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“I have been exploring my identity for some time now. Trying to figure out who I am. Trying to figure out what it means to be an Aboriginal man living in Canadian society. I am trying to figure this all out so that I can explain it to my son.”
—Keesic Douglas

In May 2010, photographer Keesic Douglas and expert paddler Kory Snache set off on a three-day 130 km canoe journey. They travelled from their home on Rama First Nation, located along the shores between Lake Couchiching and Lake Simcoe, to the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) department store in the heart of downtown Toronto. This journey led them directly along the pathways of their ancestors and the ancient trade routes the Anishinabek people have used since the last ice age.

The intention of this passage for Keesic was to trade in the spirit of his forefathers in the late 17th century. He wanted to trade back his once sought after Hudson’s Bay Point Blanket in exchange for the beaver pelts traded to the Company by his great-great-grandfather.

For Keesic, the physical canoe journey mirrored a personal one inspired by his family and community, whose people were once rich in land, culture, and tradition – a wealth that cannot be measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP). It was about the collective memory and relationship they hold to the land, a relationship silenced by the impacts of colonization. Unlike their forefathers, Keesic and Kory navigated through the now contaminated and highly developed canal system that once carried the waters of the Humber River.

The following are excerpts written by Keesic Douglas that document this journey.

Day One

We set off at 8am after a small gathering of members of our community sang traditional songs for our safe travels. The first day we paddled for twelve grueling hours with a brief stop for lunch of smoked whitefish from the local grocery store. The weather seemed to be on our side; there was no wind and completely flat waters, which was amazing because Lake Simcoe is known to be very treacherous when the wind is up. It was a dangerous passage because we were crossing the large Kempenfelt Bay near the city of Barrie, Ontario. A police boat stopped us in the middle of the bay and asked where we were going. When I told them we were canoeing to Toronto, they gasped in disbelief. They weren’t able to hassle us because we had all of the proper safety equipment. We camped out at a sailing camp that had not yet opened for the summer season. The squawking of Canada Geese kept us awake for most of the night.

Day Two

We awoke at 7am and began paddling. The second day started off very windy with waves between one and three feet high. But again the weather was on our side as the wind was at our backs. I made a sail by duct taping a piece of tarp between two paddles and hoisting it into the air. It propelled us along faster than we could have paddled and brought us to the bottom of Lake Simcoe where we entered the Holland Canal. Travelling the length of the canal took the rest of the day as we passed beside farm fields and under bridges and highways. It was early evening when we reached the end of the water trail to begin our 20km portage.

Unlike the lightweight birch bark canoes our ancestors built that were perfect for portaging, our old fiberglass canoe was too heavy to carry on our shoulders for the entire route. Kory had built a homemade cart that he assured me would make the travel down roadways much easier. With the canoe on the cart we started our portage as the sun was setting. Fifty meters into the walk the cart broke. One of the axles bent beyond repair. Our journey was over for the second day and with the help of Facebook we contacted a friend in Barrie to rest for the night.

Day Three

The next morning our friend drove us to a canoe outfitter store where we purchased a heavy-duty cart; we were able to continue our portage. The walk was farther than the expected 20km because the Humber River has been so developed that the once mighty river was only two inches deep in places, too shallow to canoe. We encountered numerous diversion dams along the way and had to portage again. At times we both had to get out of the canoe and walk beside it dragging it through very shallow water. We finally found a spot to put the canoe back in the water and we were on our way, once again flowing with the river. In several sections, rapids relentlessly bashed at our canoe.

We had almost reached Dundas Street in the West end of Toronto when the canoe hit its final rock, gashing a large hole in its side. Water poured in and filled the canoe. We decided to abandon the canoe and carried all of our gear, including the HBC blanket, to safety ending the third day of our journey. We slept peacefully at a friend’s house that evening knowing that we had made the trip. The next day we would complete our journey and trade the blanket.

Day Four

A Toronto streetcar was our vehicle of choice on the final installment of our journey. We arrived at The Bay store around noon carrying our paddles. We approached the counter of the Signature Shop, the area in the store where the blankets are sold. I slowly pulled the blanket out of the waterproof bag and told the woman behind the counter that I wanted to trade the blanket in exchange for my Great-Great Grandfather’s beaver furs. She asked me to wait one moment while she called someone on the phone. “Hi, I’m calling from the Signature Shop. You know the issue about the fur trading thing and the blankets…you know the gentlemen that are coming here with the intention of trading the blanket”. We had received some local press before our journey began that outlined the entire mission of returning the blanket. The employees at The Bay were waiting for us.

The store manager came down to receive us. He thanked us for making the trip and for choosing to go to the Queen Street store. I asked to trade the blanket and he said that they were “now a corporate store and were no longer in the fur trading business”. I asked several times to trade the blanket but he wouldn’t budge. I talked about how our canoe had sunk and that we needed a replacement and suggested that one of The Bay’s custom made cedar strip canoes, painted with the same multi-striped pattern of the Point Blankets, would be very fitting to trade for the blanket. The manager laughed and gave us a book, The Blanket: an Illustrated History of the Hudson’s Bay Point Blanket by Harold Tichenor (2002).

We laughed along with The Bay store manager, but we didn’t leave. Ted Williams, the manager of the Cultural Department from Rama First Nation, had been following our journey on my Facebook status updates and decided to come down to be present when we arrived at The Bay. He brought two pow wow singers and a large drum with him. After the negotiations for trading the blanket came to a standstill, Ted asked the store manager if we could sing an honour song inside the store for the journey that both we and the blanket had made. After a long pause he agreed. Kory and I were asked to drum as well. It was my first time drumming on the big drum. We played a powerful three-minute song as Jon Snache and Josh Smoke sang. When we were finished, our small group left the store feeling satisfied but I didn’t want to keep the HBC blanket; it still needed to be traded.

The Trade

I immediately posted on Facebook that I was still looking to trade the blanket. Jason Baerg, a Métis artist, was the first to reply offering a trade for the blanket. We planned to meet at the corner of Queen Street and Bathurst Street. I told him that I had realized through this journey that the blanket should never remain static and suggested that when it felt right, he might trade it again to someone else and they in turn could trade it. In this way the blanket would continue on its own physical and symbolic journey of honouring its embedded history and the ways it continues to impact our lives today. Jason agreed and arrived with a white Macbook laptop to trade for the blanket. He said that he had been intending to use the imagery of the Hudson’s Bay Blanket in a series of paintings about healing from colonization.

History Wrapped in a Blanket

The Hudson’s Bay Company was instrumental in the colonization of Canada because it satisfied Europe’s lust for furs while simultaneously appropriating the land on which it was traded. According to the book given to Keesic by the store manager, The HBC’s Point Blanket, “has been a Canadian icon associated with legends of exploration and the development of the nation”[1]. The book also suggests that the Hudson’s Bay Point Blanket made the quality of life for Aboriginal peoples better.

Keesic and Kori’s canoe journey exposed the myth of the HBC blanket and the duality of histories attached to it. The imagined corporate legacy of the blanket is deeply entrenched in the minds of Canadians to this day as a symbol of nationalism. It was recently celebrated again during the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games in which The Bay won the bid to be the official supplier of clothing to the Games. Another version of history exposes that The Hudson’s Bay Company took advantage of Native peoples; that the legacy of Canadian nationalism is based on the theft and systematic erasure of Aboriginal title and jurisdiction to the land. It is also believed by many Aboriginal communities that small pox infested HBC blankets were knowingly traded and distributed amongst their communities to decimate their population, thereby weakening them and making it easier for the Canadian State to demand land surrenders and introduce forced assimilation and Christianity.[2]

Having Keesic’s great-grandfather’s beaver pelts returned cannot erase the impacts of colonization and the dispossession of Aboriginal land. But following in the footsteps of our ancestors shows us the paths they chose and brings us closer to them and the natural world they connected with, respected, and fought to defend. In a world where the appropriation, contamination, and over-development of our traditional lands remain problematic, Keesic and Kory’s canoe journey is a statement of resistance, reminding us to honour our ancestry and regain control over the narrative of our histories and land.

[1] Tichenor, Harold. The Blanket: an Illustrated History of the Hudson’s Bay Point Blanket. Toronto: Hudson’s Bay Company/Quantum Press, 2002
[2] Bob Boyer: A Blanket Statement organized by the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver, 1988.

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About The Author

Keesic Douglas

Keesic Douglas is an Ojibway artist from the Mnjikaning First Nation in central Ontario. He specializes in the mediums of photography and video. His work has been exhibited across Canada and in the United States and focuses on issues surrounding his Native heritage. His videos Rezurrection and Slide have been programmed at the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival, with the Vanishing Trace winning Best Short Documentary in 2007. Keesic has just completed his Master of Fine Arts in photography at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Keesic also has a Bachelor's Degree in Hospitality and two Diplomas in Hotel and Resort Management. He has worked and dined in the finest of restaurants to the lowliest road-side stands and all kinds of Pow Wow food vendors.

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