On Friday (July 14), a fleet of canoes will approach the shores of Vancouver in an event awash in meaning and symbolism. What transpires next will be a ceremony that has been practised for thousands of years on the shared, unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh.
With the chiefs of the three First Nations standing on the beach, paddlers, including Mayor Gregor Robertson, will ask permission—as a sign of respect and recognition—to come ashore at Vanier Park.
Known as the Gathering of Canoes, the landing of up to 30 canoes with 350 paddlers is the first of three signature events spearheaded by the City of Vancouver as part of its Canada 150+ celebration of Indigenous culture that predated and has endured throughout the country’s official history.
The landing is also a high point of this year’s Pulling Together Journey, an annual canoe expedition by First Nations people and representatives of police and government agencies, which aims to promote healing of historical wrongs.
The voyage is led by the Pulling Together Canoe Society, whose president, Rhiannon Bennett, has been participating in the journeys for more than a decade, since 2006.
“Pulling Together recognizes the past, and that means that we talk about it openly and honestly,” Bennett told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “We talk about the fact that it was police officers that come into our communities and take our children, and the police officers and the Indian agents were the ones that carry out all of these things. So now, we are coming together to acknowledge that those things have happened and to build relationships to go forward in a better way. And that is very much the spirit of the [Canada] 150+, [which] is acknowledging the atrocities that have happened and making a commitment to go forward together.”
Bennett is a Musqueam, and she has worked for many years with Aboriginal youth and families.
“We’ve been quietly doing our work on reconciliation for a very long time, and we’ve been doing this work long before it was common knowledge for people to talk about that,” she said about the Pulling Together Journey.
The activity started as an annual event in 2001 following a canoe journey put together by former RCMP sergeant Ed Hill, which visited several First Nations communities along the coast of B.C. in 1997.
The Pulling Together Canoe Society was incorporated in 2004, with the mission to enhance understanding between Indigenous peoples and public-service agencies, especially the police.
“We’re participating in Vancouver’s 150+ because the spirit of that event is in line with our vision and our mission statement,” Bennett said.
Paddlers have been pulling together to foster healing in B.C. since 2001, and the concept of reconciliation with First Nations assumed a national stage with the creation years later of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
The TRC was a part of the 2007 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, and its mandate was to document the legacy of the residential schools and recommend steps to move forward.
In September 2013, survivors of the residential schools, along with First Nations leaders and elders, paddled into False Creek in canoes to launch Reconciliation Week in Vancouver.
In 2014, the City of Vancouver designated itself a City of Reconciliation by adopting a framework to build a relationship with the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh based on mutual respect, strengthened partnerships, and economic empowerment.
Bennett will be in a Musqueam canoe when the flotilla arrives in Vancouver on July 14. She was in Gibsons on July 6 for the initial launch and blessing of the canoes when the Straight interviewed her. She and other participants were to take their canoes to Sechelt later and begin the sea travel from there the next day.
According to Bennett, representatives from the RCMP, the Canadian navy, and the police departments of Vancouver and Abbotsford will join young First Nations and Aboriginal paddlers in the West Coast journey.
On July 13, the canoes are scheduled to travel from Horseshoe Bay to Ambleside Park in West Vancouver. The next day, the paddlers will be joined in Ambleside Park by Mayor Robertson and other public officials on their way to Vanier Park in Vancouver, where the chiefs of the city’s three host nations will be waiting.
“We will announce to the chiefs who we are and why we’re there, and then we will ask permission to come ashore,” Bennett said. “That’s the protocol that our communities have taken since time immemorial. We recognize people’s territories, that we always ask permission to come in.”
The public is invited to witness the traditional landing to be followed by entertainment, lunch, and other community activities until 4 p.m. The canoes are scheduled to depart at about 2 p.m.
The Gathering of Canoes starts on Friday (July 14) at 11 a.m. at Vanier Park (1000 Chestnut Street) with the arrival of a flotilla from Ambleside Park. It's part of Canada 150+, which is a celebration grounded in community consulation, direction from Vancouver's Urban Aboriginal People's Advisory Committee, and permission from the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations.