Just over 11 years ago Jean Béliveau told his wife at their Montreal home that he was going for a walk and wouldn’t return for a while. He planned to walk around the world.
Jean Béliveau, who left Montreal 11 years ago to walk around the world, is welcomed to Bala on Aug. 29 by Jane Templeton, general manager of the Muskoka Lakes Chamber of Commerce. Templeton’s family hosted Terry Fox on his cross-Canada run in 1980. Béliveau expects to be back home in Montreal in October.
Shocked, his wife asked whether that meant their marriage was over. Reassured that it wasn’t, she said she would support him, but only if the walk was for a good cause like world peace.
That, he said, was exactly what he had in mind.
On Monday, Aug. 18, 2000, the day of his 45th birthday, Béliveau waved goodbye to his wife as he started pushing a three-wheeled buggy in the direction of Mexico. He has not been home since.
Last Monday afternoon, Béliveau showed up in Bala, heading back to Montreal for the first time in 11 years. During that time he has literally walked around the world, travelling 75,000 kilometres and going through more than 50 pairs of shoes.
His solo trek has taken him through 64 countries, including South America, South Africa, England, Russia, Indonesia, Japan, China, Iran, Korea, Egypt, Australia and New Zealand.
Along the way, Béliveau has met four Nobel Peace Prize winners, including Nelson Mandela in South Africa. He has been welcomed into more than 1,600 homes and also slept in odd places like jails. Nine countries provided military escorts or police protection to guard him against terrorists or local criminals.
Béliveau’s surprise visit to the Muskoka Lakes Chamber of Commerce office in Bala last Monday, Aug. 29, got an immediate response from Jane Templeton, the chamber’s general manager. Templeton, who perhaps remembered that Terry Fox stayed in her family’s Bala home in July 1980 on his ill-fated cross-Canada run, wasted no time in arranging an overnight room for Béliveau at the Bala Bay Inn. Ken and Tiffany Bol offered Béliveau a choice of dinner at either the Bala Falls Pub or the nearby Moon River Restaurant.
Why would an otherwise sane man decide to walk around the world? It all began in 1998, says Béliveau, when a severe ice storm destroyed his neon sign business in Montreal. He began questioning what his life was all about. It was a classic example of a mid-life crisis.
Béliveau says he actually started thinking about a walking trip for a year before he told his wife. He first thought of New York and then started thinking beyond that. After reading the UNESCO Manifesto of 2000 urging support for today’s children and those of future generations, he decided that would be his goal: a world of peace for those children.
Béliveau says his 11-year marathon has taught him a lot. One of the few countries to deny him entry was Libya, which meant flying over it to Egypt. He was also unable to enter Tibet because of its tensions with China during the Beijing Olympics. One of the most hospitable countries in his trek turned out to be Iran, where he was welcomed enthusiastically day after day by its citizens.
Béliveau’s spookiest experience, he says, came after spending a night in a South African jail. The night shift forgot to tell the day shift that he was there as a guest, not a prisoner, so it required pounding on his cell door and lengthy explanations before the daytime jailers finally released him.
Béliveau returned to Canada this past January, thanks to a group of New Zealanders who paid for his air passage to Vancouver. They embraced his message of peace and wanted to show their appreciation in a tangible way.
Béliveau says his wife and he still feel close, despite the miles separating them. She has managed to join him for at least three weeks each year of the trek and was waiting at the Vancouver airport in January with a huge hug and a live band.
What will happen to Béliveau’s life once he arrives back in Montreal in October? Already, many spinoffs are happening. Béliveau will be meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa to discuss his trip. He is also planning to write a book about his experiences.
While in Bala, Béliveau met over dinner at the Bala Falls Pub with two representatives from the Quebec division of the Canadian Cancer Society. They hope he will become a public spokesman in support of a campaign encouraging children to walk to school rather than being driven by their parents. The Cancer Society is not the only organization wanting to involve Béliveau.
The message is clear.
The day that Jean Béliveau walked out of Montreal with a three-wheeled buggy was the day that a whole new life began to open up for him. New doors are opening every day.
His mission to create a better life for young children has only begun.