By Anne Stewart

The skipper’s call was clear “Paddles down. Left side, pull forward, right – push back.” The big canoe pulled out, turning as it went, and it gained momentum making ripples in the sparkling water, as the second singsong call rang out. “Pull together now, follow the bow paddler. Forward. Pull together.”

Participants at Canada’s first conference on ocean literacy had the chance to paddle in a big traditional style canoe named after Chief Dan George June 18th in Vancouver. And it was a unique experience. The paddling quests were led by Takaya Tours of the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation and the purpose was multifold. First, these were ceremonial canoe trips, to celebrate the launch of the Canadian Network for Ocean Education – CaNOE, the new, small non-profit with big plans to advance ocean literacy in Canada. Second and equally importantly, these were paddles to honour First Peoples’ presence, voices and history in this place. The trips also provided a rare chance to learn experientially, a little about traditional knowledge and culture in a busy, modern harbour which had not really been influenced by colonization, until about 150 years ago.

CaNOE members gathered in the little park just south of Canada Place. Their first daunting task was to get the 14 person canoe off the trailer, across the lawn and down to the beach. By the time we reached the beach, we were definitely working as a team and that bond would be handy later on. The Takaya Tour leaders were professional and skilled at handling the canoe and they were articulate and passionate about their culture and traditions. As it turned out, the skipper Dennis Thomas is also a skilled diplomat and his crew and lead paddler, Cease Wyss is moreover a wonderful storyteller and singer.

Before we left the beach, Dennis and Cease briefed us in detail on canoe safety, paddling details and traditional protocols. We learned that the artfully decorated fronts of the paddle-blades depicted a stylized wolf, specific to Tsleil-Waututh First Nation. Like flags on ships, the paddle designs identify nationality and sometimes a specific village or family line. On the back of each paddle a single, stylized, painted Salish eye, represented the ancestors. In the old days, in times of war, the paddles were reversed, with eyes pointing forward and wolves facing back, for anonymity on approach.

Before we launched, a prayer song reverberated across the bay and heads turned throughout Crab Park, towards the melodious refrain cutting through and above the cacophony of one of Canada’s busiest ports. We loaded carefully and took our seats. We were ready to go, holding our paddles with eyes facing backwards, holding the new knowledge that the ancestors ‘had our backs’ during this adventure.

Commands were spoken and the big canoe slipped out into the bay, paddlers pulling in time with the leaders (not bad for a newly formed team). Our skipper Dennis, whose traditional name is “Whonoak”, outlined the sail plan and reiterated some of the key safety points as we pulled out past the Harbour Police docks, skirting the north edge of the container terminal. He had already stated that we were to steer clear of the Sea Bus route, stay close to shore and inside the bay. As we neared the outer edge of our route, Cease Wyss turned in her seat to face the rest of the paddlers and after telling us her traditional name, “T’uy’t’tant”, she introduced her family connections and started her first story.

We drifted while she spoke, slowly swaying, paddles steady, listening to a story involving the original man and woman and a cliff dive into very deep water, long, long ago. The North Shore Mountains stood like sentinels, bearing witness to the scene. A cormorant flew by low, giving us the eye in passing and a seal popped up nearby and seemed to be listening to the storytelling voice. The Sea Bus passed well outside of us, packed with people heading downtown and the canoe bobbed gently in its wake giving rhythm to the ancient lore.
An incoming tugboat broke the spell. It rushed in towards us and the story was interrupted so we could pull well out of its way. The story started again as we rocked through its big wake, and again we were transported back to a time when people and animals could transform.

The next thing we knew, a large Harbour Police vessel was bearing down on us, at what appeared from canoe level, to be ramming speed. Maybe they were trying to give us a scare? At what seemed like the last minute, they turned smoothly and deftly came along side, to demand an explanation of what we were doing out on the water and to ask if we knew there were Sea Bus lanes. The mate asked our skipper if he had permission from the Harbour Authority to be there. Many in the canoe, grumbled under their breath about the officious captain, his mate and their unnecessarily assertive approach to this canoe that was out of the way of traffic. “Whonoak” who was in charge, took a different approach and handled the situation with confidence while, cooperating and maintaining a totally gracious and friendly bearing. By the time the police left they too were smiling and laughing and it looked like they felt really good about things.

“T’uy’t’tant” finished her story and regaled us with another song as we completed circling the bay in the big canoe. We glided in gently, almost as if we knew what we were doing and just kissed the beach with the bow, to unload in preparation for the second trip.

Dennis, the skipper, discreetly contacted the Harbour Authority on his cell phone while we were swapping crews and doing a mini-media event, so we were ‘officially’ sanctioned for the second trip. So the second paddle in the canoe was a much calmer affair and hubbub of the downtown space seemed to melt away as the paddles rose and fell in unison. Again the stories and songs welled up in clear contrast to the scene at hand and accentuated a different, much older and possibly wiser perception of this harbour; now home to over a million people. My thoughts and feelings as we paddled, went beyond nostalgia for the past; I could sense an engrained connectedness by these two young entrepreneurs traceable through their family relations, with a great sense of potential for the future.

As the canoe, Chief Dan George glided through the water, the resilience of the Coast Salish people, shone through the ripples and reflections of distorted skyscrapers. The positive and respectful energy of our leaders helped propel the boat and revealed largesse of spirit. This CaNOE Quest, a field trip for marine educators and scientists who want to share understanding of the ocean’s influence on us and our influence on the ocean was more than just a paddle around the bay in downtown Vancouver. It was a quintessentially west coast experience and a very special way to view Vancouver, its past and its future. I was glad that First Peoples’ voices were part of the first CaNOE conference and thank Takaya Tours for making it happen. I hope that in shaping ocean literacy in Canada, more First Peoples’ voices are included and continue to inspire with such clarity.

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