As racers crested the elbow of the North Saskatchewan River west of Prince Albert, cheers from the hundreds gathered along its banks could be heard.
Car horns honked, crowds screamed and drums echoed in the air as the paddlers in the 2017 Voyageurs’ Rendezvous Canoe Race brought it home along the final leg before their stop in Prince Albert. As the Northern canoes slide into the boat launch along River Street, the massive audience and members from the Prince Albert Grand Council approached the racers and welcomed them to the city.
“As a grand council, we are trying to acknowledge how our people way back then, how they assisted the Voyageurs from France and how we as First Nation and Métis played a big part in exploring the North," Grand Chief Ron Michel said. He was shaking hands with the canoers as they came to shore.
The race departed Rocky Mountain House, Alta. on July 1 to embark on a 1,600 kilometre trek along the river to The Pas, Man. The event is one of four signature Canada 150 celebrations in Western Canada. Each racer is either First Nations or Metis with two females on each team. They range from 18 to 65 years old.
A similar event took place in 1967 to celebrate the countries Centennial. It is a salute to the French explorers who traversed the new world via Canada’s waterways. In 1967, 10 teams retraced the entire 5,200 km fur trade route from Rocky Mountain House to Expo ’67 in Montreal.
This year's journey has a unique significants to everyone involved. Chief Michel believed it played a part in reconciliation. He witnessed the event in 1967 and was proud to see the number of Indigenous people in the event take hold.
For Chief Voyageur Vic Maxwell, who captained Team Alberta in 1967, the race was a traditional way to celebrate the countries sesquicentennial. He spoke to how canoes opened and connected the country and helped to define the boundaries of Canada.
“Our history is unique in Western Canada. The trading relationship between the people was all by canoe. We are celebrating well over 150 years, closer to 250 years of history made with that canoe,” Maxwell said.
The competition has been top notch for Maxwell, saying it was reminiscent of his experience in ’67.
“It has been enjoyable watching these young people paddle,” he said. “Some days they are finishing after a long day of paddling, 60 strokes a minute, just one-second apart.”
Others said the Indigenous paddlers were positive ambassadors for their communities. According to event coordinator Kathy Schwengler, the race has grown beyond expectations.
"It has turned into this amazing communication between everyday Canadians across the country," she said. "A lot of (the racers) want to inspire the youth to live a healthy life style and embrace their roots."
Dennis Fosseneuve was racing with Team Cumberland House, who crossed the line first Saturday, a “boots length” in front of Team Hatchet Lake. The twenty-year canoeing veteran has participated in over 100 competitions from Ontario to the Yukon.
"I enjoy it, the camaraderie when everyone is performing at their best," he said.
His skin was dark and burned in awkward patches. On his legs, it was peeling from the burns. He laughed at his "lovely farmers tan."
Fosseneuve described his day on the river. Cumberland House had left Fort Carlton about one kilometre behind Hatchet Lake. It took them all day to catch up to their opponents, thanks in part to plenty of wake riding — a strategy similar to drafting.
"When we came to the bridge, we just brought it home and saved it all until the last stretch," he said. "The crowd got some action."
For him, the race was a moral and mental boost. But as it progresses, he has reminisced on the days of the fur traders and how they would face similar journeys. Fosseneuve has a small tie to the fur trade as his mother's grandfather worked for the Hudsons Bay Company.
"This is how they transported all their goods. Sometimes, you reflect on that and it makes you feel good. It can take that negativity out of your mind and makes you feel good," Fosseneuve said.
The six teams were treated to a ceremony and supper at the PAGC grounds Saturday evening. Sunday, though a rest day, they were slated to participate in a few sprint races before the teams depart Monday morning to James Smith First Nations.
On Twitter: @JournoMarr
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