Others saw the event as a continuation of the Journey of the Nishiyuu, when a group of six young men walked from a Northern Quebec Cree community to Ottawa in March.
During that epic journey, more walkers joined at each Cree and Algonquin community. Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg, near Maniwaki, Que., was the last First Nation before Ottawa but, when the hundreds-strong group of indigenous youth passed through Wakefield, they were surprised to be welcomed with open arms, food, and a place to sleep at the community centre. Many Wakefielders joined the walk and, since then, people in both communities say something has changed in the way they view each other and interact.
With participants from Kitigan Zibi, Wakefield and Chelsea, Friday’s paddle cemented some friendships and made room for more.
In addition to their common purpose — to highlight the importance of maintaining clean waterways — each participant paddled for his or her own personal reason.
Maggie House, 18, and Shannon Whiteduck, 19 paddled for their people. “After the Nishiyuu walk came through, we wanted to do something that would represent us, as Algonquins.” They chose to paddle because “the river is such an important part of our culture,” said Whiteduck, who is part of the Kitigan Zibi Paddling Club. House said she’s happy to see non-aboriginal people taking part. “The more support, the more awareness of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, the better,” she said.
Lisa Commanda paddled to support the youth. Commanda, who wore a sacred eagle feather pinned to her red cap, said she has seen a change in the young people at Kitigan Zibi since the Nishiyuu Walkers came through in March. “The youth who walked are still friends with the Cree and other Algonquins they met — that’s what it was about, unity and friendship,” she said. Commanda’s nephew gave her the eagle feather he wore as he walked to Ottawa. He said “this feather has already been to Parliament Hill on the roads. Now you can take it there on the water.”
Neil Faulkner, in his 70s, paddled in solidarity. Faulkner said he wanted to show support for indigenous people and Idle No More by demonstrating how important the waterways in the region are for all the people who live there. Falkner said he was “appalled” when the government included environmental legislation in its budget bill. “It’s totally undemocratic,” he said. “That’s why I’m paddling. Also it’s not a bad way to spend a beautiful summer day,” he said, smiling.
Rose Commanda and Shirley Odjick-Tolley supported the paddlers as grandmothers. “Our responsibility, as women, is to speak for the water,” said Odjick-Tolley, who gathers with other grandmothers from every Algonquin community to discuss how best to fulfil their role. The biggest concerns most elder women have, she said, are fracking, clear cutting and mining. “Water is life,” she said. Commanda agreed, saying “This event is a great opportunity to see that we all share the same cause. We’re starting to awaken people’s consciousness,” Both women smiled when they saw the young leaders on the river. “These young people are following in the footsteps of their ancestors,” said Commanda.
Scott Duncan, 43, paddled for Canada. “There a huge distance between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians,” said the Wakefield resident. “But, with this cause — the rivers, which we both use — our interests have aligned.” Duncan said his whole perspective changed when he witnessed the journey of the Nishiyuu as it passed through Wakefield. “We have this myth in Canada that we are a tolerant people. And the fact that we have that myth makes it easier to believe,” he said. “What I’ve learned about the state of life for First Nations in this country makes me want to be a better Canadian.”
Meriza Bryden, 23 and Kelsey Walsh, 24, paddled for an education. “I work at the National Gallery where Sakahan, an aboriginal art exhibit, is currently showing,” said Bryden. “And, the more I learn, the more it shows how much there is still to know.” Bryden heard about the paddle through her friend, Kelsey, who hopes the paddle will bring her closer to the Algonquin community in her backyard. “They’re so close, but we don’t really know about each other. I feel like I don’t even know much about Canadian history because my knowledge about First Nations is so limited.”