My 2,000 km bicycle trip for anti-racism and anti-hate – my first ever long-distance ride – began, of all places, in a hospital bed. It was late February this year, 2022. I had been felled by acute kidney stones. As I lay in the hospital bed after surgery, I watched with rising worry as a massive convoy of trucks rolled into Ottawa, our nation’s capital, and took siege of the city. I’d have loved to be there, interviewing people of all sorts, helping to make their views public regardless of their perspectives.
Fast forward to April. Now fully recovered, I could start planning to do something positive. With summer coming and my love of outdoors re-ignited, I thought: Why not combine physical activity with aiding experts who fight the good fight for a better society? Aha! I could cycle to raise money for some cherished causes.
Becoming An Ally To Selected Non-Profits
Next came picking the non-profits to support. My interest tilted to those that push back against threats to Canada’s democracy, the toxicity of racism, and the fascist inclinations of our homegrown far right hate groups. My research revealed several promising candidates. I selected two prominent organizations. First, the Mosaic Institute, celebrating 15 years of dismantling prejudice. The other was the Canadian Anti-Hate Network. It’s made up of Canada’s leading experts and researchers on hate groups and hate crimes.
I decided to contact these nonprofits at the highest level, hoping we could work collaboratively. In my long experience as a writer, I’ve learned it helps to have someone relevant introduce you to key decision makers. I got in touch with a relation who connected me to Mr. Bernie Farber. Bernie is the former Executive Director of Mosaic Institute. He is also currently Chair, Canadian Anti-Hate Network.
Mr. Farber graciously introduced me to Leigh Naturkach, Executive Director at the Mosaic Institute. Leigh was super encouraging about my concept, which I’d named DemocraCycle. She wisely suggested I keep this initial outing manageable in terms of the physical journey and goals. I revised my route and goals accordingly. I’d fly with my 20-year-old bike to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and take my time riding back to my hometown of Toronto, Ontario. Along the way I’d fundraise and interview locals on their views about racism and democracy. Bernie also referred me to Evan Balgord, the Executive Director Canadian Anti-Hate Network.
Leigh quickly presented my idea to her Board of Directors. They gave the thumbs up to Mosaic re: promoting my self-funded journey. I was delighted they’d feature my travels in their newsletter and social media. I got busy creating GoFundMe campaigns to start raising money for Mosaic and Anti-Hate. I also put up a GoFundMe to help alleviate some of my travel expenses.
From there, it was a blur of activity. I threw myself into mapping my exact daily route, choosing a departure date of June 25 to Halifax. Securing the first three weeks of accommodations was a challenge during peak vacation season, as was stocking up on equipment for the bike, getting trained on basic bicycle maintenance and roadside repairs, progressively harder practice rides of 40, 50 and 60km, and buying travel insurance, no longer cheap at age 61. Other considerations and work included booking my one-way flight and packing as minimally I dared for a six-week excursion, designing and having a website built, DemocraCycle.ca, to chronicle my ride and feature each fundraising campaign, and tweeting daily about the two nonprofits.
My Adventure Begins
Faster than I’d imagined, it was the night of June 24. Next morning my flight would leave at 10:00 a.m. Yet I was still jamming clothes and equipment into my three big cycling sacks, while stuffing my bike into a padded travel bag. This would be tight, in more ways than one.
I was bursting with excitement at takeoff. It signaled a bunch of firsts for me. First time in the Maritimes. First overnight bicycle trip – in this case, a total of 42 consecutive overnights! First time fundraising for nonprofits and promoting the effort. Kind of dizzying, when I think back on it, but really energizing.
In Halifax I stayed with a kind fellow cyclist who put me up for free that weekend. We rode around the city, went to a writing workshop, she cooked a few meals, I had lunch with an old friend. A great intro to the city. On day two, a Sunday, I conducted my first video interview. I’d gone to the neighbourhood grocery store. As I exited, there was a couple that looked to be in their 30’s, sitting next to their groceries on a bench. I approached them and introduced myself a bit nervously. It went smoother once I took out my phone and showed them my website. Happily, they consented.
Turns out they were both from Egypt. He’d been here 15 years, she’d arrived this past year. What they told me about their experiences in our country made me light up. Neither had experienced discrimination or hatred here. In fact, they felt very comfortable and welcomed. That afternoon I posted the video on my YouTube channel for all to see.
The Cycling Commences
Day three, Monday morning, I headed out for the open road. Behind me was a foggy harbour and some great memories. That night, in Newport Station, I stayed in a glamping (glamorous camping) tent. What a treat. I mean, it wasn’t the Ritz Carlton. But it had electric lighting, charging outlets (for my phone, bike lights and laptop), plus a huge comfy bed. I’d picked up a frozen steak and fresh veggies along the route. How wonderful they tasted grilled over a fire pit on my private chunk of land.
Around 4:00 a.m. it began to rain ferociously. The drops pounded against the tent. When morning arrived, the ground outside was drenched and it continued to pour. I got to test out my rainwear, at least. Took some getting used to, having a spray of water from the front wheel slamming into my glasses for hours on end. Let’s just say I rode cautiously that day.
Day four was both humbling and exhilarating. After another 60 km ride, I arrived in Kentville. My stay was in the home of a couple, in their sixties, who were avid cyclists. Here I was exhausted from several daunting uphills. That would soon seem trivial. Over dinner they shared stories and pictures from their recent ride: A six month bicycling expedition from the southern tip of South America upward. Wow. Talk about awe inspiring. Such nice people, too.
Highlights Of My Next Five And A Half Weeks
After those first few days I settled into a nice routine. I’d wake up and devour a hearty breakfast. Pack up my bags and set my course. Pedal till hungry again, stop to eat, repeat. At night I would update my social media, call family, chat with the bed and breakfast host, or just plunge into deep sleep. Every few days I’d interview people and post the video online.
I loved the variety of folk I met and spoke with. From Nova Scotia, into New Brunswick, through eastern Quebec, to Ottawa and back toward Toronto in week six, where I deliberately cut through rural Ontario to stay on farms and in people’s homes.
Throughout it all I found almost everyone to be very friendly and helpful. When I explained what I was riding for, we had lively, open conversations. I spoke with anti-vaccine and pro-vaccine advocates. Convoy supporters and those vehemently opposed. Individuals and families across ethnicities, cultures, gender identities, sexual orientations, ages. I’d caught Covid during my second week, and was lent a hand time and again to keep me going. Meanwhile Ms. Naturkach and Mosaic Institute cheered me on wholeheartedly.
Was It Worth All The Effort?
You might be wondering if all the prep, expense, and tribulations of riding that far were worth it. Though my Covid bout set me back for a week, leaving me scarce time to fundraise as I’d intended to, I definitely think the venture was worthwhile. We generated incremental exposure for Mosaic’s noble undertakings. I got to experience previously unknown parts of our country, and its citizens, in such natural settings.
Most crucially, it confirmed for me the power of respectful discussion. I admit that, too often, I tend to brush off views that clash with my own. It was not easy for me to listen to some notions people shared during my trip. They went against my sense of social justice, or secular government, even logic. Still, merely holding civil dialogues brought us a step closer to seeing one another as fellow humans. That, to me, was the most meaningful and satisfying part of my journey.