Since it wasn’t rush hour and the span over the St-Lawrence was clear, it took only twenty minutes to drive from my home in Verdun to where the steelwork and concrete delivered the little rent-by-the-hour Toyota containing my friend Sara and me into the Mohawk territory of Kahnawake (Kahnawà:ke). I’ve always found there to be something almost harsh about the Mercier Bridge. Despite being of similar construction it has none of the 19th century charm of the Victoria (a bridge my children used to call the “singing bridge” when they were little, for the hum of the tires on the steel tracks slung along its sides). Nor does the Mercier attempt the modernist concrete vision that first inspired and then doomed the grandly arching Champlain, finished in 1967 and already on life support. Where the Jacques Cartier Bridge meanders genteelly over roller coasters and parks, the Mercier seems more grimly pedestrian, even though actual pedestrians would be risking their lives to walk it.
Maybe it’s the way one is forced to drive the Montreal approach to the Mercier, encased in a graffiti-covered cement chute that twists and turns through barely glimpsed walls of duplexes until the roadway finally shoots you up and onto the steel. It’s really only as you near the bridge’s end that you realize how high you’ve come. And then, just as the Seaway glitters below you, you drop down the exit ramp to the erroneously named “south shore”, the car’s shocks pinging at potholes. Suddenly you’re in a land you didn’t realize was there, a strip of gas stations, restaurants, smoke shops and road-side businesses with signs in a language that seems to have too many consonants, apostrophes and syllables to make sense. This is not your land, you think. And you’re right.
The Mercier Bridge’s greatest shortcoming might be that, on a good day, it delivers you too quickly from one world to the next. From the thick stone walls of the centuries-old Roman Catholic mission among the Iroquois, through the Mohawk steel workers who were first trained on the bridge spans and went to American cities for work, through Indian residential schools and the riots and blockades and soldiers and warriors of the late summer and fall of 1990, there are stories to be told about every foot of the transition between shore-lines. When traffic is light the stories flit by like the shadows between girders, far too quickly even to be heard, much less really heard, which is to say, to be felt and understood.
In June Sara and I will be leading a group of walking pilgrims from Old Montreal to Kahnawake as part of the pilgrimage class we’ve developed at the Department of Theological Studies, Concordia University. Each year the students have had to walk a pilgrimage. While in the past we’ve focused on European routes, this year we’re sticking closer to home. In June we will walk the 30 km or so one-way route together. Although we are starting in the Old Port it won’t be a pilgrimage to Kahnawake (although such a pilgrimage does exist, centred on the shrine of the Mohawk Saint Kateri). Instead we hope our June walk will be an experiencing of the full distance – cultural, temporal, linguistic, historical, and spiritual – between two poles: Old Montreal, one of the hearts of Champlain’s dream of French settlement in this part of North America, now a gentrified example of Quebecois North American culture, and Kahnawake, a territory of the Mohawk, part of the historic Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Each end of this walk has its own understandings of, and traditions around, journey. We hope that by taking our time along the distance between those understandings and experiences of mobility this summer, the stories will unfold at a pace we can hear as well.
This morning when Sara and I arrived by car in Kahnawake, we realized fairly quickly that our maps were not going to be of much use. There were no street signs to be found, anywhere in the village. “Why do you need street signs?” someone said to us when we asked, with a gentle lifting of the shoulders and the trace of a smile. “Everyone who needs to know where they’re going already knows how to get there.”
This summer we hope that we too will learn, together and footfall by footfall, where we are going, and how to get there.