On Oct. 19, in Campbell River, B.C., I stepped foot onto the Polar Prince for the first time.
I had been following the journey of this ship for months as it travelled from Toronto towards Victoria, along the three coasts of Canada and through the Northwest Passage, as part of the Canada C3 expedition.
With the aim of honouring the past and reflecting on the future of Canada, the epic journey was a signature project of the celebration of Canada’s 150th anniversary of Confederation and centered on four main themes: reconciliation, youth engagement, diversity and inclusion, and the environment.
The journey was divided into 15 segments, during which a diverse group of Canadians from all walks of life were invited on board to experience Canada’s nature, people, past and present.
Meeting for the first time in the old helicopter hanger aboard the boat, which was a former icebreaker, I discovered the incredible participants with whom I would share experiences, emotions and ideas over the next 10 days.
Writers, scientists, musicians, adventurers, Indigenous elders, teachers, artists, politicians, new Canadians, people engaged in their communities — all curious and eager to see what would happen next.
In the good hands of the crew, we sailed overnight. We woke up in Desolation Sound, anchored a couple hundred metres from B.C.’s Teakerne Arm Provincial Park.
A bit of rain, a waterfall, mountains, trees and no one around. It seemed perfectly calm and such a great place to start. We had some time to enjoy the area; a few people went for a short hike, I went for a paddle with some of the others.
Just as we were thinking of heading back to the ship and the hikers were jumping into Zodiacs to do the same, we spotted a couple of whales.
“Her happiness and awe in front of those marine giants was contagious.”
We paddled a bit closer. They dove, only to surface some 20 metres away from us, and play hide-and-seek around us for 10 minutes.
One of the youth ambassadors, Megan from the Northwest Territories, had never seen a whale. We were all thrilled, but her happiness and awe in front of those marine giants was contagious.
Sharing of cultures
Back on the ship, we sailed towards Powell River, where we were welcomed by the Tla’amin people drumming and singing as we stepped ashore on their ancestral territories.
There, we learned about the canoe-carving project developed in partnership between the Indigenous Coast Salish tribe and the residents of Powell River to create an understanding of reconciliation through collaboration and the sharing of Indigenous culture and knowledge.
After more than 20 years of effort and treaty negotiations with the provincial and federal governments, the Tla’amin Nation reached an agreement and, on April 5, 2016, became self-governing.
We had the chance to meet with some of the main contributors in the preparation of the treaty, who told us of their difficulties and what this endeavour meant for the community.
They invited us to share a meal — a feast really — with the community. I sat with an elderly lady, chatting over elk stew, smoked salmon and bannock.
She told me stories of her youth, of residential schools, of going out with her grandmother to find clams, of how her community honours the passing of loved ones and of the dictionary their community is building up to keep their language alive.
“I realized how much I didn’t know about the history of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.”
She was so open, I felt encouraged to ask questions and I learned so much.
I realized how much I didn’t know about the history of Indigenous Peoples in Canada, let alone on the other side of the country.
As we headed back to the ship, I’m sure we were all thinking the same thing — what a day. It was only the beginning of our journey.
In the following days, we continued to learn and to share as we travelled towards Victoria.
We visited innovative school projects and learned about wetland monitoring programs. The science team collected data to better understand the biodiversity and health of our oceans.
We visited salmon hatcheries and interpretation centres and, in Vancouver, we learned about the safe injection site and community groups that provide work and housing to people in need.
Until our final arrival in Victoria, as the ship sailed towards the end of its journey from coast to coast to coast, the expedition strived to celebrate Canada’s 150 years, to recognize the wrongs that have been done to so many and to uncover the nuggets of hope that will lead us towards a better future.
I think I speak for our group, our little family of leg 15, when I say we emerged from the experience with our hearts and eyes open to new realities.
I believe that, together, we can make a difference and move forward in our understanding and protection of our oceans, as well as in the cultural recognition and reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples in Canada.