Canoe expedition a life-changing experience.
It was her love of the outdoors that made Angela Wassegijig decide to take on the challenge of guiding six young modern-day voyageurs on a 2,300-km expedition along a historic Metis trade route.
On June 1, she and her fellow travellers climbed into a 26 foot recreation of a voyageur canoe and began their trek from Thunder Bay to Batoche National Historic Site in Saskatchewan, retracing the path travelled by voyageurs during the height of the fur trade two centuries before.
The crew spent 60 days paddling westward, their journey complicated by the numerous portages they needed to make along the way, and further hindered by the elements of sun, wind and rain. They arrived in Batoche on July 22, where they joined in the annual Back to Batoche celebrations.
"Overall, this expedition has accomplished a sense of restoring the culture and identity within the Metis Nation of Ontario or the Metis Nation itself," said the 29-year-old from Wikewemikong First Nation.
Wassegijig works in Ottawa with the Metis Nation of Ontario (MNO) as provincial coordinator of the organization's victim services program. She started in the position in January 2005. A short time later, she was asked to sit on the steering committee that was organizing the canoe expedition. Once the other expedition participants were selected, it was Wassegijig's responsibility to get them ready for the trip. She had to organize the needed food and gear, and train the other members of the crew in just seven days.
"It was 52 days of planning in a matter of a week. It was pretty amazing that we launched when we did," she said.
Once they were out on the water, the challenges began right away, Wassegijig said.
"The first part of the expedition was extremely long just because of the portaging and canoeing, There was something everyday that we had to overcome."
She said she wouldn't forget the many encounters the expedition members had with Mother Earth, and the warm welcomes they received from community members.
"The hospitality that we had along the way was just so amazing," she said. "We had so much support out there and I think that's what gave us our drive. There wasn't one community that was the same. We got to experience something different in each community, whether it be the type of food that was served, to the entertainment."
Wassegijig recalled one particular stop along the way. The group was supposed to stay at a Metis community along the route, but had to stop before reaching it because of high winds, rain and lightning. They went to the nearest house and told the man that carne to the door who they were, and asked if they could use his phone to call their ground support. When the man's wife arrived home a few minutes later, she was excited to see them. The couple fed the crewmembers and gave them jeans and t-shirts to wear while their own clothes dried.
"These people just stopped what they were doing for the afternoon and they cooked us this amazing hot meal," said Wassegijik. "They were just so amazing."
Wassegijik said that, through her involvement with the canoe expedition, she has learned so much that she hadn't known before. She was able to discover more about the Metis culture and history, and also about herself.
"What a way to see Canada, in a voyageur canoe paddling rivers and lakes that most people don't venture across. Folks living on Lake Manitoba and Winnipegosis Lake hadn't seen a canoe come through since 1976. We have a lot of stories to share and a lot of experiences."
The expedition was an amazing adventure, but when it was over, Wassegijig was happy to return to her normal life and everyday routine. One of the first things she did when she returned home was take a hot shower. Then she invited friends over for a barbecue.
She also returned to her job at the MNO, where her role is to enhance awareness of victim's rights and provide strategies on domestic and family violence issues. She doesn't work personally with victims but delivers resources to Metis communities.
"The victim services program was always an interest of mine and I was just so fortunate that the MNO hired me for this position," said Wassegijig.
Through Wassegijig's past experience with different groups of people, particularly with the Southern Ute Indian Tribe in Colorado and inner city youth in Boston, Massachusetts, she said she has always found it interesting to learn about another person's culture.
"Issues remain the same throughout Aboriginal groups in Canada," she said.
After completing high school, Wassegijig attended college in Sault Ste. Marie, where she completed Native community and addictions counselling programs. She then attended Laurentian University in Sudbury, where she completed the physical health and education program, specializing in outdoor adventure leadership.
Wassegijig got involved in the Outward Bound program while at Laurentian and after graduation headed south to work as an instructor at the Thompson Island Outward Bound Education Center in Boston, delivering outdoor courses. She later became course director for an all-girls program called Connecting with Courage.
She also spent some time working in her home community, as director of the Wikewemikong Wilderness program and co-ordinator of the program "The Path We Walk".
Wassegijig plans to complete her contract with MNO but would eventually like to start her own small business, although she's not quite sure what kind of business it will be.
Unlike the voyageurs of days gone by, the participants in the Metis Canoe Expedition had modern technology available to them to record their journey.
The MNO Web site (www.metisnation.org) contains a wealth of information about the expedition, including photo and video galleries and an online journal chronicling the trip. It also features fun facts about the trek, information on voyageur history, bios of the expedition crew and interviews with crew members conducted by MNO's own online radio station.
BY LAURA STEVENS