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.