Reflecting on our Histories : Spanish to Serpent River

We woke up this morning to the sounds of Sandhill Cranes out on the lake, and a group of four Ruby-throated Hummingbirds chasing each other around and buzzing our bright orange tent. We had a short walk planned for today, so we spent a leisurely morning trying to dry out the tent, which was soaked with dew, and enjoying morning coffee at the edge of the deep blue lake.

After a quiet July, there is a lot of bird activity again. Tree Swallows were chattering on the utility line as they came and went, foraging for insects above the water. An American Redstart was hanging out in the cedar hedge beside our campsite, and Ring-billed and Herring Gulls circled overhead.


As we trekked out of the campground we were stunned to notice the names of so many of the local roadways including Colonization Rd, Government Rd., Reserve Rd, and Government Line.  It has always amazed me that as we strive to understand our mutual histories and bring our cultures to a better understanding of one another that we still have such dominating and, I feel, demeaning street names.

The first stop on our way out of Spanish was the Municipal Marina. As we approached the large modern building on the edge of the lake we passed the ruins of the St. Joseph Residential School for Girls. This was one of 130 schools for First Nations, M├ętis, and Inuit children that were operated in Canada between 1874 and 1996 by the Jesuits of English Canada, the Daughters of the Heart of Mary, and the government of Canada. Across the street was the St. Charles Garnier Residential School for Boys, although that building has been removed. These were the largest residential schools in Canada, and they operated between 1913 and 1965.

Across the road from the shell of the school building was a memorial to the students who attended and survived the St. Joseph Residential School and St. Charles Garnier College. There was a marble monument, as well as a white willow that was carved by the artist Stacey Sauve.

The carving shows a woman, a man, and a thunderbird. The artist herself did not attend a residential school, but her family members did, and she experienced vivid, recurring dreams about what happened inside the residential schools in Spanish. When she learned that the boys' school was being torn down, she wanted to create something to hold the memories. When the white willow was still standing, she had a vision of the people inside it, and sought permission to create the carving. She said that students of the schools often prayed that the creator would send something to protect them when they heard the Jesuits walking the halls, so she carved the Thunderbird as their protector.

Residential schools were started in an effort to educate and assimilate Indigenous children into mainstream white culture, supposedly so they would have the same advantages that white students enjoyed. Day schools were deemed a failure for Native children, because the home influence was stronger than the school's influence, and they weren't learning European ways. Hundreds of children that were sent to residential schools ended up suffering horrible abuse, torture, neglect, experimentation, and dehumanization in these places. Many died at school or killed themselves. Generations lost their culture, language, and identity. When you hear or read about the experiences of Indigenous people in these schools it is impossible to imagine how anyone could have thought this kind of treatment would result in assimilation or equal opportunity. This was not the typical experience of a white child in Canada, and it should never have happened to anyone.

This place gave us a lot to think about. We noticed that the ruins of the school were located on private property, with a small house tucked behind them. Who could want to live somewhere and "own" a place where so much horror had occurred? Why, when we approached this place were we walking down Colonization Rd and Imperial Dr? Was this to make us face our history and what we've done, or was it intended for us to continue celebrating it? Why were there no historical plaques or informational signs explaining what went on here? We felt compelled to walk around and around the carved memorial to try to take it in and understand it. I don't think there is any way to understand this history, but we must at least face it to create a better, more inclusive and diverse future for all.



After walking past this sombre monument to the darker aspects of our very recent past, we continued out to the marina. It offered beautiful views over the sparkling Lake Huron with its many small islands. There was an observation platform up a set of around 200 steps, and I climbed to the top for a bird's eye view of the shore which has been designated as an environmentally significant area. As I looked out over the water a Bald Eagle soared across the sky, seemingly like an omen.

As we headed out of the marina we spotted an American Kestrel perched on a utility wire beside the road. We passed two sewage lagoons which also looked like they'd be great birding spots in the spring and fall. The lack of an adequate camera with birding scope was causing acute distress in some of us by this point.

For the next few kilometres on the Great Trail we walked a quiet paved road bordered on both sides by trees. There were no driveways, side roads, or other signs of habitation. There was very little change in scenery. One of the highlights was spotting an Imperial Moth caterpillar, which was roughly the size of my index finger, crossing the pavement. Another highlight was encountering a pair of Ruffed Grouse posed on the road. Otherwise, that stretch of trail was pretty uneventful.


Eventually we found ourselves walking through the lands of the Serpent River First Nations reserve. We first passed a museum and variety store, and then a large field with a circular meeting area in the middle. As we continued on we found ourselves walking among well cared for homes, a community garden, and a daycare. We soon found ourselves on the shores of the sparkling blue lake once again, enjoying the cool breezes coming in off the water.


The Serpent River First Nation is an Anishinabe First Nation, and part of the Council of Three Fires, which is an alliance between the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi. These groups reflect traditional roles: the Ojibwe serve as military protectors and preserve sacred teachings. The Odawa contribute through hunting and trading, and the Potawatomi are the protectors of the sacred fire. The Serpent River First Nation was an original signatory of the Robinson Huron Treaty of 1850, when the British negotiated purchase of the lands between Sault St. Marie and Penetanguishene, from the shores of Lake Huron to the highest point of land. This treaty was unusual in that it applied to a huge amount of land, and that the First Nations negotiated creation of a Reserve on the shores of Lake Huron as part of the deal, as well as the right to hunt and fish on the lands as long as they remained undeveloped.


As we crossed the reserve almost everyone who drove past gave us a friendly wave, which is unusual. A man stopped beside us and asked where we were walking. When we told him, he asked if we needed water or anything else, and invited us to come up to his house. We thanked him for the very kind invitation, but mindful of the dangers of spreading Covid 19 to vulnerable communities, we decided not to risk anything. I suspect we lost an opportunity to come away a little wiser by passing up the opportunity to meet this kind soul, but I think it was the responsible course of action right now.

We took a break under a shady tree at the community centre. As we sat there, several teenage boys passed us, all saying hello as they went by. It was very peaceful sitting in the shade. A soft breeze rustled the trees, and we could hear happy voices carried on the wind - no motorized vehicles or machinery.

After walking through the Reserve we walked a few kilometres of highway. Once again, we were still following the Waterfront Trail, so we enjoyed the comfort and relative safety of a paved shoulder, for which we were grateful. A few kilometres along we stopped at a picnic area along the Serpent River, and enjoyed a break from the hot afternoon sun under a canopy of tall white pines.


There was a beautiful waterfall as we crossed the Serpent River on the highway, and on one side of the highway a group of First Nations teenagers were diving off the rocks and swimming in the rapids. It looked very cool and refreshing.

We made one more diversion off the highway, during which a friendly resident asked if we were the ones walking across Canada. With a cheerful wave he bid us farewell. It feels very strange to be recognized in these seemingly remote areas.


When we returned to the highway we came out at the Elliot Lake Information Centre. Elliot Lake was once dubbed the "uranium capital of the world," but has since diversified to become a centre for mining, forestry, and tourism. The land was originally part of the Ojibwa territory, but the modern town site was founded in 1955 as a mining town when uranium was discovered in the area. The population has waned and waxed from around 6,000 to 30,000 people depending on demand for uranium, but in the 1990's demand dried up and the town diversified.


As we continued past the information centre on the highway a small bear cub darted across the road in front of us! Our first instinct was to watch in horror as it wove between the speeding vehicles, so we didn't take any photos, but we breathed a huge sigh of relief when it made it safely across!

We stopped for the night at the Serpent River Campground. Since a large rain storm is predicted for tonight, and tomorrow is Sean's birthday we splurged on a tiny cabin for the night. It is a beautiful, family oriented campground on the edge of the Serpent River, and we are enjoying a peaceful evening watching the sun set over the water.

See you on the trail!

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