Over the past two years of hiking across Canada from Cape Spear Newfoundland to the eastern border of Manitoba a lot has happened. We share the vast majority of these experiences because they reflect without any help from us, the natural beauty and diversity of this nation. We strive to learn about each area, its history, cultures, and to highlight the uniqueness of each region. In the process we keep the negatives and harder challenges to ourselves. After all no one wants to hear the rantings of a tired, mud covered individual who is sick of being eaten incessantly by mosquitoes. With that said, it should be of no surprise that there have been events, emails, and situations which we haven't shared. It doesn't mean that we have forgotten about them or are striving to gloss over the rough parts of our venture. It just means that we don't know what to think about them or even how to talk about them.
Some time ago in one of those typical Canadian towns we had an encounter that has stuck in my mind. It has replayed itself over and over again – and not for the reason anyone might suspect.
In this manner, we strolled through the downtown core, trying to take in what made the region unique in the Canadian story, figure out what we would say in the blog that evening, and enjoy the moment. As we continued on with our treats in hand we found a piece of shade in a local park and took a seat to rest our feet and our backs. Given the situation with Covid, we did not sit on a bench or at a picnic table or too near to anyone else. We respected both the socially directed and unspoken public agreement that we all now keep our distance and simply took off our backpacks and sat under a tree in the shade.
As the minutes passed by we chatted, talked about our day so far, discussed what was to come, and checked for emails from family while we had a strong enough wifi connection.
It was in this moment of quiet that the officer marched up to us. Whether directed by another or coming over of his own according it didn’t matter, his attitude was clear. This is of course not the first time that we have been approached by police officers, law enforcement or community officials – all of which beforehand had been professional, friendly and in general simply curious. Backpackers – rightly or wrongly – are often presumed by society and officers of the law to be purveyors of disrepute and of problematic nature. In the past, even when one of us has gone to the hospital for an unexplained pain or heat exhaustion the first assumption made by officials – upon discovering that we are backpackers – is to check us for ‘injection marks’ and signs of drug use. (Just to be clear neither of us partake of any type of drugs, never smoke, and only on rare occasions do we drink).
Despite these preconceptions, the vast majority of police have approached us calmly, inquisitively, and have concluded our conversation by taking our card and by giving us their phone number and offering their help if it was needed. Indeed, to be honest, we – as privileged individuals – have often benefited by the kindness of local law enforcement.
However, on this one particular day, the officer who approached us had a very different manner about him. He marched up and immediately demanded to see our identification. He demanded our Drivers Licenses, then our Health Cards, and then our SIN cards. When each was produced he was clearly dismayed that we could calmly fulfill his request. These types of demands went on for a few minutes moving from wanting to see our passports, to knowing how much money we had on us, and how much we could access in our bank accounts – suggesting if we did not have a certain amount of funds available we would be immediately charged with vagrancy and detained. Again, once all of his immediate ‘requests’ had been fulfilled he demanded to know why we were walking in the town that we were in and why were photographing the region. We sought to explain to him that we were trekking across Canada along The Great Trail for 4 years to promote diversity in the outdoors and youth engagement with nature through birding and citizen science but this answer did not satisfy him. We had to provide proof that this was our undertaking, and so we showed him ‘business cards’, our website (www.comewalkwithus.online), and daily blogs over the past year. Once again these answers, calmly given, only seemed to incense him further.
Now clearly uncertain as to how to proceed, he next demanded that we empty our backpacks on the ground so that he could inspect their contents. He demanded that our clothes be taken out of their dry bags and be put out on the ground, that our food bags were opened and that our electronics gear was set out on the nearby picnic table. He inspected everything slowly, kicking his feet through our clothes, and repeatedly stepped on our dehydrated food and equipment.
With everything unpacked he turned on Sean demanding to know where he had ‘stolen the cameras and laptop from’. Once again he did not seem happy with the answer that we were hiking across Canada for 4 years, that we used these devices for outreach, or that we had digital copies of our receipts for all of our gear. His answer was to inform us that he was recording the serial numbers of each piece of our gear to ‘run a check against all of the stolen electronics in the region’ to see what ‘sort of vagrants we might be’. He ruminated to himself out loud – clearly trying to get a reaction - that there ‘had been break ins throughout the region 20 years ago’ and wondered ‘if perhaps the camera and gear where from those break ins.’ After he took the information we were promptly informed that we ‘were on notice’.
These tactics and types of comments went on for about 15 or 20 minutes – with little of what we said appeasing the officer and even less being believed. Eventually the officer seemed at least temporarily satisfied and simply told us ‘to pack up all the stuff that we had tossed all over the park’ and ‘to leave town as soon as possible’ with the warning ‘that our sort was not welcome in his community’. And while all of this might seem enough to rankle most people, it was, for us, par for the course. We have long anticipated being approached and questioned with a heavy hand by law enforcement and because of this, a certain degree of what we do is done to ensure that our appearance is clean, that we act professionally, and that we are known in the media, through organizations, and in communities via our outreach in order to provide proof of our undertaking. In short we have sought to protect ourselves.
However, during this process we both became infuriated – as we have been in the past – to be considered ‘vagrants’, ‘hobos’, ‘wastrels’, and ‘homeless peoples’. While it is true that in our time hiking across Canada we have been largely been met with caring and kindness from strangers, assistance from people online, and advice from people on the street – it is also a fact that we have been yelled at, disdained, and even spit on (on more than one occasion) by people. And – despite the reality that these moments are the rare exceptions – they are heartbreaking and frustrating. After all, until recently, I was a professional GIS analyst for almost a decade, I hold a doctorate of Forestry from the University of Toronto , hold graduate degrees in Watershed Ecosystems Management and Biology from Trent University, have published many peer reviewed articles, I am a member of the renowned Explorer’s Club and have won a fair share of academic and professional awards in my time. Similarly Sean is an award winning photographer, has travelled and photographed the world, has more education than most families have combined, has lectured at prestigious universities across North America, and done all of this while raising a family member. As such our initial internal reaction to being told off or degraded is ‘how dare you’, ‘we are not hobos’, we are not ‘problems to society’, and we are not ‘homeless people’!
Until of course we remembered that by our own choice we are of course homeless. More to the point we have - on more than one occasion - been helped and aided by the homeless who asked for nothing, demanded nothing, and who did not judge us.
And this is why I have been embarrassed since. Somewhere inside of me, inside of both of us, despite how we might look from day to day, and what our mission is, the reality is that we are unemployed and we are homeless. In the past couple of months even our own colleagues have cast us out and ridiculed us. By every metric in our society – whether professionally, academically, or economically - we are lesser persons. We cannot advance the careers of old co-workers, we are easily seen as ‘losses to society’, conceived of as a ‘burden’ and therefore, for many, we ‘deserve society’s ridicule’. The fact is that we both took umbrage at being told the truth (as society sees it) that we are currently worth less than everyone else in our community and our country. That at this moment all of our ‘awards’ and degrees are little more than pretty titles and nifty pieces of paper that we grasp onto and hold up to give ourselves meaning . At the moment we are homeless.
And so the truth is that I was mad at being judged for being exactly what I am.
It is not for feeling mad at the officer that I feel ashamed. Not for his commentary or attitude towards us but for the fact that I put myself – mentally – above others in our society by presuming and assuming that I would not only be treated differently but that I shouldbe treated differently. I made this assumption because of my own suppositions about how my upbringing, my education, and my professional career mandated that I should be treated.
However the reality is that so many homeless individuals and disenfranchised people in our society are also well educated, are professionals, and had impressive careers and achievements to their names too. I am not better than any of them, none of us are. My sole advantage is that I am here in this privileged situation because of my own choices, and by my own means and situation could leave it if I so wanted. The problem is that the types of presumptions I made about myself and how I expect to be treated are what led me and what lead our society to regularly treating others as lesser.
I am ashamed because I didn’t see how my own assumptions and presumptions have likely led me to judge and treat others in the world.
It might seem an odd thing, but as I write this, I am grateful to the officer who judged us, ridiculed us, searched our gear, and directed us to leave town. I am grateful because he acted as a mirror for my own presumptions and assumptions. He made me see that I don't want to be that person. We both see more clearly now that we need to be better persons to all peoples that we see and meet. Now more than ever I suspect that the world needs all of us to be better versions of ourselves. To be more caring, more understanding, and more empathetic to those in our communities and our country. We each need to walk in the footsteps of others to get a sense and an appreciation for what the world looks like from their vantage point and experiences.
Over the years I know I have looked away from people on the street, I know I have judged people for the state of their clothes or how they smell. I have said ‘sorry I don’t have any money’ when asked by someone striving to purchase their next meal or seeking to afford food for a child. I have looked 'through' people begging for help on the street corners. I know I have acted like the police officer – perhaps not as rudely or directly – but I have held those attitudes and shunned others with them.
And, so I am ashamed at how I have acted in the past and toward others.
I have thought about this moment and my own attitudes for some time now, and feel that I have carried this type of judgment for long enough. I need to set these attitudes down, and move on to working on being a better person. I need to stop feeling sorry for how I was treated or how bad I felt for myself and instead I need to strive harder to be the person I want to be - by treating people as they see themselves not as how others see them.
Each person has had their moments in life, each person has family, each person has achievements and things they are proud of and each person deserves to be treated with the dignity that reflects their best self.
It has been a tough year on everyone, with the holidays coming sooner rather than later and with all of us having less. Most of us have less money and have already spent a good amount of time with family during the quarantine, so the rest of 2020 is due to be different. Perhaps nerves are a little more frazzled, tensions are running higher, and uncertainty continues to haunt our daily lives. I'm not sure the reset of year is going to straightforward in terms of getting back to work or going to school. I'm not sure it will involve the anticipated piles of presents during the holidays or even that many of us want to spend more time with the same people we have been isolated with for the past year. This is the new norm. There is no denying it's not easy.
This doesn't mean that we have to donate money to charities, but instead it means that we all need to strive to treat others as we want others to treat us. If we can do this then we can slowly and meaningfully change the tone of our conversations and the feeling in our communities and then perhaps things won't seem so overwhelming anymore.
Right now everything is tough, and certainly this moment is a challenge, but we are in this together and we are stronger when we take care of one another.