words & photography :: Scott Parent.
It’s been hours since we’ve shared words. The only sound is our paddles chugging through the water, as they have been for a long while. Steep white clouds pervade the sky. They appear dense and chiseled but could become a thunderstorm or summon a waterspout upon us at any moment. It is otherwise a fine day to be out on the water.
“What’s on your mind?” Waasekom asks after our last long effort. We both know what lies ahead—a feature along the Georgian Bay coast neither of us has paddled before. Between us and Meaford lies the 4th Canadian Division Training Centre, where boaters are forbidden to land along the 22-kilometre range of coastline and must stay one kilometre from shore. Neither of us is here for the sightseeing. This is no leisurely paddle.
Waasekom Niin, also known as Edward George, of the Saugeen and Kettle & Stony Point First Nations, has been travelling with a team on a month-long ceremonial jimaan (canoe) journey to trace the territorial boundary of the Chippewas of Saugeen and Nawash Unceded First Nations (known collectively as Saugeen Ojibway Nation or SON), in solidarity with their current lakebed land title claim. The route stretches from Aazhoodena (Stony Point), Lake Huron, to the Nottawasaga River mouth in Georgian Bay on the other side of the Saugeen (Bruce) Peninsula.
The Land Beneath the Water Beneath the Jimaan
To the Anishinaabek, the jimaan is more than a canoe—it is a vessel that connects people to the water, to the land and to each other. It is a part of their traditional daily life.
To paddle ceremonially is to paddle in prayer for the water. Paddlers carry water in a vessel inside the jimaan. The journey is shared by paddlers and people on shore. Paddlers and walkers can relay, assist each other in keeping the jimaan travelling safely and share in the effort. Stops are made for offerings at places with cultural and spiritual significance along the route.
“This journey is about honouring these waters and bringing attention to the impacts of resource development and climate change on Lake Huron,” Waasekom said before the launch. “It is about sharing our story as Anishinaabek and being with our ancestors, praying and making offerings.”
The Water Walkers
Twenty-eight-year-old Waasekom began paddling in 2016. “It all started with the Water Walks,” he recounts. A sibling in a large family, he is the adopted son of the late Josephine Mandamin–Biidaasige-Ba (“The one who comes with the light” in Anishinaabemowin), renowned for starting the Water Walk movement. Waasekom started his water advocacy work under her tutelage.
Mandamin circumnavigated the shores of all five Great Lakes on foot, more than 17,000 km, often walking unsupported and carrying a small pot of water. “As women, we are carriers of the water. We carry life for the people,” she said in 2016.
“Her steadfast commitment and determination led to a multi-generational impact in our hearts and minds to care for nibi (water),” says Waasekom. “She walked the talk.”
Water Ceremony and Strawberries at Chi Sintabdek
July 21, 2020. Waasekom and his team were almost at Chi Sintabdek (Tobermory). When I heard they could use a hand paddling that day, I reached out. It’s only 11 km, I told myself. But I also understood the challenges of the section that awaited them. The paddlers had already experienced the full gambit of Great Lakes water, more than 260 km since departing Aazhoodena. I wanted them to succeed. A couple of hours after introductions, we were off.
A reception of members from SON and Waasekom’s land support team awaited our arrival at the Big Tub lighthouse, after a clamorous paddle rounding the peninsula. There were songs and offerings made for the water, and a feast of strawberries. Elder Shirley John of SON conducted a nibi ceremony on the rocky shores beneath the lighthouse. In that moment, I felt it wouldn’t be the last time I would jump in that jimaan.
Calming Troubled Waters
Then came the 63 km push from Halfway Log Dump to Nochemoweniing (Hope Bay). We paddled into the night under the Milky Way. Neowise hung in the sky. It felt “as though there were many paddling with us, as the water encouraged us further and further,” said Waasekom. We shared many stories that night paddling along the silhouetted escarpment, working together as two paddlers, as one jimaan.
The journey continued from Nochemoweniing with Waasekom and Grandmother Charlene Winger of Neyaashiinigmiing (Cape Croker). Other members of Neyaashiinigmiing also helped paddle the jimaan as far as M’wikwedong (Owen Sound). I admire the many hands on this work. I gather how important this is for everyone involved, and what it was to be a part of this journey, but also what they were willing to do on behalf of the water.
“In this area of Saugeen Ojibway Territory, there is a lot of shoreline development,” Waasekom states. “This area, too, is home to one of our original villages at M’wikwedong and many burial areas.”
I am back in the jimaan with Waasekom. We forge ahead through time and space, enduring wind and heavy water. We round Cape Rich, and catch an abeyance from the wind. That’s when Waasekom asks, softly: “What’s on your mind?”
For the past few weeks, I have been listening to many stories. I have heard people speak from their hearts about their loved ones, about life on the peninsula today and yesterday as an Anishinaabek. I listened as they poured their prayers into the copper pot we all carried forward in the canoe. I realize there is much history I was taught not to see.
Along these shores, it all becomes visible from my seat in the canoe. There is a lot on my mind. My heart is full yet I find few words to express myself. We share a moment of reflection between two souls that have faced some hard truths with respect to the water.
The Impact Area
Pulling over on the shore, I find something unexpected: a couple training munitions washed up on the beach. From the nearby 4th Canadian Division, no doubt. Of all the trash I’ve collected along the shores of Lake Huron, this find has a lurid quality to it.
We press on. We can see the Blue Mountains in the distance. As we near the Training Centre, a quad buzzes through the trees. Signage warns us to keep clear of the land. “We don’t need special accommodation for this work we’ve been governed to do. We are governed to be out on this water,” Waasekom declares.
We pull over, where two men in military uniforms greet us. They were expecting us and monitoring our progress. They ask us to leave the shoreline and inform us there are unexploded ordnance present on the land.
“It reminds me of Stony Point [site of the former Camp Ipperwash, a Canadian Forces training centre] where our journey first began, and I wonder about the legacy this kind of institution leaves behind once they are done,” Waasekom later wrote. “In Stony, we still find UXO [unexploded ordnance] to this day and future generations are left with this legacy forever.”
“This place [4th Canadian Division Training Centre] also is to be the host of a proposed project for a reservoir that will cover 375 acres and will be 20 metres deep and hold 23 million cubic metres of water—a TC Energy project in Saugeen Ojibway Territory that many in the surrounding communities are already saying no to. So while we cannot be accommodated to visit the site, our access is well within our traditional use. We must stop to let our friends at the military base know that we are travelling as good relatives, that care for this water.”
Known as the Impact Area, a large portion of the Training Centre is so heavily contaminated with unexploded ordnance, military personnel are now restricted from entry. The municipality of Meaford is planning to ask the federal government to fully disclose the severity of the contamination as well as their plans to remediate the site. This represents more toxic salt on the wound for the SON.
Over the next few days, the team progresses swiftly toward Wasaga.
At Collingwood, Carlene Keeshig of Neyaashiinigmiing takes the relay and joins the jimaan with Waasekom. They paddle the final strokes that conclude the ceremonial journey for the water. A large reception of family and friends await to feast in celebration on the beach at the mouth of the Nottawasaga River.
My post-journey reflection is by no means an exhaustive account. These are but a few sand grains from my experience only, as a participant among incredible people doing incredible things for the water—for the ancestors who once defended the territory and for the prosperity of the future generations at home in the Saugeen Ojibway Territory.