An event scheduled for March 29 on Lennox Island will shine a light on a little-known part of P.E.I. history: the dangerous walk across the ice that members of the Lennox Island First Nation embarked on every winter until 1973.
The Ice Walk — planned for Monday, March 29 — is about reconciliation and raising awareness, said Jamie Thomas, director of culture and tourism for the Lennox Island First Nation.
“We found ourselves in this community where tragedy became a normalized thing because people would lose their lives as a result of having to travel across the ice,” Thomas said.
Until the causeway and bridge to the mainland was completed in 1973, Mi’kmaq living on Lennox Island had to travel across the ice during the winter to have access to supplies and services.
“Depending on, you know, ice conditions, sometimes it just wasn’t that safe,” said Thomas.
“In one case, we had a woman who was eight months pregnant fall through the ice. You know, she survived … and her child survived. But there were so many before her that didn’t. And so we want to recognize that.”
‘Create that awareness’
The idea for the event, said Thomas, began through conversations with the former chief of Abegweit First Nation, Brian Francis, who is now a senator representing P.E.I.
“I think the Ice Walk is important because it will help increase public awareness of the true history and some of the struggles that we faced growing up on a small isolated Island,” Francis said.
“I think some Islanders are not aware of that history and I think it’s important to create that awareness and, you know, so that we can acknowledge and move forward in a true spirit of meaningful reconciliation.”
Francis grew up on Lennox Island and remembers what it was like for the close-knit community.
“I saw people fall through the ice and, you know, it wasn’t very pleasant situations,” Francis said.
“Walking across the ice was certainly a treacherous and dangerous journey… sometimes with, you know, grave consequences.”
Lennox Island First Nation Chief Darlene Bernard recalls many trips across the ice and water.
“I was a sick child so I was in the hospital a lot, so I remember going across on the ice a lot of times,” Bernard said.
She vividly recalls a time where there was water and ice in stormy weather as she made the journey in her grandmother’s arms.
“We were being transferred into a little dory to go across and it was stormy and there was rough waters,” Bernard said. “I remember feeling the fear in my grandmother and then I got scared.”
Bernard said a goal of having the event is to raise awareness of that time in their community.
The Ice Walk was originally planned for earlier in March but weather conditions caused delays.
Ice conditions between Port Hill, where the wharf was, and Lennox Island wharf never firmed up, leaving open water remaining between the two points — rare for this time of year.
“What we are seeing here is obvious climate change,” Bernard said. “Nobody in this community has ever seen no ice and have a big frigging hole in the middle of the bay here. We’ve never seen that here before this time of year. Never.”
The event is now planned for March 29 with a walk across the bridge and causeway.
Community members, elders, and invited guests will walk across the bridge in a silent vigil.
The public is not allowed to attend the event in-person, due to public health guidelines, but it will be live streamed on Facebook and YouTube.
“So people who may not necessarily be able to come to Lennox Island to join can watch live,” said Thomas.
‘Help people in their healing journey’
The event is not just centred on the history of the walk across the ice but to raise awareness of other communities in the country still reliant on ice roads.
Bernard said her community changed for the better after getting a fixed link to the rest of P.E.I.
“Look at our community and how much we have been able to grow and build and stuff and that has a lot to do with having a fixed link,’ she said.
“This will bring awareness and help, I think, those communities to maybe say and start telling their story and be able to start dealing with the issue and how we can fix it.”
There will also be a feast and commitment ceremony to continue working toward reconciliation.
Thomas also hopes the event will create healing for her community.
“Reconciliation is a two-way street. And so we’re hoping that this event will create awareness, of course, but we’re also hoping that it will help people in their healing journey,” she said.
New documentary series in the works
Alongside the event, a song called Beneath the Path of Crows will be released as a single, with sales going to fund youth activities on Lennox Island.
The song was co-written by P.E.I. singer-songwriters Tara MacLean, Dennis Ellsworth, Gilbert Sark, Hubert Francis, Daniel Howlett, and Sen. Francis.
There’s also a new documentary series being created about the Ice Walk, led by Mi’kmaw director Eliza Knockwood.
“It’s all about, you know, the history of our people. What that looked like, stories from community members … the Ice Walk itself. So we’re really excited about that documentary series,” said Thomas.
Sen. Francis said he hopes many people are able to learn about the history and take part in the event in their own way.
“I just think it’s important we have a collective responsibility to acknowledge and, you know, address the impacts of policies and practices that have and continue to shape the lives of our Mi’kmaq people and Indigenous groups across Canada,” Francis said.
“So, it is important that that acknowledgement be there and kept at the forefront.”