrow at Solidarity Day at Six Nations. I walked around the grounds of the Mohawk Chapel (the oldest Protestant church in Ontario and the only building that remains from the Mohawk Village, the reason the city of Brantford exists today) and took photographs of the monument to Joseph Brant in Victoria Park. I went to the Kanata museum to talk to the occupiers but nobody was there. I bought some trail mix. I talked to my friend Andy Houston after he got out of a long curatorial meeting about the Mush Hole Project, a site-specific art and performance event that will take place at the Woodland Cultural Centre in September (I want to come back to experience it). I had an iced coffee with my sister Pam and my niece Maggie and my grand-nephew Calvin (although he slept through it). And I saw some escaped Johnny-jump-ups in my mother’s lawn, competing with a great big dandelion.

But the thing that will stay in my mind, and in my heart, is that tour of the Mohawk Institute. I am very grateful to Jessica for taking time out of a very busy day–there’s a special event happening at the Woodland Cultural Centre tomorrow: you’ll probably see it on the news–to take me through the place. Niá:wen, Jessica. Thank you.

Tomorrow I’m walking to Six Nations along the Grand Valley Trail and Highway 54. If you’d like to walk with me, please send me an e-mail (there’s a link on the “About” page) or comment on this post, and we can try to meet up.

Paris to Brantford: Fish and A Walk Through a Fiery Furnace

I woke up early again, hoping to beat the heat–an impossibility, of course. I knew it was going to be hot, but the temperature was incredible. It was hot by nine o’clock. By noon, it was like walking through a furnace. I would’ve had to walk through the night if I was going to beat the heat. 

I started the day off correcting the URL on my cards. I thought about gratitude. How, I wondered, could I be grateful for making such a stupid mistake? I suppose it’s a lesson in humility. And at least I know about it now and can take steps to remedy the problem. But still. I had one job. . . .

I checked out of the hotel at 7:15. One problem: breakfast didn’t start until 8:00. I wasn’t going to sit in the lobby for 45 minutes, so I went outside and sat on a bench and ate some almonds and dried fruit. It wasn’t enough for a morning of walking, but I was hoping I’d come across a place where I could get something more substantial. And I did: a restaurant called Eggsmart (a chain in southern Ontario) where I ate a second breakfast, a four-egg omelette. Walkers, like hobbits, like to eat two breakfasts. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Tolkien was a walker, strolling on the footpaths around Oxford when he wasn’t drinking beer and arguing with his cronies in the Eagle and Child. That’s where he came up with the idea of creatures going on what is essentially a long walk. At least, that’s my theory.

When I crossed the river I noticed many anglers, including a few fly fishers, which suggested that there are trout in the river. A riverside plaque told me that there are more than 80 species of fish in the Grand, and 23 species of freshwater mussels, including many species-at-risk. In fact, the Grand River is supposed to be home to more species of fish than any other river in Canada. I was amazed. When settlers arrived, they started treating the river like a toilet. How did all those species manage to survive? It sounds like the river has recovered, or at least partially recovered, from that.

As a freight train rumbled overhead, I noticed a street sign: Mick Jones Way. Paris might remember Joseph Brant, but it also apparently reveres the Clash, too.

I hiked back to where I’d left the rail trail the day before. I walked until I caught up with three friends who were walking a dog named Baggins. They walk the same stretch of the trail every day, in every season. They told me about the animals they’ve seen: coyotes, deer, rabbits, skunks. “Watch out for racoons,” they told me. Raccoon rabies has reached this part of Ontario. “Especially racoons that seem to be friendly,” they continued. “They’re likely to be rabid.”

We walked together as far as the lot where they’d left their cars. I asked about the fishers. “Oh yes,” they said, “there are all kinds of fish in the river, and people come from as far away as Oakville to try to catch them.” I asked about the fly fishers. Does their presence on (or in) the river mean that there are trout? Yes. Why didn’t the couple I saw in Cambridge eat what they caught? Are the fish not good to eat? “I’ve been eating fish out of this river all my life,” Albert (the fellow in the middle) told me. “There’s nothing wrong with them.”

So maybe things can change for the better. Maybe ecosystems can recover from decades of abuse. And maybe the same is true of relationships between groups of people, too. Maybe reconciliation is possible. I said goodbye and carried on down the trail, thinking about how that might happen.

I crossed Highway 403 on a pedestrian bridge. It was getting hot and I was beyond the forested part of the path. Just as the rail trail ended at an industrial park on the outskirts of Brantford, I met another fellow who was taking his dog for a walk–or rather, a swim in the river. I asked him where we were and he showed me on my map. His t-shirt said “I’ve spent most of my life fishing–the rest of it I’ve wasted,” so I figured he would be someone to ask about the river. “You’d be surprised what’s in there,” he said. “Salmon, rainbow trout–fish that need clean water.” They’ve come back because the river is less polluted than it was? “They were always there,” he answered. “There are just more of them now.” And why don’t people eat them? Much of the river is legally reserved for catch-and-release fishing with barbless hooks, he told me. So you could eat them; you’re just not supposed to.

We said goodbye and he headed towards a footpath down to the river. I thought about how things can survive brutal assaults. It’s true of the river, and it’s true of the people who live along the river, too. 

It was a long walk through the industrial park and up Hardy Road. And it was brutally hot. I walked past a golf course where we used to toboggan sometimes. Sweat was running into my eyes and I took my Buff off my neck and used it as a sweatband. A little sunburn is one thing, but I need to be able to see where I’m going. Even that slog had its bright points, though: in a tree stripped bare by tent caterpillars I saw a female cardinal.

I have to be honest, though. Even the long, hot, difficult walks when my feet hurt and I’m tired–even they’re pretty good. And not in an “it feels good when I stop” kind of way. It’s hard to explain. You’d have to experience it.

Hardy Road turned into Tollgate which turned into Fairview Drive: a straight road with little shade. I cross the highway again I stopped to see my Uncle Lorne and Aunt Lois. They weren’t home. I stopped at the Farmer’s Dell, a convenience store I used to go to when I was a kid, and bought a popsicle. Finally I reached my mother’s place. It was cool inside. I’d only walked 19 kilometres, but it felt like a lot more. And the walk between Paris and the outskirts of Brantford had been nothing compared to the walk into the city. But it was still pretty good, to tell you the truth. If I didn’t like what I’m doing, I wouldn’t be doing it.

My friends Jamie and Dan drove down from Toronto to meet me. We drove back into Paris and had lunch at Stillwaters, just across the street from the hotel where I’d started walking this morning. Good food, good company. Next time I’m in Toronto I’m going to stay a few days and spend time with friends. Life’s too short not to. 

Remember the Woodland Cultural Centre’s “Save the Evidence” campaign–the reason I’m doing this walk. You can donate online or you can send a cheque to the Woodland Cultural Centre at P.O. Box 1506, Brantford, Ontario N3T 5V6 (attention: Save the Evidence). It’s an opportunity for you to help create a museum about residential schools in the former residential school in Brantford. It’s an important project, and one that needs your support.

What’s In the Pack?

My Facebook friend Charles Mandel wanted to know what I’m carrying on my pilgrimage through the Haldimand Tract–what’s in my pack. Pictured above is tonight’s pack explosion (because of course the thing I need is the thing that’s found its way to the bottom of the pack). It’s bigger than it looks in this photograph. The pack is a 38-litre Osprey. No reason for that, except it’s what’s available in Regina, and I like their lifetime warranty.

I carry two compressible stuff sacks filled with clothes, which sounds like a lot except that since I’m not out in the woods, I need clean (or dry) clothes to wear after I finish walking for the day. You just can’t be stinky in the city. So one stuffsack contains socks and underwear (three pairs: one that’s ready to wear, and one that I’m wearing, and one that I washed out the afternoon before) and extra shirts. The other has a pair of pants and a shirt and a sweater. Oh, if those shorts don’t dry overnight, I attach them to my pack with safety pins–something people do on the Camino but which makes me look, well, more than a little eccentric around here. But I don’t see an alternative.

Those stuff sacks go in the bottom of the pack. On top of that I cram in ziplock bags filled with electronic gear (iPad, a bluetooth keyboard), books (poems by Louise Halfe), and cables and power connectors (camera, iPad, phone).  I’m also carrying seeds for ornamental tobacco that my friend Richard Goetze gave me. Other ziplock bags contain extra dog biscuits (in case I run into a lot of angry dogs and run out of the ones I carry in my pocket) and a bunch of the business cards with the unfortunate typo. I also carry a small bag of toiletries and a larger bag of food. The food is the heaviest thing I carry, but it ends up in the top of the pack because I need to be able to get at it when I’m walking.

I carry a sweater to wear while I’m walking in the top of the pack, too. I needed it for the first few days, but I doubt I’m going to any more–unless the weather turns unseasonably cold. It could happen, but I doubt it will, and the forecast agrees with me.

In the lid of the pack I keep a repair kit, extra rubber tips for my walking poles (because I’m walking a lot on pavement and they wear out quickly), toilet paper (in a ziplock bag, of course), a little shovel (in case I get caught short and need to act like a cat, although that’s never happened), my zip-on pantlegs (in case I want to turn my shorts into trousers)–stuff like that.

My rain gear–a coat I bought in Pamplona after I learned that my raincoat was useless while crossing the Pyrenees–is jammed into a pocket on the outside of the pack. The coat goes on over my pack, as European raincoats sometimes do. But I use a pack liner as well. I don’t like wet things and prefer multiple lines of defence against all kinds of moisture–rain and sweat. I learned on that same rainy day in the Pyrenees the importance of keeping things dry: my passport got soaked in the rain and guess what? Passports aren’t waterproof. Now I’m on a list of people who have ruined their passports. “Do this one more time,” the guy at the passport office told me, “and we won’t issue you another one.” I’m more careful–maybe overly careful–now.

I’ve attached an old 1-litre zippered bag to the outside of my pack as well. I keep stuff I don’t want crushed inside the pack in it, like the Mohawk tobacco I traded for back in December, which is in a cardboard box because tobacco’s not supposed to be kept in plastic bags, according to the Haudenosaunee I’ve talked to; or things I might need while I’m walking, like Voltaren, a topical anti-inflammatory; or odds and ends that just won’t fit in the pack. 

Also attached to the outside of the pack are sandals (to wear after I finish walking for the day) and a first-aid kit. I also carry a water bottle that’s filled with an electrolyte mixture, because the heat sometimes makes me feel pretty sick. My water comes from a 2-litre Osprey water bag (it fits the Osprey pack well) with a bite valve. If I forget to turn the valve when I take the pack off, then I can cause a flood, like I did at rare yesterday. Somehow I dropped the pack on the bite valve and the result was water all over the floor. That was embarrassing. 

My pack weighs about 10 kilograms (without the water). I haven’t weighed everything separately (I’m not that organized). I know it could be lighter. For example, I could ditch the electronics and cables–but then there wouldn’t be a blog. I could also get rid of the business cards, which are heavy, but even with the error, they’re still useful (if I scribble the right URL on them). And I’m reluctant to dump the dog biscuits, because there are places where dogs aren’t tied up and I’ll be walking through one of them in a couple of days.

In my pockets I carry a compass, a little bag of dog biscuits, map(s) and a trail guide, my phone, and a bag that contains odds and ends I might need while I’m walking (a list of the places where I’m staying, a notebook and pens, business cards, and the defective spare battery for my phone). Oh, and a tobacco pouch, because I’m always crossing the river, it seems.

That’s more or less what I carried on the Camino de Santiago. Of course, there I needed a sleeping bag and didn’t carry any electronic devices (except for my camera and a sound recorder which I almost never used). For this walk I’ve been able to leave the sleeping bag at home. 

I wear hiking boots for support. I know the thing to do now is to wear trail runners, but if walking on stones hurts when I’m wearing boots, wouldn’t they hurt even more if I were wearing a lighter shoe? I use walking poles because they help me walk faster and because they’ve kept me from falling when I’ve stumbled against rocks or tree roots and lost my balance. The pack can throw off your centre of gravity.

So that’s what I’m carrying. I wish I was carrying a little less (and that I didn’t have to attach stuff to the outside of my pack), and I’ll probably leave a few small things behind in Brantford. If I haven’t needed them so far, am I likely to need them at all? Still, it’s manageable.