Following the Path of St. Jean de Brebeuf, SJ, on a Journey of Reconciliation

August 2, 2017 — A group of Jesuits and Indigenous people have embarked on a 500-mile canoe pilgrimage to promote reconciliation in Canada. They departed from Midland, Ontario, on July 21, following in the path of 17th-century Jesuit missionary St. Jean de Brebeuf and his First Nations guides.

The journey coincides with the celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday and aims to promote deeper intercultural dialogue and understanding. By immersing Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in each other’s customs and traditions for a month, the Canadian Canoe Pilgrimage hopes to foster respect, trust, dialogue and friendships — building blocks for reconciliation.

"Our desire is true and real about helping to claim what we've been part of — the good and some of the very bad," Kevin Kelly, SJ, a Jesuit scholastic, said during a stop at the French River Visitor Centre along the pilgrimage route. "We don't have any expectations that this is a cure-all or that this is going to fix things. It's a simple step."

Fr. Peter Bisson, SJ (left), provincial of the English Canada Jesuits, blessed Kevin Kelly, SJ, before he embarked on the pilgrimage on July 21.

The canoe pilgrimage has a rich history for the Jesuits in Canada. Fifty years ago, for the country’s 100th birthday, a group of young Jesuits had the first canoe pilgrimage for Expo 67, the world’s fair in Montreal, to promote ecumenical dialogue. This year’s pilgrimage is following the same route and staying overnight in the same locations as the Jesuits in 1967 did.

Jesuits on the canoe pilgrimage in 1967.

The paddlers began the pilgrimage at Sainte-Marie among the Hurons and Martyrs' Shrine in Midland, Ontario, at the historical site of the Jesuit mission to the Wendat First Nation dating back to 1638 and where St. Brebeuf was martyred.

During the 28 days of paddling, the group is going from Midland up the Georgian Bay; traveling across the French River, Lake Nipissing, the Mattawa and Ottawa Rivers; and ending near Montreal on August 15. The pilgrims paddle for eight hours a day and then camp out each night, joining together in prayer each evening.

The Jesuits — from Canada, the U.S., India and the U.K. — taking part in the pilgrimage.

The journey includes a core group of 30 paddlers, half of them Jesuits, the other half Indigenous people. Other groups, including students from Jesuit schools like De Smet Jesuit High School in St. Louis, have joined the pilgrimage for a few days of the journey.

Father Erik Oland, SJ, provincial of the Jesuits in French Canada, paddled with the group from July 29 until the feast of St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits, on July 31. After arriving at the Motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Joseph in North Bay, Ontario, Fr. Oland celebrated Mass with the pilgrims on Ignatius Day.

Trip navigator Paul Jacques said the trip has already fostered open conservations, though he admits that some subjects are tough to deal with, such as one participant who shared his experiences of being at a residential school.

Residential schools in Canada, a network of boarding schools for Indigenous peoples, operated from the 1870s to 1996. They were administered by Christian churches, including the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England and the United Church of Canada; the Jesuits, like other religious orders, administered some of the schools. When former students reported harsh conditions and physical and sexual abuse, Canada established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2008, which issued a call-to-action document in 2015 to "redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation." The Jesuits in 2013 issued a Statement of Reconciliation to honor the survivors and apologize for their part in injuring individuals, families and communities by participating in the residential school system.

The pilgrimage isn't trying to offer a solution to truth and reconciliation, said Erik Sorensen, SJ, a Jesuit scholastic and director of the pilgrimage. “Everyone is excited to hear that we are doing something concrete that isn't purporting to solve anything ... we're here to take one small concrete step forward.”

Erik Sorensen, SJ, gave final remarks of encouragement the day before the launch: "It warms my heart to see so many wonderful people working together."

Sister Eva Solomon, a member of Henvey Inlet First Nation and the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, is on the voyage with her niece to reconnect with their land. She said she sees the trip as a way to inspire healing, especially with the Jesuits, who ran a residential school in Spanish, Ontario.

Reconciliation may come for some along the journey, but Solomon stressed that it will take time for many others. "It took us 400 years to get here. It's not going to happen overnight. We have to be patient and be respectful of where other people are on that journey."

Pilgrims arriving in North Bay.

The pilgrims’ final stop will be on August 15 at the Shrine of St. Kateri, who was the first Indigenous woman from North America to be canonized

The group attends Mass in a chapel overlooking the water.

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