Last year, for four days in August, I joined the Q’ushin’tul’ Ancestors Walk. The journey is the vision of Quw’utsun Elder Qwiahwultuhw (Robert George). It traces a path from the Quw’utsun (Cowichan) creation story, from T’Sou-ke territory to the top of Swuq’us (Mount Prevost).
It was the second year that people came together for the event, and the walk was nearly postponed due to heat. In a summer of deadly heat waves, we stared into the face of another. The forecast called for a double-whammy of temperatures in the mid-30s and poor air quality from smoke blown in from the Interior’s brutal wildfires.
Qwiahwultuhw prayed to ask if the journey should go ahead. He received the answer, yes. And so we would walk.
I barely made it to the start of the walk. Feeling self-conscious about whether I belonged, I waited until just three days before the event ask the organizers if I could come.
“I have gear and can be self-supported,” I wrote in that email. I wanted them to know that I wouldn’t be a bother, wouldn’t be a drain on resources. That I wouldn’t need anything, or anyone.
What I didn’t know then, is that in a world designed for walking alone, it takes a village of support to walk together.
A few dozen people gathered on Aug. 12 in a parking lot at the Sooke Hills Wilderness Regional Park trailhead. In a large circle, we introduced ourselves.
Qwiahwultuhw showed us four staffs, and explained that they had been ceremonially prepared for this journey.
The staffs, he said, represent the children: The children who never came home from residential “schools,” the children still being taken from their homes into government “care,” and the children within ourselves.
It was a summer punctuated by announcements of unmarked graves found at former residential “school” sites, and the words fell heavy on our hearts.
Qwiahwultuhw asked that four people carry the staffs, two in front and two behind, to hold our group together. He asked that, when carrying a staff, we think of the children.
He told us also to get to know each other, to learn about the others as we walked.
And so we began.
An army of support
I didn’t anticipate how much support we would receive on our journey. A small army of people took care of our every need. An electric bicycle pulled a trailer with ice-cold water, Gatorade and snacks and followed us up through the T’Sou-ke (Sooke) foothills. Trucks carried any gear we didn’t need between camps. Support crews met us at our lunch stop, with food ready.
There was no expectation that anyone walk the whole way. Everyone was welcome to participate according to their desire and their ability. If someone needed to slow down or rest, we would all wait.
Where the path crossed a road, vehicles met us and offered rides to any who had had enough walking for the day. When we arrived at camp, volunteers had prepared dinner and set up our tents.
At first, all that support felt uncomfortable. I don’t need this, the voice in my head would say. I can do it alone. I am not special, and I am not doing something extraordinary. I am just walking because I love to walk and I want to find out what I can learn.
In the evenings we came together in a circle, walkers and supporters, to speak our truths.
One of the first nights, Aunty Sara Joe told all of us walkers how much it meant that we were taking that journey, how grateful she was for each of us choosing to take those steps. She apologized for not walking at our sides, due to her health, and instead following us from point to point in a vehicle.
She told us that we were walking not just for ourselves but for all those who could not walk. That we, by way of our footsteps, were doing important, healing work.
More than anyone, it was Aunty Sara who made me believe that it mattered that I had come. That I deserved all of that support.
Hot, hot heat
Walking through the dense forests of Goldstream Park, on the first day, was easy. The trees cooled the air and shaded our path. But when we later walked through long stretches of clearcuts and young tree plantations, the sun and heat was punishing. We often stopped to rest, and it often provided little relief.
We stopped once we reached a crossing at Goldstream Heights Road. As a spot to rest, it wasn’t ideal. The hot asphalt radiated heat back at us. A few of us crouched in a sliver of shade by the dusty wheels of a parked truck. We were, mostly, too exhausted to talk.
After a long silence, the one I called Uncle leaned over and said, “You feel that breeze?” It was barely there, but I could feel it. “That’s you,” he said, with wet eyes and a hand over his heart. “That’s you.”
We sat there for too long, inertia keeping us glued. No one seemed eager to consult the group and plan our next steps.
And, when we finally started making moves, we couldn’t agree. Here, we had two options. Follow a footpath over a rocky ridge, or take the hot road around and brave the traffic to the next juncture. The bike and its trailer couldn’t travel the footpath, and some of the walkers refused the road.
In the end, most of the walkers took the path, while two people took the bike, trailer and gear by road. It wasn’t long before we found each other again. To stay together, we needed to briefly split apart.
We stayed with each other, even if that occasionally meant physical separation. We were all on our own personal journeys, too, and our needs often conflicted. The need to be alone and the need to make sure everyone is safe and accounted for. The need for quiet reflection and the need for song and laughter to keep spirits up. The need to rest and the need to keep going.
On the third day of the walk, I was doing my best to ignore a limp as we processed along Indian Road, approaching Duncan. Others noticed my injury before I did. Someone saw it as soon as I stood up from lunch. I dismissed it as stiffness from sitting after so much walking. Later, another walker noticed it, too.
I had to stop lying to myself — my left ankle was inflamed and it wasn’t getting better. I swallowed my pride, gave up on my idea that it doesn’t count unless I walk from start to finish, and quickened my gait to catch up with the car leading us down the road. I climbed in and breathed a sigh of relief.
Later, a swim in the Cowichan River, nourishment and rest still hadn’t eased my discomfort. But after dinner, a parade of people came to my aid. Someone came offering Advil, which I gratefully accepted.
Then, someone else with an ice pack. I sat and iced my ankle, and a fellow walker, a professional massage therapist, asked what was up. He offered to work on my ankle. He would use massage to gently release my calf muscle, which would lessen the strain on my ankle, he explained. When he finished, I walked back to my tent with no limp and no discomfort. It felt like magic.
The final stretch
The next day, our task was to walk across Duncan and up to the summit of Swuq’us. I desperately wanted to get to the top on my own two feet. Though I knew, if I couldn’t, someone would give me a ride up the logging roads that snake up to the spot between the two peaks.
Elder Tousilem (Ron George) spoke to the group after lunch, at the trailhead. “Take care of yourselves,” he said.
I really listened.
Unlike other days, I sat down when I could, when the group stopped for a break or waited for others. I paid attention to my body and asked what it needed.
I felt strong climbing up that mountain. I took my time. Like the beginning of the journey, we travelled under the protection of tall trees. The birds sang songs of welcome. I didn’t long for the day to be over, or for others to walk faster. I could have climbed all through the night.
When we reached the top, others were already there waiting with food ready. We stood on the cliffs together as the sun fell. Many took photos in the glorious light. Some shared songs and others shared teachings. We had made it, together.
Where I’m coming from
I spent the week after the walk investigating my ancestry. To walk together, it’s important to know where you come from, I had learned.
One Elder who spoke one evening in Georgetown, S’amunu, asked the walkers directly: Who are you? Why are you here? What do you hope to learn from the Indigenous people of this land?
I don’t know all the answers, but I’ve given it some thought.
My name is Jacqueline Elizabeth Ronson, daughter of John Ronson and Barbara Ronson McNichol, granddaughter of James Guillet, Helen Bircher Guillet, Jack Ronson and Carol McLachlan Ronson. My ancestry is European, with lineages that trace to England, Switzerland, Germany, Scotland and elsewhere.
I was born on the territories of the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Annishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat Peoples. I now live and work on Coast Salish and Nuu Chah Nulth territories, with gratitude especially to Quw’utsun Nation, Ts’uubaa-asatx Nation and their kin.
I joined the walk with curiosity. To witness and to learn. I came because I love to walk and I yearn for community and connection.
I came with many questions, including these: How can I live and work on this land in a good way, as someone of European settler ancestry? How can I share what I am learning in a good way?
I came to learn how to walk together. How to care for one another. How to listen. How to hold quiet leadership. How to ease conflicts. How to build bridges. How to make space. How to be generous. How to be welcoming. How to be grateful.
There were many lessons on the journey, and there were many teachers. Every one of my fellow walkers had a gift to share, as did all the others who eased our path.
Tl’i’ to’ mukw’ mustimuhw. Each person is important.
We learned to care for the Elders, and fill their plates before our own. We learned to give thanks to the trees and water. We learned to stop and visit with the creeks we passed, and wash our faces four times in the sacred stream. We learned to take berries and other gifts from the land mindfully, to ask permission and give thanks.
We learned to hold and care for the mothers and their little ones. “Wherever young children walk, they bless the path,” Qwiahwultuhw said.
On one of the mornings of the walk, I sat near Qwiahwultuhw. We talked over breakfast. He told me that people sometimes think that they are not invited or allowed to participate in the walk. But everyone is welcome. “Maybe you can put that in your story,” he said.
I took his words in. “Is there anything else you think I should say?” I asked. “Q’ushin’tul’,” he replied. “Just, walking together.” It is simple, and it’s not.
We all live in our separate worlds, now, Qwiahwultuhw explained. We live alone, we raise our kids alone, we walk alone. We have become very good at doing things alone. We must again learn to walk together.
It was hard to walk together on the journey. We were all so different. We came from different countries, different stories. We preferred different paces, different balances between sound and silence.
It was easier when we had Qwiahwultuhw’s quiet leadership. He knew how to hold us together as one. But Qwiahwultuhw, too, was unable to walk the whole way, due to health issues of his own. We often had to figure it out by ourselves. And we often stumbled.
Qwiahwultuhw told us to take what we have heard and learned back to our families and communities. “And don’t pretend you don’t know each other when you see each other in the streets,” Qwiahwultuhw instructed.
I wish I could say that I’ve stayed connected with all the people I met on the walk. It’s not easy to hold onto all of the lessons while going back to our separate lives. It’s not easy to make time to be together in a world that demands constant busyness and productivity.
It’s easy to make excuses, but the consequences are real. Aunty Sara passed away recently, before I made good on my promise to visit, to stay in touch.
I reconnected with Qwiahwultuhw in March at an event to plant cedar trees at Bright Angel Park, as a gift for future generations and a memorial for the children who didn’t make it home for residential “schools.”
I told him I thought my story about the walk was nearly finished, that I’d written and rewritten it a few times, but I’m never sure if it’s quite right.
He smiled and told me about the plans for this year’s walk, that it will be earlier this year, in early June, to escape the heat. Will I walk again, he asked?
Yes, I would like to be there, I said.
The organizers are now raising funds for this year’s event.
Next year’s event will be the last. Four walks in total, Qwiahwultuhw told me. After that, there will be time and space for some other project. Someone will know what to do next, to keep learning to walk beside each other.