The 2008 David Thompson Brigade – After the Brigade

 

The months following the conclusion of the brigade were full of reflection, most of which was expressed in the presentations and the speeches I gave regarding all aspects of the trip. Rather than present all the presentations and speeches here, the following is a compilation of the best of a number of speeches into one.

On July 13 of 2008, I completed an adventure that I had dreamed about for nearly a decade… a trip that would end up commemorating a man, that sadly, few people knew… That adventure however really began over 200 years earlier in the summer of 1784 when 14 year old David Thompson first stood on the western shores of Hudson’s Bay.

Having left England 3 months prior, young David could not have known that he would never see England again, or that he would never see his mother and brother again, or for that matter, foresee the accomplishments he would attain and the contributions he would make to what would become Canada.

Over a 27 year period, David Thompson would travel in excess of 107, 000 Km by foot horse or canoe. If anyone here doubts the significance of this number, this would equate to you travelling between Victoria BC and St. John’s NF 21 times in the same manner. He has been called this country’s (and North America’s for that matter) greatest geographer. He was a multi faceted man who has been described as a fur trader, surveyor, cartographer, story teller, naturalist and pathfinder. Only one would come remotely close to such an accomplishment and that would be another great Canadian surveyor… Peter Fidler, Thompson’s near equal.

If that were not enough, Thompson would serve on the International Boundary Commission and participate as well as supervise the surveying of the boundary between the United States and Canada from the St. Lawrence River to Lake of the Woods between 1818 and 1827. He would also fight vehemently for the Oregon Territory… a place mapped and explored by Thompson and that it would remain British Territory despite the appeals and claims from the American government of the day.

So I wrote a plan to commemorate Thompson’s crossing of Howse Pass in 1807 by virtue of period specific brigade of 6 fur trade canoes that would travel from Rocky Mountain House to Fort William in Thunder Bay. I introduced my plan to a radio audience in the fall of 2002.

During the conversation with the radio host, I spoke of grandiose ideas of dressing completely period, consuming 500 pounds of buffalo meat, singing the songs of the voyageur and catching our own fish and portaging 2-3 90 lbs. packs and canoes over every portage from Rocky Mountain House to Thunder Bay…

Eventually there would be a committee and many meetings. From all the meetings, roadblocks, opinions, and discussions… we would eventually hammer out 3 goals of the trip… first and foremost it would be the commemoration of a great Canadian who until now had not received the recognition he deserved; second the celebration of our waterways and an understanding that it is a resource to be valued and protected; and thirdly the promotion of canoeing as a heritage sport and something that is uniquely Canadian.

So I wrote a plan to commemorate Thompson’s crossing of Howse Pass in 1807 by virtue of period specific brigade of 6 fur trade canoes that would travel from Rocky Mountain House to Fort William in Thunder Bay. I introduced my plan to a radio audience in the fall of 2002.

During the conversation with the radio host, I spoke of grandiose ideas of dressing completely period, consuming 500 pounds of buffalo meat, singing the songs of the voyageur and catching our own fish and portaging 2-3 90 lbs. packs and canoes over every portage from Rocky Mountain House to Thunder Bay…

Eventually there would be a committee and many meetings. From all the meetings, roadblocks, opinions, and discussions… we would eventually hammer out 3 goals of the trip… first and foremost it would be the commemoration of a great Canadian who until now had not received the recognition he deserved; second the celebration of our waterways and an understanding that it is a resource to be valued and protected; and thirdly the promotion of canoeing as a heritage sport and something that is uniquely Canadian.

The 2008 David Thompson Brigade would culminate into what Canadians would witness for 63 days and it began on May 10th of 2008.

Between May 10th and July 13th the 208 David Thompson Brigade would visit 40 communities of all sizes. As part of the planning process contact was made with all of them before leaving and by the end of our journey, I believe the Brigade had fulfilled the goals that it had eventually established.

We shared stories with them and in some cases culture. Something I do not many anticipated… not so much that we wouldn’t witness it… more that we experienced it in manners we could not have imagined …

And we became a catalyst for celebration and dedication… our community coordinator, had spent two years contacting communities and arranging the logistics for our arrival into each. One of the things she impressed the most upon each community was to use the Brigade to the fullest… In the case of Devon… they did just that and in the end were able to acquire the necessary funds to complete the riverside park they always wanted and kindly named the park in honour of our trip and those who went before…

And we educated and were educated by committee members and participants …and we were so lucky to have talented individuals along with us as well as special participants. One of our special participants was Lavern Thompson, 7th generation from David and Charlotte Thompson, and later we would meet his son, yet another generation… We also had two very talented young men along with us, veterans of Fort William in Thunder Bay as historic interpreters. They never shied away from speaking of our history. So often they stepped to the forefront to play the role of the voyageur… from the games to the songs these famous men were known for. And of course, like myself, were admires of Thompson and the North West Company…

Now I could stand up here for at least another couple of hours and tell you about so much more…but I think I would summarize those two extra hours by saying that through the kilometres, the communities, the people and the weather, I guess the first question would be… Did we succeed? Did we reach our audience and did we get our message across?

From my perspective we succeeded in every possible way …

Over 300 paddlers took part in the journey and over 100 completed the whole distance. Many would paddle because they loved paddling, some would paddle for the adventure, others would paddle for the experience, and there were those that would paddle to celebrate the history…

Now having had the opportunity to reflect back I have recalled the unknowns that occurred that I was able to witness… some of which I had not expected…

From a People Perspective I watched a group of complete strangers develop into a cohesive group… into a real brigade. I witnessed people grow, and I saw people at their best times and their worst times. I saw the real people, who I thought I knew, under extraordinary circumstances do completely unexpected things. As a matter of fact I saw myself under some of those same circumstances.

From an environmental point of view I witnessed first-hand the state of three major drainages in this country and their affect to those who live around them. I saw too many rivers in such a sad state. However I saw beautiful country as well… portions of the upper North Saskatchewan River and lower Saskatchewan River. The breathe taking vista of sunsets on Lake Winnipeg and Lake Winnipegosis; Then onto the Canadian Shield and the Winnipeg River, Lake of the Woods and the Boundary Waterways…

From a historical point of view I sometimes wear my heart on my sleeve. I am probably best described as passionate and when I become passionate about something I am told that it’s there… and it’s visible. I have to tell you nothing makes me more passionate than the history of my home…

It is one thing to spend your life reading about a particular period of time but I can tell you it is quite another to actually witness it being lived and of course… experience it yourself. I strongly believe this and so do some of those who I have spoken to since the trips conclusion.

On a lake, on the boundary waterway, I witnessed canoes as a shadow… If you didn’t know it was 2008 you would probably say that’s exactly how it must have looked 200-300 years ago…

And if you have any doubts here is another…

And of course many of the places that Thompson wrote about I saw firsthand and there was a sudden realization that not only did Thompson go through these routes but so did every major Canadian Explorer… Alexander Mackenzie, Daniel Harmon, Simon Fraser, Duncan and William McGillvray, and the men of the North West Company ~Merchants from Canada~… the company that was really responsible for opening of a continent and the eventual creation of our nation.

Truly our 63 day journey provided an opportunity to bring to the forefront a way of life that no longer exists and in turn, re-ignite interest in our rich history, the importance of our waterways that link Canadians all across the country and remind us of our canoeing heritage. Along with my experiences with the international space station and the naming of Mount David Thompson… the 2008 David Thompson Brigade trip has provided me with memories that will last me a lifetime.

In conclusion let me remind you that the commemoration of David Thompson’s Bicentennials still continues even after the 2008 David Thompson Brigade… as it should. North America’s greatest land geographer and Canada’s least known yet most important surveyor, trader, cartographer and pathfinder is finally receiving the long over due recognition he is finally receiving.

Through David Thompson’s story we can make comparisons to what we once had to what we have presently and thereby make intelligent decisions about our future. Through Thompson’s story we can better connect to our heritage… after all our heritage is not just defined by those that are here now and those who are yet to come. Our heritage is, more importantly, defined by those who have already been.

In these terms David Thompson makes our history… our past relevant.