Long before the federal government began discussing truth and reconciliation, the Pulling Together Canoe Society was fostering relationships between Indigenous people and public servants.
Founded in 2001 as a way to bridge the gap between Indigenous youth and the police, the group is behind an annual canoe journey in British Columbia that has grown significantly over the years, as organizations like the Canadian Navy, the RCMP, regional and municipal police departments, and school districts take part in larger numbers every year.
Previously held in 16 different locations throughout the province, this year's journey began in Sechelt, and made stops in Gibsons, Camp Potlatch, Squamish, Porteau Cove, and Horseshoe Bay, before arriving at Ambleside Park in West Vancouver.
On Friday morning (July 14), 20 canoes crossed Burrard Inlet to Vanier Park, and celebrated the end of the journey at the first-ever Gathering of Canoes event, where Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh chiefs gave the nearly 350 paddlers permission to come ashore in a traditional ceremony.
The Straight was lucky enough to ride in the fleet's largest canoe, Demetri, and photographed the action during the last stretch of the 2017 canoe journey.
From the centre of the canoe, we were surrounded by youth and public servants who had become nothing less than a tight-knit family over 10 days of paddling and camping.
As the last canoe took off from the beach at Ambleside, teammates hooted and hollered, cheering for their friends and fellow paddlers.
It was a journey we won't soon forget.
During the ride, we met paddlers who were taking part for the first time, and others who considered themselves veterans.
Ruby Marks, a Haida elder, said this was her fifth year taking part in Pulling Together. When she wasn't paddling, she had plenty of canoeing advice and encouraging words for her team.
Seated next to Marks was Will Honcharuk of the West Vancouver Police Department.
"I've been doing this since the West Van PD got its own canoe last year, so two years now," he said. "And I'll definitely be back next year, even if I have to fly up for it."
(Next year's journey will likely take place in central or northern B.C.)
Our skipper, Linda Blake, kept us pointed in the right direction while also keeping morale sky-high. After all, many paddlers were on their tenth day of a long and tiring journey.
Blake, who is of Tahltan heritage, took part in her first canoe journey in 2001, and said it didn't take much for her to see how meaningful the canoe journey really was.
"I did one day, and then I got hooked. I've been doing it every year since," she told the Straight.
Blake began paddling as a member of the Vancouver Police Department, and transferred the following year to the RCMP, where she worked locally until last year. Now, she works for the Prime Minister's protection detail in Ottawa.
For Blake, the canoe journey presents an opportunity to replace hostility with positive relationships.
"It's the culture of the canoe, realizing how significant it was in this area, but it's also the connections that we make between our First Nations communities and agencies like the RCMP, the Canadian Navy, DFO, and municipal police departments, where there were such fractured relationships," she said.
"Somehow, the canoe journey brings those communities together, in a way that just never seems to happen anywhere else, in the real and authentic way that it happens here."
Blake said in recent years, the society has focused on young people, and added that this year, 50 to 60 percent of paddlers were Indigenous youth.
"We had an elder say to us one time, 'Our generation may be lost to true reconciliation because the hurt is so deep, but if you want to work to the future, work on our youth'.
"Now, we're seeing that paid back, because they're leading our culture and our singing. Now, they're teaching us."
Society president Rhiannon Bennett has been involved in 10 canoe journeys with Pulling Together, and said it has allowed her to become closer to her Musqueam community, while also providing her with more strength as an Indigenous woman.
"It's also where I met my partner, and now we have a 15-month old daughter together, so the canoe has certainly had some drastic impacts on my life," she said with a laugh as we rode back to Ambleside Park in a Navy support vessel.
"This is such a powerful sight, to see all these canoes out here, especially the juxtaposition between the canoes and the city skyline. It's a good reminder that we are still here. Far too many people think that we're all gone."
Bennett told the Straight that on the beach in Vanier Park, a woman had asked her why the paddles and canoes were shaped a certain way.
"These come from thousands of years of technology, and there's reason and rationale for why everything is shaped the way it is; it serves purpose," she said.
"When you think about how long Indigenous people have thrived here—and we thrived before contact, in harmony and in relation with the earth around us—it makes sense."
For Bennett, the biggest take-away that paddlers get from Pulling Together is the ability to build relationships.
"The canoe is such a metaphor for everything in life," she said.
"You really get to have a deeper appreciation for someone when you're sitting next to them with your stinky armpits and your sunburn, with your canoe pulling through the wind—those are really meaningful relationships, when you've accomplished something like that together."