An odd 200 kilometres separates Kanehsatake from the town of Arnprior, Ontario.
Since the Spirit Children’s Walk began on September 9, this has been the distance travelled by Kanehsatake resident and father, Al Harrington, his son Nation, and Ottawa resident Jessica-Lee Dinovitzer.
“We all need to be able to move forward as a family and leave the negative of residential schools behind us,” said Al. “The torture, the violence and the abuse – it all ends at my kids.”
The initiative led by Harrington aims to first and foremost educate the public about the harmful repercussions of Canada’s residential schools. But, as with any arduous journey, the walk toward the former site of the Shingwauk Indian Residential School in Sault Ste. Marie also comes with a personal goal: to heal.
“I was adopted by a white family – the Harringtons. It was there where I lost both my culture and language,” explained Al, who is Ojibway from Iskatewizaagegan #39 Independent First Nation. “Then when I was Nation’s age, 13, I ended up going back into foster care until I was 21.”
While he and his twin sister grew up in the hands of the foster care system and in a home afflicted by abandonment following a painful divorce, Al’s path to self-discovery was as long and difficult as one could imagine.
“I’m 45 and it’s taken me this long to really, finally, understand what type of person I was able to become,” he said.
Without a father figure in his life or a community to surround himself with while growing up, Al set out to give himself and his children a better life. “I went on my own to try and learn the best I can, as an Indigenous man, and later as a father, so that I could break the cycle that I was always in,” he expressed.
As he mapped out the 1,000 kilometres walk to Sault Ste. Marie, it never crossed his mind that his son would volunteer to tag along.
In fact, as Nation explained, taking part in the walk was a way for him to follow his father’s step, as well as those of his maternal great-grandfather and great-great-uncle, both of whom escaped Shingwauk as children.
“Walking in their steps has made me wonder how they ever even survived without equipment,” said Nation. “I hope to learn from this journey the hardships my great-great-uncle, great-grandfather and all the other kids took to get back home. The distance of walking from Sault Ste. Marie is incredibly hard.”
As she anxiously watches from afar, Nation’s mother, Karonhienhawe Nicholas, also expresses immense pride knowing her son is honouring Onkwehón:we children and families.
“It means a lot to me that he’s doing this for his great-grandfather and great-great-uncle, along with everyone else we’re related to who have been taken but who didn’t survive,” said Nicholas. “If they wouldn’t have survived, I wouldn’t exist and neither would my son.”
The overwhelming sense of admiration felt by Nicholas was shared among Kanehsata’kehró:non who, at different times, have spent hours on the road in order to meet with the group.
On Tuesday, September 21, Mohawk Council of Kanesatake chiefs Denise David, Valerie Bonspille and Amy Beauvais, along with grand chief Victor Akwirente Bonspille, paid the community members a visit in Kinburn, Ontario.
“The council needs to start supporting community members in their endeavours and fight for any type of recognition that they’re pushing forward,” said the grand chief, who was elected on August 1. “We didn’t do this for popularity – we did it because they’re community members and what they’re doing is the right thing. Hats off to all of them.”
With days walking distances as long as 38 kilometres, Al recognizes that their journey to Shingwauk may have to end in a car ride. This was a reality the father prepared for as his son announced he would join, and that the physical strain of the difficult march dawned on the trio.
Despite any adjustment made to the Spirit Children’s Walk, the journey’s meaningfulness carries on.
“To build a stronger and better relationship with my son was more important to me as a father than anything else,” said Al. “As someone who grew up without one, it’s always the number one thing to me.”
Laurence Brisson Dubreuil, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Door