07/30/2013 05:40 EDT | Updated 09/29/2013 05:12 EDT

Building Nation-to-Nation Relationships by Bicycle

Strangers just a week earlier, four young cyclists of Mohawk, Ojibway, Middle Eastern and Asian ancestry, from different parts of Canada, pedal in unison along the shoreline of the St. Lawrence River. Oblivious to their aching legs and the head wind, they exchange life stories, personal philosophies and favourite jokes -- unwittingly nurturing a centuries-old relationship.

After their ride they'll fish together, to hopefully contribute to a massive supper they'll share with the other 12 members of their bike tour. Later, they'll present the theatrical workshop they're touring to their local hosts, and then retire to a campfire for casual conversation. The seeds of a stronger relationship between aboriginal peoples and non-aboriginal Canadians are sown in this moving community of tents and bicycles.

The idea of Canada's "two solitudes" traditionally refers to the lack of communication and understanding between anglophones and francophones. But over the past several months, the Idle No More movement among Canada's First Nations, Métis and Inuit has highlighted another historic duality that at once defines and divides us.

This is a "Sovereignty Summer," during which Idle No More organizers and their allies have called for "coordinated, non-violent, direct actions" to promote aboriginal sovereignty and environmental protection.They have explicitly invited non-aboriginal Canadians to join the actions in solidarity.

So while our political leadership remains unable to resolve the complex political issues underlying the First Peoples-Canadian relationship, a youth organization called The Otesha Project has stepped in to launch a grassroots conversation on bicycles between "two nations" that need above all to know each other better.

"First Nations people speak of a covenant chain that links all peoples in Canada," says Otesha tour facilitator Matt Schaaf. "It's a silver chain that represents a living relationship, and if we don't come together once in a while to care for it, it can be tarnished."

"Otesha" means "reason to dream" in Swahili -- a word chosen by founders Jocelyn Land-Murphy and Jessica Lax after meeting in Kenya, where they decided to cycle across Canada using theatre, community, and positive role modelling to promote environmental and social sustainability. After 10 years and dozens of tours, this is Otesha's first "nation-to-nation" tour,in collaboration with the ecumenical justice group KAIROS, to nurture the connection between aboriginal peoples and non-aboriginal Canadians.

The word "nation" is soaked with political sensitivity, but Schaaf says it's too important to avoid. Having previously worked with indigenous communities in Mexico and Northern Ontario, "I'm personally still coming to learn what it means to be distinct nations sharing the same soil. We're all so new to this idea, and we can't figure out what it means unless we talk to each other."

The tour explores traditional Mohawk territory in eastern Ontario beginning July 27 with four days in Akwesasne near Cornwall, ON, for an orientation to Mohawk culture and history, traditions around farming and food, medicinal plants, and the treaty process. The group then rides 30 to 80 kilometres per day through anglophone communities between Cornwall and Kingston, counting on the hospitality of community members for space to pitch tents, break bread together and host conversations launched by a KAIROS-developed workshop on the history of the Aboriginal-Canadian relationship.

The long bike rides serve as a conversation starter among tour mates, and shared responsibilities for meals, cleaning and other details of living together quickly break down any apprehension or shyness around cultural differences. The instant community forged in the Otesha model is a safe place to let go of stereotypes and assumptions, and to open up to different perspectives. The result is a lifelong set of friendships and a new outlook.

"As a group, non-aboriginal Canadians are shy about engaging in a reciprocal relationship with First Peoples because we're afraid of what would come next," explains Schaaf. "Otesha's positive, fun, youthful approach to environmental and social issues is a perfect way to broach this topic in a non-threatening, open way."

This group hopes to engage other young people, whether aboriginal or non-aboriginal, through social media, via Otesha's interactive @oteshaontour Twitter feed and a regular blog about the lessons learned on the tour.

"Our trip is a provocateur," says Schaaf, excited. "We're going out there to dig up what it means to have a nation-to-nation relationship, and we want everyone to join the discussion about what we learn and what do next."

The tour winds up at a pow-wow in the Mohawk community of Tyendinaganear Kingston around August 10 -- "the perfect place to end," according to Schaaf, because a pow-wow is, by definition, an international gathering hosted by one nation for its guests from another. It's a time to share food, stories and dance in celebration of the nation-to-nation relationship.

It's one small step toward maintaining the strength and lustre of that silver covenant chain of two solitary nations sharing the same land.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit

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