Anyone who has looked at a map of the Great Trail has seen that the route across the nation can generously be called ‘indirect’. It does not flow seamlessly from east to west to north or along the most efficient and direct route. Instead it meanders, weaves, and presents a new approach to thru-hiking the country. To put this fact into perspective, if one was to drive from Halifax to Vancouver, the trip would cover around 6000 km. So far in the first two years of hiking from Newfoundland to Winnipeg Manitoba (not including a 900 km gap in Quebec), we have trekked more than 6500 km and we are only half way to the Pacific. At times the Trans Canada Trail is a wonderous gift, taking us to places that we would never have found or been privileged to visit, while at other times its carefree exploration of the nation has left us wondering.
So the natural question – or at least the one you ask when you have a lot of time on a trail that weaves though forests, meanders around agricultural landscapes, takes you into marshes and rivers, and across vast urban centers is – what is going on here? What is the point?
Well, as one travel author noted - trekking has never been about following the most direct route. Instead it has often favored safety, energy conservation, and exploration. For us, the very spirit of the Great Trail is not simply as a means to exercise in your community, or thru-hike a province, but instead it has been as a means to delve into the nation, to experience a region, and get a better understanding of the country, its cultures, its histories and hopefully ourselves on the way.
Since leaving Cape Spear Newfoundland we have ventured into and across seven provinces, thousands of towns, and countless environmentally significant regions. We have also been taken to places of historical and cultural importance.
We have visited Indigenous communities, Acadian and Metis settlements, European battlements, colonial fortresses and Canadian cities. We have been privileged to venture to many of the places where this nation was founded, spots where our various cultures have intersected and in the process shaped something new, and to locations which defined who were are as a people - often times for both good and for bad.
On the way we are also able to see how our common understanding of our histories and cultures are constantly changing, being renegotiated, and are being redefined as we learn more about our pasts and our selves. The result is a deeper exploration and sense of our nation and (hopefully) ourselves.
In this regard, the Great Trail’s route is not simply a pathway from coast to coast to coast, it is an exploration of the Canadian Experience. To trek along it gives one the opportunity to discover something new, to see a region from its people’s perspective and to come face to face with the historical realities and complexities which continue to influence our communities today.
While we do our best to feature many of the important sites that we come to, the reality is that our focus has been on the nation’s natural wonders, and because Sean is a Historian by profession I strive to limit his overwhelming fascination and interest (which goes on and on and on). Yet there are places along the route of The Great Trail that are so full of history, cultural resonance, and importance that one can’t help but focus on them. Indeed, as we have trekked we have sought to note a number of places that we felt were too large in their historical significance to simply pass by.
In addition to this, we have been moved beyond words at the sites of Residential Schools across the country where Indigenous youth were taken from their families in an attempt to forcibly assimilate them into Euro-Canadian culture.
And we have talked about those (far too many) communities whose residents hang red dresses outside their houses, in their parks, and in places of significance, memorializing the stunningly large number of missing and murdered Indigenous women across Canada.
Each of these sites are not only important historical and cultural aspects of our nation, but also reflect moments of stunning systemic racism and discrimination that happened here in Canada – a democratic nation, with a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and in which individuals and their rights are supposed to be equally protected by our laws, our peace officers, and our military. Yet that has not always been the case, and it is sadly not always the case even today.
Many Canadians make the assumption that racial issues and discrimination are the purview of the American experience, rather than a constant in Canadian History and an ongoing issue in present day society. In contrast to its southern neighbor, Canadian history is often spoken of in clear, clean and simple linear terms. We frequently discuss our country’s multiculturalism in light of the French and English cultures of Europe meeting with Indigenous peoples and forming one nation in the ‘New World’. We focus on our humanitarian ideals in undermining American slavery through Canada’s role in the Underground Railway as a ‘bastion of freedom’ which welcomed former slaves. We herald the amazing culture inherent in Montreal’s Jazz scene, and promote the undeniable talents of Indigenous artists across the nation as examples of our multiculturalism.
Yet there is no denying that many of these understandings of our histories are idealized and sanitized imaginings of Canada and past events. They ignore the ongoing problems which exist across the country and serve to undermine any deeper appreciation for and understanding of other cultures and ethnic contributions across the nation.
Certainly our nation's ability to veneer over the racial tensions and inequalities was on full display earlier this year when we found startling posters in one community, and listened as people in others openly discussed different cultural groups in racist terms in another community. Sadly, as a nation, we are not always what we hold ourselves to be.
In striving to figure out Canada, we can’t just go to peaceful forests and idealized parks, we also need to strive to understand our more contentious moments and places. We need to do this, not to somehow ‘remove from our histories’ or ‘cancel our cultures and heroes’ but because the facts and memories they present and bring to light force us to actively reconsider and reflect upon our national experience. These sites and the events which took place there remind us that who we are as a nation is a constant re-negotiation with who we were and who we want to be. On a more personal level, in honestly being willing to explore our histories, we come to a deeper understanding of ourselves as well. Because of this, I’m not sure that history is meant to make us feel better. I have begun to feel a little wary of comforting histories and simplistic answers. I have come to feel that history should not be directed towards aggrandizing our ancestors, worshipping past moments, and propping up long past ideals, it should be about exploring and learning. For this reason, perhaps much like art, at times history should make us feel uncomfortable, nervous and uncertain, because that’s when it challenges us and that’s when we grow. It is an unfortunate misunderstanding to believe that reflecting and reconsidering our histories serves to remove from them. There is an unforunate belief that to develop history and our understanding of events further is to somehow ‘cancel’ what was previously believed. In fact, it does the very opposite, revisiting our pasts dramatically expands and deepens what we know about our country and our national experience. It makes our history more dynamic and in the process makes it more interesting. History, at its best, can overturn our assumptions and offer new possibilities by providing fresh insights and exciting new perspectives into our common narratives. This is how we move forward together.
This too – for us - is the spirit of the Great Trail, as a pathway that allows us all to explore, discover, learn, and to grow.
It was in the
same spirit, exploring our diverse cultures and varied historical experiences
that we set out to trek approximately 100 km of the Niagara Section of The
Great Trail in the early spring of 2019.
In this region so much of our nation’s past comes together – Indigenous
experiences and culture, Loyalist history, military battles, Women’s history,
print culture, political ideals, British colonial history, Canadian history and
of course a number of important moments in the Black Canadian experience. All
of this can be found in the Niagara region and along the Fort to Fort Trail and
Laura Secord Legacy Trail – both segments of the Trans Canada Trail.