Local students learn about reconciliation using canoes 

The Great Canoe Journey works with SLCC to teach kids more about Indigenous culture

click to enlarge PHOTO BY FIONA SCRIVENS - paddle on Grade 4 classes from Lil'wats Xet'olacw Community School and Whistler Waldorf School admire a Western redcedar canoe.
  • PHOTO by fiona scrivens
  • paddle on Grade 4 classes from Lil'wats Xet'olacw Community School and Whistler Waldorf School admire a Western redcedar canoe.

The children's eyes gleamed with wonder as they gathered around a Western redcedar, 10-person canoe at the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre (SLCC) last week, as part of an education program using Indigenous watercraft and perspectives to teach about reconciliation.

"What happens if a fish jumps over the canoe?" asked one. "Have you ever seen a shark?" asked another, to those leading the program through the Great Canoe Journey, organized by Waterlution, a national non-profit that educates young people about the importance of water.

The two Grade 4 classes from Lil'wat's Xet'ólacw Community School and Whistler Waldorf School had no shortage of curiosity as they stood, Feb. 15, in a circle around the old canoe where they learned about the traditional ways of the Indigenous peoples of Squamish.

The canoe has a different meaning to each nation and family, but for Squamish Nation canoe builder and culture-resource guest Aaron Nelson-Moody (Tawx'sin Yexwulla), "the canoe is supposed to only carry the best of our culture out into the world."

He offered a glimpse into the past journeys of canoes, which often travelled for thousands of kilometres, and explained that canoes are still used today, before going into detail about how they are made.

"The man who carved this canoe filled it with water and put some red-hot rocks in (the canoe) until the water was boiling," said Nelson-Moody, who carved for three 2010 Olympic venues, the entrance doors for the Canada House pavilion at the 2006 Games in Torino, Italy and four of the wall boards currently hanging in the SLCC.

"(The carver) left (the rocks) there for about 24 hours, so the wood would get really soft with the hot rocks and the canoe would open up and becomes wider," Nelson-Moody said.

Given drums, the students circled around the interior of the SLCC, building toward a crescendo of beats as they drummed faster and faster. Working together in unison, they were taught that, much like music, paddling is easier and flows better when everyone works together.

When asked what the biggest message the children should take away from The Great Canoe Journey was, Olivia Allen, project lead for youth programs at Waterlution, said: "For them to realize the knowledge and craftsmanship that went into building a canoe traditionally, and that, hopefully, will help them understand how Indigenous groups hold so much knowledge and how unique Indigenous groups across Canada really are."

During the hour-and-a-half program, the students also heard a traditional song, toured the cultural centre and created some regalia.

"I think that throughout history and previous generations there wasn't enough shared with the children about our (Indigenous) cultures, which means they grow into adults who don't understand," said Emma Joye Frank (La Kwala Ogwa), an in-training Indigenous youth ambassador at the SLCC.

"That is why I think it is important to start really young sharing our culture, so that the youth can grow into adults who have a grounded understanding and respectful relationships with Indigenous people."

Waterlution will be offering a similar workshop extending cultural education and leadership training over two days on May 3 and 4 in Whistler. Those aged 18 to 30 can sign up to participate for free starting Feb. 22 at waterlution.org/great-canoe-journey.

Waterlution is using this program across Canada to tackle reconciliation through education. It uses youth volunteers and cultural-education partners to teach about traditional canoes, Indigenous culture and First Nations' perspectives on water.

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