Out of the Mists of C3

By: James Raffan, Canada C3 Journey Participiant

It is difficult to put into words the often intoxicating, sometimes confusing, occasionally beguiling and always engaging mix of emotions arising out of Canada C3. But, having been aboard the icebreaker for Leg 2, now heading west from Montreal on National Aboriginal Day with the Mercier Bridge out the window of the train, I’m going to try to encapsulate just one instance of the power of this learning experience.

 Kaniehtiio aka “Tiio” Horn as tour guide.

Before we left Montreal on the C3 ship to head downriver to Baie Comeau, we took a bus to Kahnawà:ke with Canada C3 participant Kaniehtiio aka “Tiio” Horn as our guide. Tiio was born in Ottawa but her mother is Mohawk and she very much considers Kahnawà:ke her home. One of the great gifts of Canada C3 is that participants have been selected to connect the expedition to the places it will visit. And although Tiio, 31, makes her living as an actor, she took readily to the job of impromptu tour guide as we rolled over the Mercier Bridge onto the reserve.

The quarry at Kahnawà:ke.

There were preplanned stops on the territory, organized to give everyone a sense of Kahnawà:ke, but Tiio felt that the best way to introduce everyone to her home community was by total immersion… in a huge spring-filled quarry where she swam as a kid. So, for the first hour of our visit to Mohawk territory, we swam in crystalline waters. Staff and participants talked. We ate our bag lunches. We enjoyed the sunshine as Tiio’s reminiscences of growing up drifted in and out of conversations both in and out of the water.

The main learning for most of us, as we ducked into the sumacs and got dressed again, was that the reason the quarry was there at all was to support the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway and that while this project created a dandy swimming hole, it also completely severed Kahnawà:ke from the river. Kahnawà:ke we learned from Tiio means “place or community by the rapids”. When the Seaway was completed in 1959, this was no longer true: Kahnawà:ke was a place and a community cut off from the river.

Of course, anyone aboard the bus who was breathing in 1990 was well aware of the Oka Crisis. And although Tiio’s pride in her community and her delight in showing of some of her favourite haunts on the res’ focussed on happier times, there were enough references to what happened that terrible summer and fall of 1990 to awaken memories of in all of us.

The author speaks with a young Mohawk boy.

But the next stop whisked us into the joy and positivity of the here and now. Inside Karihwanoron (meaning “precious words”) Immersion School we were treated to a pair of elementary school students, a boy and a girl, reciting the Mohawk Prayer of Thanksgiving or the ‘words that come before all else’ in Mohawk, as they worked their way around a series of photographic cues along the walls of their classroom. That they did this was totally impressive but what we learned from their teacher was even more arresting: these kids in this band-run immersion school are the first residents of Kahnawà:ke in three generations for whom Mohawk is their first language! From days when Kahnawà:ke residents were forbidden to speak their language to this was a hope-filled demonstration that spoke of resilience and determination.

Later in the visit, we heard from environmental planners in the community who are working on naturalizing a basin within the seaway itself to bring some semblance of the river and its natural history back to the people. After an indoor presentation, we all headed out to see the project and to walk the ground that we’d seen in the maps, diagrams and images on the screen. But the whole time we were outside, I was struck by how the rip currents of the St. Lawrence River itself were far away and out of reach from this eponymous community. That, with the denial of language, the history of residential school, Tiio’s talk of tear gas drifting over the place where we were standing, brought with it a palpable sense of shame. No wonder the Mohawks were mad when somebody tried to put a golf course in a copse of sacred pines wherein lie the bones of their ancestors.

As we drove back across the Mercier Bridge on the bus, Tiio talked about the blockade and about the day, after the Oka standoff, when elders and families came back to the mainland through a barrage of rocks and bottles being thrown by angry Quebecers from the high banks of Whiskey Trench. Rumbling along in that school bus, in the exact place where this unseemly altercation had transpired, left me wanting to do nothing other than just hang my head and hide until there might be a chance to speak quietly, perhaps one on one, with Tiio, or some of the others, about how me might turn the emotion and energy of this visit into something positive.

But I was dogged by images from Oka—three in particular. First, a bandana-clad warrior standing face-to-face with a young Canadian soldier. Second, Mohawk spokeswoman, Ellen Gabriel, staring directly at the television cameras saying, “Why should someone die for nine holes of golf. This is stupid.” And third, possibly most haunting, was of a Mohawk teen lying on the ground having been accidentally stabbed by a soldier’s bayonet. She had been leaving the treatment centre, as the standoff came to an end, carrying her four-year old sister when she was struck down. The image shows the little sister in her blue raincoat, in the middle of the fray, clutching her injured sister’s neck for dear life.

The reason why these images were so indelibly etched in my brain had to do with the fact that in the summer of 1990 I was studying the ways in which people are connected to place. And in spite of the fact that I had been reading intensively for a long time in the rich literature of cultural anthropology, it was watching the television and newspaper images from Oka that made me realize that if I was to learn anything at all of any lasting consequence about the connection between people and place I would need to do so in a cross-cultural setting that might help me understand the depth of the Mohawk’s fierce resistance to colonization. That’s exactly what I did, or tried to do… but that’s another story.

The author in Kahnawà:ke.

It was only when we got back to the ship that I got a chance to tell Tiio a bit about my response to Oka, how it affected me and my research, to apologize (for what I couldn’t find words) and to say a quiet thank you to her for guiding us. And it was only in that conversation that I put two-and-two together and realized that the teen who had been stabbed was Tiio’s then 14-year-old sister, Waneek, and that she—Tiio—was the girl in the blue raincoat.

What are you supposed to do with a realization like that? What do you say? How do you say it? Happily, that is where the power and possibility of expeditionary learning comes into play.

Travelling together on a vessel, sharing meals and sunsets, participating in the same program, feeling energies rise and fall, provides a multitude of opportunities for getting to know your fellow participants. In the hours and days following the Kahnawà:ke intensities, Tiio and I had a number of chances to chat, in the Legacy Room on the ship, but also off the ship, where it was quieter and less harried. I got to appreciate something the depth of her enmity for non-indigenous people, Quebecers in particular, but also how, as we experienced the generosity and welcome of communities along the river, these long-held feelings were starting to ebb for her. Space and time on the journey were giving the conversation a chance to breathe.

For my part, I got a chance to tell Tiio something of the intense shame, guilt and regret that I have carried with me since Oka, as a first generation “settler” Canadian, angst that has been doubled and redoubled by other happenings, like the activities of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, among many others. Her responses were in-kind—quiet, personal, often nourished by silence or a story of some kind. As travel mates on the boat, we had the journey in common but as representatives of two cultures that have often been at odds there was an unstated heft or gravitas to what we were saying, even though, when we spoke, it was more like banter than prepared oratory.

A couple of days downriver from Montreal, we stopped in Trois-Rivières. In free time after the formalities of the visit were behind us, Tiio and I ended up riding bikes around the beautifully treed downtown of old city at the mouth of the St. Maurice River. Just chatting and riding along. There was not much too it, really. At one point, we came upon one of three public pianos that have been set up in Trois Rivières as a kind of creative art installation for passers-by to play. We parked the bikes on the curb and took turns plunking out a few simple tunes. It wasn’t Paderewski, by any means, but what was really happening as the hammers hit the strings, was the settling of nasty dust that had been stirred at Kahnawà:ke and the forming of new shared understandings about responsibility, engagement, leadership and community and, for sure, about reconciliation and the goodness that flows from experiences like Canada C3.