Fin in the News "It's been a journey to connect Canadians"

By Larry Pynn. Vancouver Province

In B.C., they walked among the ghostly teetering totems of Haida Gwaii, brushed shoulders with white Spirit Bears foraging for salmon on Gribbell Island, and worked with First Nations to symbolically carve a western red cedar canoe in Powell River.

Now, as Canada C3's 72-metre icebreaker finishes its 150-day, 23,000-kilometre voyage around Canada's Atlantic, Arctic and Pacific coastlines, it's time for participants to discern what it all meant and how to set a new course for the future.

Expedition leader Geoff Green, founder of the Students on Ice Foundation that organized the epic voyage, said it started as a celebration of 150 years of Canadian confederation and a way to showcase a vast coastline.

But it became something much bigger.

"It has meant a lot more than I thought it would," he said. "It's been a journey to connect Canadians from all walks of life, all ages and genders.

"It's also been a platform for stories you wouldn't otherwise hear unless you're on a journey like this, pulling into pockets of the country."

Some 350 people - artists, chefs, politicians, journalists, scientists, musicians, explorers, youth ambassadors - participated in one or more of the 15 legs of the voyage starting June 1 in Toronto and finishing Saturday in Victoria.

"It was an educational eye-opener for me," said Baghdad-born Ahmed Saffar, who became a Canadian citizen in 2011 and is now a procurement employee with the City of Airdrie near Calgary.

"As a new Canadian, I had never met an Indigenous person before."

The voyage's four themes were environment, youth engagement, diversity and inclusion, and reconciliation.

Green is hopeful the next 150 years are kinder to First Nations than the last. Of the Polar Prince, he said: "It's got the 150 logo because that's where the (federal) money came from."

C3 had a $10-million budget for the voyage, about one-third from the federal government and the rest from more than 100 other donors. At journey's end, the foundation is $700,000 short of the mark.

The Polar Prince is a former Canadian Coast Guard research ship leased to C3 through a private company. It continues south to the Panama Canal then heads to Nova Scotia on Canada's east coast, completing a circumnavigation of North America.

Stephan Guy, who lives near Quebec City, was contracted to captain the Polar Prince on its journey. He was one of only three people along for all 15 legs of the voyage.

He described the trip as "deeply Canadian," a way to highlight the skills of Canadians at navigating Arctic waters. And while he stills struggles with "where I stand in the picture of Canada, today my views have changed a lot" and he solidly refers to himself as a French-Canadian.

"At the end of the day, maybe the expense is worth it."

The question of value for money spent cannot be ignored.

Fin Donnelly, the NDP MP for Port Moody-Coquitlam who travelled aboard the Polar Prince from Campbell River to Saturna Island, said he believes the themes of the voyage were well-chosen, especially the reconciliation aspect. Tears were shed in the ship's Hangar, a place where participants gathered in a circle to share their experiences and impressions of the voyage.

"It's a lot of money to put toward something like this, and taxpayer dollars could be spent on other priorities," Donnelly said. "But, from what I've seen, and the life-changing experiences of people on the ship as well as people in the communities that the ship has interacted with, you can't underestimate the value of that."

The expedition offered hope for the future for the Indigenous people who participated.

Lillian Howard, a Nuu-chahnulth from the west coast of Vancouver Island now living in Vancouver, said she was reluctant to participate in any celebration of 150 years of confederation due to the "historical trauma" suffered by Indigenous people. But she is encouraged by Vancouver proclaiming itself a City of Reconciliation and moving forward with 150+, an initiative to bring Indigenous and non-Indigenous together on a wide range of actions and events.

"It was a challenge for us," said Howard, her voice quivering. "It took a lot of courage for us to say, "Yes, we will participate on Canada C3."

She said it's important for Canadians to recognize Canada's "dark history ... not to feel guilty about it, but to take responsibility and be agents of change."

Along the voyage, C3 participants met with First Nations moving forward in terms of the economy and self-governance, including the Tla'amin First Nation in Powell River, whose treaty took effect in April 2016.

"I'm pretty happy about where we are," chief treaty negotiator Roy Francis said. "We're one of a very small handful of nations that has an agreement."

Still, a large photograph on the wall in the Tla'amin government building depicts a copy of the Indian Act being burned on a wood fire, a symbolic end to long-standing federal dominance over Indigenous lives.

Even as First Nations move forward, the past continues to smoulder.