Billings Connections Trail Canada Day launch celebrates community, environment, heritage and art

Linda Willson standing in for Algoma Manitoulin MPP Mike Mantha, Diane Fraser, Charlene Chambers, Austin Hunt, Richard Lathwell and Mike Free standing in for Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing MP Carol Hughes, at the trail launch. photo by Lori Thompson

KAGAWONG––Canada Day was an appropriate day to celebrate the official launch of the Billings Connections Trail, a challenging year-long collaboration between multiple partners to commemorate Canada’s 150th birthday through heritage plaque and creative sculpture installations throughout the community.

The Kagawong Folk Collective, consisting of Chris Theijsmeijer, Heather Theijsmeijer and Marcel Beneteau, kicked off the event with songs in French and English, then led attendees in a trilingual version of O Canada in perfect harmony.

Emcee Todd Gordon (economic development officer for the Township of Billings) welcomed everyone to the official launch of the Billings Connections Trail.

“The Connections Trail is one large component of our Canada and Ontario 150 celebration,” explained Mr. Gordon, “a multi-faceted project undertaken through a partnership between 4elements Living Arts, The Billings Museum and Heritage Centre, Billings Recreation Committee and the township proper. The project was funded by both the Canada and Ontario Celebration 150 programs.”

The Connections Trail refers to a series of 35 historical plaques located throughout the municipality. The series includes three previously existing plaques at the Old Mill, the lighthouse and the Kagawong Cedars Cemetery as well as the seven sculpture series located around the hamlet.

“This project was ambitious and complex, and would not have been possible without the many, many, many hours invested by community volunteers, 4elements Living Arts, our Indigenous partners and municipal staff. It would also not have been accomplished without the will and support of council,” said Mr. Gordon. He noted that approximately half of the plaques are currently installed, “not for lack of effort,” and assured everyone that the remainder would be installed very soon. The plaque series can also be viewed on the dedicated Connections Trail kiosk located inside the museum.

Deputy Mayor Sharon Alkenbrack spoke on behalf of Billings council. “Success is the result of not perfection but hard work, commitment to the vision, working with individuals who have different ideas and working through the road blocks with a common purpose to make the vision a reality,” she began.

“Today we stand here to celebrate that challenge and celebrate that vision. What an accomplishment! What an awesome partnership that was created,” continued Ms. Alkenbrack. “This project was to acknowledge and honour the past and move into the future. I thank everyone for that opportunity. The strength of the team is each member. The strength of each member is the team.”

“With that in mind, on behalf of mayor and council, I wish to extend our gratitude to the Canada 150 committee and those commitments made by the Billings Museum Board, specifically Diane Fraser and Sabine Nuege, Sophie Edwards and her team, Charlene Chambers and the Billings Recreation committee, council representative Barb Erskine, Billings council, and Todd Gordon, our EDO, Kathy McDonald, our CAO, the government funding agencies for their support and the 4E board.”

“Thank you for the hours of commitment and the hours of thoughts and vision. Our community’s gratitude goes out to you,” she concluded.

Richard Lathwell spoke on behalf of partner 4elements and offered a prayer from Josh Eshkawkogan, who was integral to the project, providing historical and cultural information and assisting with translation, but who was unable to attend the launch. He closed the prayer with the hope that the “trails and art will help us with our reconciliation.”

Mr. Lathwell acknowledged the hard work and struggles of the many people who came together and “whose combined efforts brought us here.”

Billings Museum and Heritage Committee representative Diane Fraser recognized the “many hours researching, meeting and checking out trails. It certainly took a team working together.” She encouraged people to take time to enjoy “this wonderful trail.”

Council representative Barb Erskine echoed the theme of partnership and collaboration. She thanked the Billings Recreation Committee for doing an excellent job and singled out Charlene Chambers for her hard work and dedication.  Ms. Erskine also spoke to the intangible successes of a project like this. “All of our committees came together,” she said. “They met all challenges and remained committed throughout the process.” Even more daunting, she noted, was that the committees faced each other at the very end to review the process.

Mr. Gordon noted that this trail project couldn’t have occurred without significant funding from both the federal and provincial governments. “Neither MP Carol Hughes nor MPP Michael Mantha are able to attend today,” he said, introducing Mike Free to read words from Ms. Hughes and Linda Willson to read a letter from Mr. Mantha.

“Your vision is providing an engaging way for people of all ages to interact with the culture and heritage of the township of Billings and Manitoulin Island for years to come,” wrote Ms. Hughes.

“Our Canadian heritage is rooted in our history and our art is a reflection of that. This installation pays special attention to the Truth and Reconciliation committee’s suggestion that artwork can be used as a tool to imagine new relationships and amend our understanding of history, by challenging the victor’s narrative and creating one that is inclusive of every Canadian’s story.”

“Reconciliation is a long process that requires us to explore the darker parts of our history as we develop a stake in a unified future. Public artwork and heritage plaques are a step towards a path of reconciliation.”

Ms. Hughes acknowledged project organizers and volunteers as well as the artists who contributed. “Congratulations on realizing such an impressive community project,” she wrote.

Mr. Mantha offered similar congratulatory words. “I cannot possibly think of a more appropriate day to celebrate this launch of the Billings Connections Trail,” he wrote. “What better way to showcase the beauty, diversity and rich heritage of our nation. The launch of the Billings Connections Trail represents the culmination of a magnificent Canada and Ontario 150 Celebration project. It is the result of extensive planning and hard work by the many individuals from the 4elements Living Arts, the Old Mill Heritage C           entre, the Township of Billings, The Billings Recreation Committee and others, all of whom collaborated to make this project become a reality.”

“The Billings Connections Trail is truly an outstanding venue for visitors and residents alike to learn and better understand the history and proud heritage of this region and its people. This understanding will be shared with visitors by showing an interrelationship of the environment, local history and art. It barely seems just a year ago that we assembled to announce the joint funding for this initiative. Here today we see the final result of the trail project,” wrote Mr. Mantha.

Ms. Willson and Mr. Free presented certificates to Mayor Aus Hunt for the township, Diane Fraser for the Old Mill Museum and Heritage Centre, Charlene Chambers for the recreation committee and Richard Lathwell for 4elements.

Guests were treated to cake and cold refreshments following the presentations.