The arrival and mooring of Theodore TOO, the country’s most beloved tugboat, coincided with a number of momentous events for those in Kingston.
Arriving on Monday, Jul. 12, 2021, the ‘Theodore Tugboat’ star docked in Kingston as part of a partnership with Swim Drink Fish, where the boat has taken on a large role in promoting several of the organization’s initiatives, including its Great Lakes Guide. With a few objectives as part of that role, Theodore TOO left its port in Halifax en route to a new home in Hamilton, which will serve has the boat’s permanent slip as Theodore TOO fulfills those goals of promoting: the necessity of access to clean freshwater; the importance of marine careers in Canada – particularly green marine careers; sustainability, responsible water conservation, and restoration strategies for the Great Lakes, and; increasing Indigenous voices in dialogue regarding the importance of the Great Lakes.
With people of all ages lining up to safely view Theodore TOO under appropriate COVID-19 safety protocols from the moment the tugboat arrived in Kingston, Tuesday, Jul. 13, 2021 was a day full of celebration, reflection, and happy faces posing adoringly next to the 65-foot life-sized reproduction of ‘Theodore Tugboat.’
And the official welcoming ceremony, presented by Kingston’s Marine Museum of the Great Lakes, truly encapsulated everything involved in Theodore TOO’s new mission to act as a steward and guide for the Great Lakes.
Chris West, Chair of the Board of the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes, began the ceremony with an Indigenous Land Acknowledgement, but one that differed from the usual and often rote Land Acknowledgements heard at meetings or presentations.
“The Marine Museum of the Great Lakes at Kingston acknowledges the site it sits on and the water it interacts with to be the traditional territory of First Nations people. We thank these Natives for their care and stewardship over this land and water. We are committed to sharing this stewardship moving forward,” he said.
West expressed that, being such an historic occasion in many ways, he feels the event acts as a “new birth,” which he then provided examples of.
“It’s a rebirth for the Marine Museum. We haven’t had a public event of any kind down at this historic site for five years. This is a rebirth. We’re back!” he explained to an uproar of applause from those gathered for the ceremony.
“This is kind of a rebirth for Theodore, this is Theodore’s entrance into his new domain and new role as an ambassador for the environment of the Great Lakes. And as an ambassador for the often below-the-radar green industry,” West continued, before moving into the underscored aspect of objective of Theodore TOO’s new role.
“It’s a rebirth for our relations with Indigenous peoples and culture. We’re standing what on what was traditionally informally known as Mississauga Point. From time immemorial, this has been Indigenous territory, land and water. We’re delighted to be reaching out – after far too long, I should say – but to be reaching out to our Indigenous partners. So that’s a rebirth.”
West then explained another of Theodore TOO’s projects in his role as ambassador to the Great Lakes: Members of the public can take part in the Watermark Project designed to collect personal stories of people reflecting on their local waterways. This crowd-sourced initiative, Theodore TOO Watermarks, allows individuals to help researchers identify waters where people swim, drink, or fish, so that those uses can be protected in the future while building a legacy of connecting Canadians to the water. Theodore TOO aims to collect 100,000 watermarks through this project.
As such, West offered up his own “watermark.”
“A Watermark, I believe, is a personal reflection on one’s connection to these precious waters. For me, it’s a daily swim. It starts with beautiful group of women called the Kingston Hermes. And we do a swim every morning. This morning was no different,” he said, noting that the group swims approximately 1 to 2 km each day, and commit to the morning swims from May 24 to Thanksgiving annually.
“And I can tell you, every day that I emerge from that swim, finally, it’s a rebirth every day,” he concluded. “That’s what these waters do for us. They give us life.”
Town Crier Chris Whyman then formally welcomed Theodore TOO to Kingston on behalf of Mayor Bryan Paterson and City Council, and also welcomed the tugboat to return to Kingston at any time. At that point, West turned the ceremony over to Jennifer Kehoe, an Indigenous partner with the Marine Museum in this “rebirth,” to whom he offered heartfelt gratitude.
Kehoe spoke candidly, emotionally, and with conviction.
“Thank you, Chris, Gchi Miigwech. Greetings, Anii, Boozhoo, Tawnshi, Kwey Kwey, She:kon, Hello! My name is Jennifer Kehoe, the spirit name that I was actually gifted… Oh boy, here comes the tears,” she began, her voice wavering slightly under her emotion.
“This is why the weeping willow is her hardest in the circle, which to me explains why I get so many tears when we come together to call our ancestors in the best way possible to acknowledge the space and the territory that we’re on,” she disclosed.
“I’ve been asked to say a few words today about the water as an Indigenous person who lives on this territory known as Katarokwi, or as many of you know it, Kingston, Ontario. And of course, to welcome Theodore the Tugboat.
“All our people travelled through these waterways that are interconnected, just as we are as people. Water is the giver of all life. It sustains us, flows within us, between us, and it replenishes us, yet we have so many of our waterways being dried up and polluted,” Kehoe expressed.
“I’m thankful for the messaging that Theodore the Tugboat TOO carries along with him, the responsibility of stewardship, maintaining healthy waterways as he travels through these waterways, bringing awareness to the responsibility and stewardship, of preserving and protecting our fresh waterways. He reminds us of the importance of the sacredness of the element none of us could live without: water. As he travels through these fresh bodies of water, may he feel them as he tugs along to his new home in Hamilton.”
It is important to note that Kehoe later explained that, when she was initially approached to offer words at the ceremony as an Indigenous voice, she declined.
“I would like to take a moment to acknowledge the outreach from the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes to develop a deeper relationship with the Indigenous community. I was originally asked to speak on the history of the importance of these lakes and the importance of the rivers to the Indigenous people prior to colonization,” she began in a moment of sheer honesty.
“It is my belief that we can’t talk about history until we develop a relationship that’s meaningful… In that good way to walk together, to understand each other. So, I did decline to speak on that particular issue because I believe that we need to develop a relationship first,” she said.
“Let’s take a moment of silence together to honour the children who never made it home. And the missing and murdered Indigenous and two-spirited women.”
A moment of silence was respectfully observed before Kehoe’s son, Maddox, performed a traditional dance before the crowd.
For his part, Mark Mattson, President of Swim, Drink, Fish, focused in on Theodore TOO’s new charge to promote careers in the marine sector, before presenting Theodore’s Captain Gary Byers with a temperature sensor, which will take surface water temperatures at subsequent ports of call and will feed real time location and surface temperatures that inform a water quality guide for 8,000 beaches (This guide can be found at https://www.theswimguide.org/).
“You know, people think about marine careers as being fishing maybe, or you know, being on a ship and sailing around the world. But there are so many other careers now possible, and in the cities, the urban areas. There are a lot of kids who never understand what is possible, to live on the ocean and on the seas and on waters and the lakes,” he said before thanking Theodore TOO’s new owners, McKeil Marine and the McKeil family.
“I’m really excited that the McKeil’s are keeping Theodore bring that message to the younger people in grade school, in high school, and in universities to dream about possibility of a blue economy in Canada.”
But, it is Theodore TOO’s natural ability to draw crowds to the waters of the Great Lakes – as evident in the boat’s two-day stay in Kingston – that Mattson celebrated most.
“We believe that, unless you love the water and learn to love it, and really understand your connection to it, you’re never going to be the protector you can be,” Mattson said. “And Theodore, his work is really to guide people back to the water’s edge, like we all are today.”
In challenging those in attendance to participate in the Watermarks project, Mattson left them with the words of one of Kingston’s most celebrated sons, a leader in water preservation and Indigenous rights promotion.
“Theodore is asking people to think about in their families and their own stories, you know, it was Gord Downie, who was from Kingston, who said ‘Somewhere, some water body is part of who you are,’” he said.