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.

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.

Brantford to Dundalk (or is it Melancthon?): Finding the Source of the Grand River

So here I am in Dundalk. Or is it Melancthon? Where am I, exactly? My sister Pam gave me a lift up here this afternoon and we were surprised to discover that the Skyview Motel is actually down the road from Dundalk in the township of Melancthon. It doesn’t make any difference, I suppose, except that I’ll be spending the first couple of hours tomorrow trudging along the shoulder of Highway 10 instead of Grey County Road 9. And I think I might be a little bit closer to the source of the Grand River in Melancthon. But I’m not really sure. Does the Grand River really have a source?

After all, it’s not like there’s a spot where the Grand River gushes out of a hole in the ground. Instead, according to my map, the watershed begins with many small creeks, like this one. They’re everywhere around Dundalk and Melancthon. And if you look carefully at a decent map, you can see the boundaries between the creeks that make up the beginning of the Grand River’s watershed and those of the other  seven rivers with headwaters nearby: the Saugeen, the Beaver, the Pine, the Nottawasaga, the Noisy, the Boyne, and the Mad. With a length of 280 kilometres, the Grand is the longest of these rivers, though–in fact, I’ve read that it’s the longest river that’s entirely inside southern Ontario’s boundaries.

I’m no hydrologist, but I think I’ve figured out why so many rivers get their start around here. The desk clerk at the motel told that this area is one of the highest points in southern Ontario, and that a northwest wind is always blowing. That explains the turbines that are everywhere. And my brother-in-law, Scott, who used to work in Dundalk, says it rains a lot around here. So what I think happens is that those northwestern winds blow clouds carrying water vapour from Lake Superior and Georgian Bay in this direction. When those clouds get here, they are forced higher in the air, where it’s colder, because of the land’s elevation. That water vapour condenses in the cold and falls as rain (or snow).  All that precipitation has to go somewhere, and it ends up feeding those rivers, including the Grand, which flow out of the hills in nearly every direction. Luckily for me, though, it’s not supposed to rain here tomorrow. I can walk in the rain, but it’s better if it’s not raining.

If you’re in southwestern Ontario and you’d like to join me on the road for a while tomorrow, I’ll be leaving the motel early, probably by eight o’clock, and walking west along Highway 10, south on Grey Road 9, and south again on Grey (or maybe Dufferin?) Road 8 and Side Road 24/25. I learned those numbers on the drive up here. I’m carrying topographical maps, and while they’re a great resource they have a flaw: they don’t identify many roads by their numbers, which might make navigation a challenge. Not tomorrow, though: I know where I’m going tomorrow. At least, I think I know where I’m going.

You can always reach me by commenting on the blog, or by e-mail on the “About” page. I promise I’ll answer from somewhere in the Haldimand Tract.

Don’t forget about the Woodland Cultural Centre’s “Save the Evidence” campaign. You can donate online here, or by mail at P.O. Box 1506, Brantford, Ontario N3T 5V6 (attention “Save the Evidence”). Every gift will help the Woodland Cultural Centre with the important project of establishing a museum about residential schools in a former residential school, the Mohawk Institute. 

Gratitude and Joy and Inclusion: Thoughts from the Telephone City

Last December, I went to Six Nations and met with a faith keeper. I wanted to make sure there wouldn’t be anything offensive or inappropriate about a settler walking through the Haldimand Tract. No, she told me, you’re feel strongly about this walk and it’s something you should do. But she also said that there are a few things I need to do during the walk. I want to tell you about them, because they’re important.

First, I’m supposed to offer tobacco to the Creator every morning and evening and pray for gratitude. The idea is that the smoke from the burning tobacco carries one’s words up into Sky World, where the Creator hears them. I was surprised, and humbled, when she said I should do this, and although I’m not sure about deities of any description, I’m going to do it anyway. In A Fair Country, John Ralson Saul argues that this kind of openness is characteristic of Indigenous civilizations: they imagine their communities as inclusive circles that expand and adapt as new people join, he says. Maybe he’s right. Being encouraged to participate in this spiritual practice is a kind of inclusion within the Haudenosaunee community, and it’s an honour to be welcomed into the circle in this small way.

And gratitude is powerful. When I was walking in Spain three years ago, I kept a record of the things I was grateful for, and doing that helped reframe my attitude. When you’re grateful to have a bed for the night, for example, you don’t focus on the fact that the albergue might be a little dirty or that one of the other pilgrims is snoring. You stop taking things for granted. I wish I’d been able to keep focusing on gratitude after I got home. So maybe this walk will give me a chance to think about gratitude again.

The faith keeper also said I should offer tobacco to the river every time I cross it, to honour the work it does: providing drinking water to hundreds of thousands of people and carrying away their waste. I’m happy to do that, too. We don’t often think about the ecosystems that sustain us that way, and we should. It’s another way of thinking about gratitude. I’m running out of Mohawk tobacco, though–I only have enough to give to elders now–so the Creator and the river are going to have to make do with the commercial kind. I hope that’s okay. 

I asked if there’s anything I absolutely should not do. “You must not drink alcohol,” she told me, “because this will be a spiritual journey for you.” That’s a tough one, because there’s nothing like having a cold beer after a long walk in the hot sun. But I did ask, and it would go against the spirit of this entire enterprise if I were to ignore what the faith keeper said. So, no alcohol. Fine. I can do that. If nothing else, not drinking beer will help me lose weight.

The last thing the faith keeper said was that I should look for joy during this journey. That’s good advice. It means paying attention to the world around me as I walk, I think: to things like the Baltimore oriole, or the Bohemian wax wings, or the field of purple milkvetch I saw on Wednesday. But joy is also connected to gratitude, I think. They work together. They reinforce each other.

So: gratitude and joy and inclusion. That’s what I’m thinking about on this sunny afternoon in Brantford.

Remember, the “Save the Evidence” campaign needs your support. 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). Your gift will help create a museum about residential schools. Years from now nobody will be able to say “that didn’t happen” or “we’d never do that,” because the evidence will have been preserved. It’s important: if we understand the past, maybe we’ll be less likely to do similar things in the future.