The eight people striding onto the sandy shore look remarkably happy considering the tornado warnings, downed trees, battered boats and tent-saturating storms that have been a part of their journey.

“It’s okay, we need to experience misery,” says Gerald Lavallée, as he savoured a quick snack after three hours of canoeing that had brought these young voyageurs from the murky Holland River to the calm waters of Lake Simcoe – and 18 kilometres closer to their summer’s epic destination, the general assembly of the Métis Nation of Ontario in Thunder Bay, two months and two Great Lakes away.

A little suffering is to be expected on a 90-day, 2,000-kilometre canoe trip. And it may even be desired in a formative expedition designed to create a new generation of hardy Métis leaders while asserting the identity of an overlooked aboriginal group formed from the relationships between European fur traders and native women.

The Métis are best known in history books through the charismatic political leader Louis Riel, executed on treason charges in 1885 after the failed North-West Rebellion that sought to preserve traditional Métis land claims in the West. But the canoe expedition taps into a broader and enduring cross-Canada story about the mixing of peoples that began on freshwater trade routes in the 18th and 19th centuries.

“This is our culture, this is what our ancestors did,” said Jeremy Brown, the trip’s guide who plotted the roundabout route from Ottawa via Toronto to Thunder Bay, cooks the bannock that is a staple of voyageur meals, and oversees the moment-to-moment progress of the 275-kilogram canoe – as the gouvernail, or steersman, in voyageur-speak. “When we talk about what it means to be Métis, for me it’s doing this.”

There’s much more talk about what it means to be Métis these days. Although the 1982 Constitution Act named the Métis as one of Canada’s aboriginal peoples, and a 2003 Supreme Court decision affirmed a Métis right to hunt under the Constitution, translating that recognition into legal rights and a defined identity has proved harder – especially with the federal government.

At the provincial level, the Métis Nation of Ontario has successfully negotiated agreements on issues ranging from “harvesting” (i.e. hunting for wild food) to improvements in community health and job training. But as bureaucratic recognition expands, there is also a push to justify the historical underpinnings of Métis-ness to a modern world that may think Métis rights disappeared with Riel. Hence the canoeists’ more casual encounters with bystanders amazed at these untypical 20-somethings who easily switch from paddling 50 strokes a minute to dancing a jig in 18th-century costume.

Well, maybe not that easily. The hot, heavy wardrobe (donned mainly for ceremonial events and Métis community get-togethers) is a point of contention, particularly for the four women in the canoe who feel awkward in their twill Ojibwa-style strap dresses.

“There’s just not a lot of room to move your legs apart,” said Heather Bunn, a student in fish and wildlife technology, as she stared down the banter from her joshing canoe-mates. “You try to get out of the canoe, oh man, you’ve got to hike the dresses way up. So I wear shorts underneath.”

Flexibility is an essential requirement of an expedition like this that packs so much historical meaning into its stroke-by-stroke daily task.

On the one side of the old/new equation, there’s Mr. Lavallée’s handmade deerskin medicine pouch, which holds medicinal cedar, sage, sweetgrass and tobacco as well as a small bead given to him by a medicine woman and a broken piece of clay that he believes comes from a voyageur pipe. “This keeps the spirit of the voyageur alive,” says the recent ecotourism graduate from North Bay. “Maybe that’s what helped us dodge the storm last night.”

On the other side, there’s the sac à feu worn on the hips – the traditional hold-all where these modern voyageurs hide the phones that let them post Facebook updates, get tornado warnings and tell their mothers not to worry.

“One of the reasons I came on this trip is to get away from distractions like that,” says Geneviève Routhier with just a hint of techno-guilt. “Once we hit the north shore of Lake Superior, it will be pretty secluded and our cell reception will be gone. I’m looking forward to that.”

Ms. Routhier is a recent graduate in medical-radiation technology from Sault Ste. Marie who happily volunteers that she took on the voyage because it offered time to contemplate her place in the greater scheme of things. “For me, there was always a strong sense of being French, of speaking French. I always knew about the aboriginal background on my father’s side. For some people, that was shameful. It wasn’t shameful for us, but it wasn’t talked about much because maybe we didn’t see its importance.”

She’d heard tales about a native princess somewhere in her past. By paddling 2,000 kilometres, dancing jigs at the end of the day and explaining to anyone who’ll listen how the four-metre-long voyageur sash served as an all-purpose pillow, rescue rope, hernia belt and source of emergency sewing supplies, she now hopes to connect her own experience with the centuries-old Canadian narrative.

“This is my history, my ancestry and now I want to take it on as my own story,” she says.

That kind of big-picture quest resonates with all the paddlers. Earning official Métis status in Ontario means documenting a connection with a distant Métis ancestor, and the bar for admittance is set high. Mr. Brown has self-identified as Métis all his life, but it still took him years to meet the Métis Nation’s strict genealogical requirements for its citizenship registry. “I had to link obituaries, marriage certificates, death certificates all the way back to a forefather of mine who was called a halfbreed,” he says.

He’s happy to tell the younger, less-experienced members of the expedition how to turn their budding curiosity into official recognition. But when you’re nibbling Clif bars (”Modern pemmican,” someone says) and taking a breather beside a big lake that has to be crossed, the minute-by-minute routines of the journey take precedence. The paddlers compare their sunburns, and talk about how the jelly found in cattail shoots is as good as aloe in soothing burns. They joke about that morning’s 5 a.m. wakeup call, when the crew’s ground-support leader Réjean Belcourt grabbed Emily Ingram’s fiddle and scratched out hellish caterwauling that fell far short of traditional Métis standards.

“New rule,” says Ms. Ingram, who is studying to be a natural-environment technician. “No fiddle before 9 a.m.”

There’s a long and almost erudite conversation about the logistics of answering nature’s call in the more populated parts of the great outdoors.

“All the hard work we’ve done and the hardest thing is to find a toilet,” says Mr. Brown, a kayak-tour operator from Lake of the Woods who took part in a 2005 paddle from Thunder Bay to the historic settlement of Batoche, Sask., where Riel’s rebellion came to an unhappy end. “If you’re in the woods, we practice no-trace, you just dig a latrine. But we paddled for days in urban areas, there’s a house every 100 yards, you can’t just pull up and dig holes in their yards.”

History’s claims have to find a fit with modernity’s demands. But more often than not, the tradeoffs have worked out. The paddlers have learned to fall asleep when the sun goes down, and they sleep beautifully provided no one finds the fiddle. They’ve been trained on how to bail their canoe if the stormy Great Lakes turn nasty, but so far their hardest challenge has been fending off prying intruders at a Toronto Island campsite.

And somewhere along the way, they’ve learned the voyageur’s useful life-lesson of being able to see their way to tomorrow from the vantage point of today.

“Our evening’s are free after 8,” says Josh Szajewski, who’s heading off to law school at Lakehead University in the fall. “But we’re waking up at 5, so you don’t want too much beer.”

“We have to look ahead all the time,” says Mr. Lavallée.

“That’s not something I’m used to doing,” jokes Kyle Grenier, a recreation-studies graduate from Midland.

“Right,” says Mr. Lavallée. “But you’re a lot more conscious of it when you’re paddling 50 kilometres the next day.”

Map: The voyageurs’ canoe trek across the province to the assembly of the Métis Nation


KILLARNEY BEACH, ONT. — The Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, Jul. 01 2014, 5:39 PM EDT
Last updated Tuesday, Jul. 01 2014, 5:42 PM EDT