With a canoe ride down the Grand River in Ontario, these paddlers bring a 400-year-old treaty to life

For 10 days every summer, a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people launch their canoes each morning after a Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address and continue on their journey down the Grand River in southern Ontario. 

The annual Two Row on the Grand is not just any paddling trip — it’s an enactment of the Two Row Wampum treaty, an agreement made more than 400 years ago between the Haudenosaunee people and Dutch settlers. 

“Some think it’s just a canoe ride,” said Jay Bailey, a Canadian of Dutch descent who leads the trip songside Ellie Joseph, from Six Nations of the Grand River. “It’s not just about the paddling. It’s about sharing knowledge, it’s about deepening our understanding of each other.” 

Ellie Joseph, from Six Nations of the Grand River, sits in her canoe, bottom right, during this year’s paddle. (Aicha Smith-Belghaba/CBC)

The 1613 agreement was recorded with a belt made of white beads with two parallel rows of purple beads. The white beads represent a river, while the purple rows represent two vessels travelling the river: a ship for the Dutch and a canoe for the Haudenosaunee, each carrying their own laws, traditions, customs and languages. 

For Bailey and Joseph and the participants — this year there were dozens — the Two Row on the Grand is an embodiment of that living treaty and a chance to learn and share. 

Janet Donor was one of those participants. She joined the trip last year and this summer came back with students from the University of Guelph, where Donor works in its Experiential Learning department.

“This experience has touched them in a way beyond what I could have imagined,” she said of the students, adding that an “experience like this” changes you. 

“You cannot stand by, you cannot be a bystander anymore… when there are calls to actions, you are called to be part of that and you see yourself more as a treaty partner,” she said. 

The first Two Row on The Grand took place in 2014. The paddle begins in Cambridge, Ont., and ends in Port Maitland, near the mouth of Lake Erie. The trip covers about half of the Grand River’s 280 kilometres. The land around the river is called the Haldimand Tract — granted to Six Nations of the Grand River in 1784 for allying with the British during the American Revolution. 

A map shows the Grand River and a red line around it signifying the Haldimand Tract.
The Haldimand Tract was granted to Six Nations of the Grand River in 1784 for allying with the British during the American Revolution. The land ran roughly 10 km on each side of the Grand River. Six Nations, which has the largest population of any reserve in the country, now has less than five per cent of its original land base. (CBC News Graphics)

Throughout the 10-day trip, the group stops at communities along the way and hears from speakers each day, including Indigenous historians, a residential school survivor and local knowledge keepers. 

“One of the first guest speakers… described the river as medicine. And honestly, having been on the river and paddled on the river and getting to build all of these beautiful relationships, it was so healing. And I’m so grateful to have gotten to take part in that,” said University of Guelph student Qurat Dar, 24, from Mississauga, Ont. 

“I feel like having had this experience really shifted a lot of my worldview and perspectives from hearing the Haudunesee perspective of seeing the world.” 

Three woman stand and smile.
From left: University of Guelph students Qurat Dar, Amal Zeidan and Sophia Weller prepare to launch their canoes on Day 1 of the Two Row on the Grand this summer. (Aicha Smith-Belghaba/CBC)

Fellow student Sophia Weller also felt the benefits of the trip. “It was a very good journey. I feel like the river really is a teacher in itself and it presents many challenges along the way.” 

For 23-year-old Amal Zeidan, from Brampton, the canoeing and camping experience was a new one for her. 

“It kind of really connected me to the land,” she said. “And I really liked the spirituality aspect. Each day we had a Thanksgiving [Address], which was very important. I learned a lot from that.”  

‘A build up of trust’

Joseph said for many people in Six Nations, canoeing has also been new in recent years. 

“To get into a canoe or kayak, it’s been a new experience for a lot of members of our community,” she said. “But what I find is… our people have a sense of cultural pride which we sort of had to hide in the years past. So there is now a resurgence of culture. And we’re able to sing our social songs and we are able to have social dances and have our faith keepers and traditional knowledge keepers share pure truths, where they’ve never really been spoken before.” 

Joseph also said the paddle is important for another reason. 

“Throughout [the journey], I see a build up of trust between our Indigenous people and our allies,” she said. 

A group of people stand together, some with arms raised in celebration.
A group of students from the University of Guelph celebrate finishing the Two Row on the Grand canoe paddle this past summer. Janet Donor, who did the paddle last year and invited students to join, stands at centre, back row, wearing white. (Aicha Smith-Belghaba/CBC)

Mike Morris, Green Party MP for Kitchener Centre, joined the group as they launched their canoes into the water in Cambridge. 

“There’s important significance of the paddle in terms of having Indigenous leaders in one row and having settlers in the other row, recognizing that was the original intention of the Two Row Wampum,” he said. “For my part if we are talking reconciliation and real truth, that starts with listening to Indigenous leadership and building relationships.”

For Donor, the paddle showed her being an ally to Indigenous people requires a bigger commitment and real action.

“To really understand what it means to be treaty partners is something that I think you can only get through an embodied experience like this. Where you are building relationships and friendships and connections and having deep conversations. And an experience that brings you together and breaks down some of those, sort of, superficial barriers — and using the river as the metaphor throughout.”

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