MFA student’s long walk is a personal journey

By Costa Maragos Posted: July 26, 2016 6:00 a.m.

Ken Wilson’s 15 day, 300-kilometre walk along the Haldimand Tract will serve as the basis for his MFA.
Ken Wilson’s 15 day, 300-kilometre walk along the Haldimand Tract will serve as the basis for his MFA. Photo courtesy of Ken Wilson

Ken Wilson has had time to rest and reflect following a memorable 300-kilometre trek through Ontario’s contested Haldimand Tract.

Wilson is an MFA student and his walk was part of a performance called Muscle and Bone. He started his journey in Dundalk, Ontario June 12 and finished at Lake Erie, June 27.

The Haldimand Tract is a 950,000 acre strip of land on both sides of the Grand River and the subject of 28 land claims by Six Nations.

Wilson, who lives in Regina, grew up in Brantford and admits he felt ashamed when he learned about the land’s history. In response, he walked through the Haldimand Tract as a performance. Along his path he took donations for the Woodland Cultural Centre’s “Save the Evidence” campaign. It’s raising funds to repair the former residential school in Brantford and create an interpretive centre about residential schools there.  

We spoke with Ken about his pilgrimage.

How do you feel about your journey now that you’ve completed it?

I’m happy that I made it to the end. I’ve made longer walks, but this one was more difficult physically and emotionally. I hurt my hip early on and worried that I wouldn’t be able to finish. And I’m happy that I was able to meet with Mohawk elders on the day that I completed the walk. If I’d just waded into Lake Erie at the end, it would’ve felt incomplete. That was a tremendous gift.

What are some of the things you discovered about your home that you did not know growing up?

Ken Wilson Trail
Ken Wilson’s journey included the Cambridge to Paris Rail Trail. This runs along the path of the old Lake Erie and Northern Railway, next to the Grand River. (Photo by Ken Wilson)

I didn’t know very much about the history of the Haldimand Tract - the land that was reserved for the Six Nations after the American Revolution and the war that followed.

The current Six Nations reserve is only five percent of the territory that the Crown transferred to them. I’d heard that the land had been sold, but the truth is a lot more complicated, and it doesn’t reflect well on Canada at all.

For example, the house I grew up in was located in a plot of land known as “Surrender Number 40.” The Six Nations surrendered that land to the Crown in 1835.

The terms of the surrender were simple: the Crown was supposed to do something about the squatters who were settling throughout the Haldimand Tract, and the land that was covered by the surrender was supposed to be sold, with the proceeds being deposited into the Six Nations’ trust fund.

The Crown didn’t fulfill either commitment. The squatters were left alone, and the land was given out in homesteading grants. So the Crown broke its contract with the Six Nations. To my mind, that means that Surrender Number 40 wasn’t valid.

We weren’t taught anything about that history in school, even though we learned about the way the Six Nations lived before Europeans arrived in their territory. The reason is pretty clear: it’s an ugly history of theft and dispossession.

You visited the residential school in Brantford. What was that like for you?

That building is very powerful, and the echoes of what happened there can still be felt. It was almost overwhelming. Jessica Powless, the young woman who was giving me the tour, said in a matter-of-fact way while we were going through the basement, “The boiler room and the laundry were where most of the sexual assaults took place, because the noise of the machinery drowned out the sounds.” It’s hard to imagine the memories that survivors have of that place.

I was particularly struck by the signs of the children’s resistance. They hid personal belongings inside the walls, and one of the roof beams was charred from an attempt at burning the place down. I came away even more convinced of the importance of preserving the building as evidence of what residential schools were like.

I’m very grateful to Jessica for taking the time to take me through the building, because she was getting ready for a visit by the Governor-General and the Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario the following day.

Ken Wilson Centre
This former residential school in Brantford is now the Woodland Cultural Centre. People at Six Nations have launched the “Save the Evidence” campaign to preserve the building as an interpretive centre focusing on the residential school experience. (Photo by Ken Wilson)

What are you hoping will come out of this journey?

As I was walking, I thought about the journey as a kind of gesture towards reconciliation, and I thought a lot about what that means. I’m still thinking about it. I hope that people who read the blog will come to realize, as I did, that a big part of reconciliation is going to be addressing land claims. As Bill Squire, one of the Mohawk elders I met, told me, “You can talk about preserving our language and our culture, but if we don’t have any place to do that, what’s the point?” And I’m happy that the walk raised about $1,200 for the “Save the Evidence” campaign. Maybe, if people read the blog now, after the performance is over, they’ll consider making a donation. I hope so.

How will you incorporate this journey into your research?

Right now I’m writing something about the walk that might become a solo performance. And I’ve been working on a play about a man who learns that his father was an abusive teacher in a residential school. That play needs a second act, and part of that second act might end up addressing the issue of land in some way.

Also, like a lot of people I’d been thinking about reconciliation as something that would happen and then we would move on from it. But I’ve come to realize that it’s going to be an ongoing process, a new kind of relationship between settlers and Indigenous peoples, and I want my work to reflect that idea.

Ken Wilson is an MFA student. He kept a daily journal while on the road and posted on his blog Wilson is also encouraging donations to the Woodland Cultural Centre’s “Save the Evidence” campaign.

The funds raised will be used to repair the former residential school in Brantford and create a museum about residential schools.