An unusually bitter May wind whips across the Ottawa River, chilling my fingers and face. The dull sky is forlorn. Shivering in a thin jacket and clutching my sleepy infant son to my chest, I join thin clusters of people congregating in Gatineau, Que. Gradually, the crowds swell, and then suddenly the sun is shining, warming us in body and spirit.
To the steady rhythm of Aboriginal drumming, we march together across the Portage Bridge toward the Parliament buildings for the closing events of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We are pilgrims from all walks of life — non-Indigenous and Indigenous, poor and affluent, rural and urban, youth and elders — walking together as one. United Church youth donning red shirts stride alongside residential school survivors in yellow vests; young non-Aboriginal families walk in step with Aboriginal chiefs and elders.
On this historic day, we are partners. I would like to believe that we are equal partners. But it would be naive to see this Walk for Reconciliation in purely egalitarian terms — as an act that brings this country together in a grand finale of forgiveness. We can’t march straightforwardly toward justice. We can’t stroll effortlessly toward harmony. Much as I am moved by the walk, I know that my place on the path, my journey, is not that of the residential school survivor. We may share the trail, but the path is more perilous, and more painful, for some than others.
I think back to earlier in the month, when a group of Aboriginal walkers passed through my hometown of Barrie, Ont. Having travelled on foot from the remote northern Ontario town of Cochrane, they had already covered nearly 800 of the 1,000-plus kilometres of their journey to Ottawa. The Mushkegowuk TRC Walkers, as they called themselves, included four young men: Patrick Etherington Jr. of Moose Cree First Nation; Darren Hughie of Kashechewan First Nation; Remi Nakogee of Attawapiskat First Nation; and Maurice Wesley, also of Attawapiskat. Two elders accompanied them: Patrick Etherington Sr. of Fort Albany First Nation and Frances R. Whiskeychan of Waskaganish First Nation, both survivors of residential schools.
Their epic pilgrimage was one of a series of great walks by the Etheringtons and Whiskeychan that originated in Cochrane. One was to the first national TRC event in Winnipeg in 2010, and the other was to a 2011 national event in Halifax. What connected the three treks was the walkers’ determination to dispel Canadian ignorance about the racist history of residential schools, which left behind a legacy of abuse, addiction and suicide.
I drove past long stretches of farmland smeared in sunlight before I spotted the walkers along the highway. I motioned them over to a tree-lined country road for a meal and conversation. When I asked about the hardships of the walk, I expected a litany of complaints about the physical challenges — the inclement weather, their injuries, their exhaustion. But not a word was spoken about any of these things. What the walkers shared were the spiritual, emotional and psychological struggles of their journey.
There was one emotion that they repeatedly named: anger. Anger at the unrelenting racism they faced in predominantly white communities far from home; at the memories that the walks awakened; and at the Canadian government’s refusal to follow up its 2008 apology for residential schools with action. As First Nations people walking in places not designed to be walked upon — highways, suburban streets without sidewalks, rural side roads — the walkers contested the erasure of Indigenous people from the land. But they were also targets of prejudice. Patrick Etherington Jr. reflected, “People stare at us. They give us dirty looks, and I know what they’re thinking: more dirty Indians! I used to think it didn’t bother me, but it does.” As if to confirm his point, a woman passing by in a luxury SUV slowed to almost a halt, fixing her hostile gaze on the walkers as they rested at the side of a rural road lined with estate homes.
But more disturbing than the routine encounters with racism were the memories. Each day, Etherington Jr. watched his father lay bare his painful past. I had a long talk with the elder Etherington that morning. Of his many memories of residential school, he shared just one: showering as a small boy amid the jeers of older lads and under the gaze of untrustworthy adults. He hinted that abuse took place. Later, tears rushed to his eyes as he told me that his mother, also a survivor, died a year ago, and his aunt, another survivor, passed away that morning. I do not know how this gentle man manages the pain. But walking has a way of healing broken spirits.
Walking also has a way of healing broken relationships. For the TRC walkers, reconciliation is, at its purest, about living in relationship. In connecting people to their inner selves and to one another, their pilgrimage was an inspiring affirmation of the possibility of individual healing, community strength and cross-cultural cooperation. It was also a powerful witness to the potential for right relations between survivors and churches, including The United Church of Canada, which ran 13 residential schools.
In one transformative moment, the walkers listened to the story of a man from a United Church congregation near North Bay, Ont., a former RCMP officer whose job it was to force Aboriginal children out of their homes and escort them to residential school. The elder Etherington admitted to having “reactionary feelings” upon first hearing the story, but said, “we began to understand where he was coming from.” In that moment, both sides recognized the racist ideology behind the schools as a force that dehumanized Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike. Out of that recognition came resistance to racism — a mutual affirmation of shared humanity.
Walking can empower not only survivors. The youth group at St. Andrew’s United in North Bay decided to organize a 100-kilometre walkathon to raise money for shoes, socks and other necessities for the TRC walkers. Along the way, they built connections and community through their encounters with survivors. “Some of it has been very hard and very painful,” says youth leader Tracy Davis. “They’ve learned about the struggle and they’ve learned about commitment, and how much work it takes to stand up for something.”
The struggle is something Indigenous Canadians know well. There is an enduring history of marching for justice in Aboriginal communities. As Dan Rubinstein explains in his book Born to Walk: The Transformative Power of a Pedestrian Act, walking makes sense as an expression of civil disobedience and as an act of community-building for cultures that once lived self-sufficiently off the land but now find themselves among the most disenfranchised. Rubinstein cites Leanne Simpson, an Indigenous scholar and activist from Alderville First Nation near Cobourg, Ont., who observes that walking has long had a place in First Nations politics and spirituality. “The same things that motivated my ancestors to walk are motivating people now,” says Simpson.
While non-Indigenous Canadians need to walk as allies with Indigenous people, they must do so mindful that their struggle is not the same. As I walked in Ottawa that last day of May, I carried my son, my arms filled with the warmth of his presence. Meanwhile, the arms of many Indigenous walkers ached with loss — of a child who died at school; of a parent who became estranged. The path of privilege is different from the path of racial pain. Yet we must walk together as far as we can, even as we realize that our view is different and that we may not always stride in step.
Julie McGonegal is a writer and editor in Barrie, Ont.
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