Kelly Sinoski: Pulling Together canoe journey fosters healing, reconciliation

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      By Kelly Sinoski

      It began with a tradition as old as the beach upon which they stood. The clapping of rocks. Men and women in two lines. The voices of each side rising in volume, the rocks punctuating the air. Everyone was shouting, jumping, laughing before they gathered in a circle, with the two song instigators sharing a hug.

      Known as the Challenge Song, it was one of many ceremonial prayers, dances, and teachings during the eight-day Pulling Together canoe journey, hosted by the Tla’amin Nation near Powell River from July 4 to 12.

      “I think that one was a tie,” said Tim Lorenz, 36, who was challenged by Katzie canoemate Emily-Ann Chick. “That [song], personally, is a little trigger of mine; it just gets me going. It makes me so unbelievably happy, especially with all the families.”

      Tim Lorenz (left) and Emily-Ann Chick getting the paddlers to dance at Harwood Beach.
      Kelly Sinoski

      More than 300 people, half of them youth, participated in the 19th annual journey—which includes participants from police and provincial and federal agencies—to foster relationships and promote healing, reconciliation, and the sharing of cultures for Indigenous host nations.

      "We’re a small part of the bigger picture of reconciliation,” said Linda Blake, an RCMP inspector with the prime minister's protection detail and president of the Pulling Together Canoe Society. “We certainly know there’s a lot of work to be done. This is one event with a few hundred people and it needs to be thousands and thousands to have a huge impact on the community.”

      This year’s journey, based out of Tla’amin Nation, included stops at Stillwater Bay, Willingdon Beach, Tla’amin, Lund, Harwood Island, the Copeland Islands, and Savary Island.  It began with the blessings, or awakening of spirits, of the 16 canoes and continued with daily prayers and cedar-brushing ceremonies.

      Jodi Harry (in white, left) and Janine Gonzales (left, front) bless a canoe.
      Kelly Sinoski

      On the water, the canoe "families" pulled together to get to the next destination. As skipper of the Demitri, one of the largest canoes, Blake directed her “family” when to get their paddles up, to keep their elbows straight, to pull. 

      As the Demitri moved through the water, someone sang a Maori song from her native New Zealand, while "The Gambler" could be heard among Indigenous songs echoing across the water.

      The Demitri and crew.
      Kelly Sinoski

      During the day and during nightly protocols, people shared personal stories of healing and their own traditions: a bear dance by a young boy from the Tla’amin Nation; a drill from the Vancouver police cadets; naval officers at attention during the blessing of their canoe by Tla’amin elders; a plaintive call for a hug that saw dozens rush from their seats to comply.

      And, during the final feast, there was an honour song for youth, “uplifting their spirit and letting them know they’re loved”, said Wes Nahanee, a member of the Squamish Nation and skipper of the Urban Native Youth Association canoe.

      “That’s a big part of what the journey’s about: looking after our future; teaching our children about the culture.”

      Canoes wait for traditional permission to come ashore, at Willingdon Beach.
      Kelly Sinoski

      Youth have become a focus of the journey, their numbers jumping from 10 percent to almost 50 percent during the past five years, Blake said. Their backgrounds vary, from high school students to VPD cadets to at-risk youth in care of the Ministry of Children and Families.

      “At one point, the elders noticed we had youth, and they had spoken to us, saying our current elders and adults were essentially lost," said Blake, who is of Tahltan heritage. "We may never change their minds about having a reasonable relationship with law enforcement. They challenged us and said if you are going to make change you have to work with our youth.”

      Coming ashore at Willingdon Beach.
      Kelly Sinoski

      She said the journey offers youth opportunities and often sparks something in them to “maybe choose another path”.

      Const. Jeff Wood, of the West Vancouver Police, said the situation works both ways: “We often think of police officers as being tough and hard and never smiling,” he said. “But to have officers come out from West Vancouver or Abbotsford...that maybe changes their perception the next time they have engagement with a First Nations person.”

      Among the Copeland Islands.
      Kelly Sinoski

      Cassandra Baker, 20, agreed. Growing up on the Squamish Nation in North Vancouver, she said, she was distrustful of the police, especially following her mother’s death in 2017. Being on the water as a canoe skipper helped her to heal, she said, and inspired her to speak about her mother.

      Her goal now is to encourage more youth to come on the journeys, share their own stories, and learn from the elders. “A lot of people who came in here, my crew, didn’t know to a large extent what had happened to our people,” she said. “I want to become an advocate. We need more representatives that have been through this.

      “We can’t just get our language back; we can’t just forget about the abuse, the generational trauma that some of the people have gone through...This is a step in the right direction, but there’s a lot more to it.”

      Pulling together, literally.
      Kelly Sinoski

      Nahanee, who spent his childhood in foster care, said it’s hard growing up without learning the culture. His own transformation began in 1987, when he was chosen for an honour ceremony. A tribal journey to Bella Bella in 1993—the first time in more than 100 years that any of his people had travelled by dugout canoe—clinched his desire to learn more.

      “I see the love that happens within these journeys; I see the connections and that’s what keeps me coming back...” said Nahanee, who has a 15-year-old daughter and a two-year-old son. “I really see hope and a future for [the youth] because the culture is starting to come back.”

      Nahanee has been on every Pulling Together Journey since it began in 2001.

      “I see youth here that are brought because they are getting into trouble at home. I see a huge transition in a week,” Nahanee said. “I have one youth, I wondered if we were going to run into trouble on this journey, but we shared time on the beach on our final day and I saw a big change in him. It made my heart expand; it really made me happy.”