By Canada C3 participant Kevin Vallely
“I didn’t expect this,” says Morgan Lirette, a Youth Ambassador on the Canada C3 expedition. Her eyes are wide and beaming. Just moments ago, an enormous humpback whale glided beneath her kayak, the ocean bubbling around her as it swept by. She’s smiling from ear to ear and is a little lost for words. “I think I’m going to cry,” she says.
I had expectations on this journey too – a fun, adventure-filled voyage on Canada’s West Coast, a celebration of Canada’s 150th anniversary, the opportunity to meet a few good people while out here – but I never imagined it would turn out like this. Something very special has happened.
I was invited on the final leg of Canada C3 as an author and adventurer. I recently completed my book Rowing the Northwest Passage: Adventure, Fear, and Awe in a Rising Sea and because of it was invited aboard the converted coast guard ice breaker the Polar Prince making its 150 day voyage from Toronto to Victoria via the Northwest Passage in celebration of Canada’s 150th anniversary.
A major theme of the Canada C3 expedition was to stimulate and foster conversations around reconciliation and to underscore the injustice Indigenous Canadians have suffered over the past century and a half. On Day 2 of our journey, we were given an opportunity to experience this first hand, when we were invited to the territory of the Tla’amin First Nation near Powell River to learn about the community and their recent negotiations to govern themselves. We were inspired to hear that the Tla’amin recently wrestled back control of their future and successfully negotiated a treaty with the provincial and federal governments. By freeing themselves from the governance of the Federal Indian Act, the Tla’amin First Nation present themselves as a distinct example of how reconciliation and mutual respect can lead to meaningful change.
We were still on a high on Day 3 when Expedition Leader Geoff Green facilitated a group conversation about what had struck us most about the expedition so far and without warning something special began to manifest. Maybe it was the power of the conversations with the Tla’amin or simply a broadening awareness among ourselves but we were all seated in the main assembly area on the stern deck of the Polar Prince in a revamped helicopter hanger when the conversation began to build into something significant.
We are a mixed group of Canadians with varying backgrounds: Indigenous leaders, artists, scientists, writers, students, social and political leaders, newly settled Canadians, entrepreneurs and Canada C3 staff. We were each given a moment to speak from the heart. What was to be a quick 60-minute debrief turned into a nearly 3 hour emotional exchange as participants reflected on what reconciliation means to them in the context of modern day Canada. As the microphone was passed from one participant to the next, inhibition dissolved and we began to hear of loss and of hope, of unintended ignorance and of a willingness to learn. When Indigenous leader Lillian Howard spoke the room fell silent. She spoke of struggle and tragedy, of mistreatment and systemic racism.
“I didn’t know whether I wanted to come on this journey,” she said, “But now I’m happy I am.” She opened a very personal door to all of us and bravely shared her own story, a deeply private narrative shaped by prejudice and violence. She spoke to us with a voice of honesty and hope, a voice of courage and resilience that stirred us all to reflect.
I can say that this tree-hour session was one of the most powerful group discussions I’ve ever been part of. I don’t think I’m alone. One participant revealed “What I just told you now I have not told my wife or kids.”
I reflect on my experience on Leg 15 of the Canada C3 expedition as one of learning and hope. I’m honoured to have been part of it and even though it was just a short experience, it is one that I will always hold dear.