Paddling for reconciliation in Vancouver

Paddlers from Masqueam First Nations took part in the All Nations Canoe Gathering that kicked off Reconciliation Week in Vancouver. Photo by: Marites N. Sison
Paddlers from Masqueam First Nations took part in the All Nations Canoe Gathering that kicked off Reconciliation Week in Vancouver. Photo by: Marites N. Sison
Published September 18, 2013

See more photos of the event here.


One by one they came, in cedar dugout and fibreglass replica canoes bearing names such as Soaring Eagle, Dancing Serpent and The Singing Coho, with corresponding images carved out in the distinctive, bold black and red colours of Haida art.

On Sept. 17 at 10 a.m, the first flotilla of paddlers representing the Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations arrived to kick off the city’s “Reconciliation Week” under overcast skies at the foot of False Creek, in the heart of downtown Vancouver. Another flotilla of dragon boats, kayaks and other vessels immediately followed, with paddlers representing a cross-section of aboriginal and non-aboriginal groups-including local representatives of the Anglican Church of Canada. Some wore shirts bearing the words “Journey for Reconciliation, and Namwayut” (We are all one).

Over 30 canoes had travelled from Kits Point to Science World to take part in the All Nations Canoe gathering organized by Reconciliation Canada, a charitable project established by the Indian Residential Schools Survivors’ Society and Tides Canada Initiatives Society. The event took place one day before the official start of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s British Columbia National Event (BCNE), scheduled Sept. 18 to 21, at the Pacific National Exhibition. The sixth of seven national events mandated by the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the BCNE offers former students, their families and others a chance to share their experiences with the TRC and the public.

Hundreds of aboriginal and non-aboriginal spectators-including former Indian residential school students and their families-cheered, chanted and swayed to the beat of native drums as the colourful canoes, boats and kayaks gracefully entered the inlet, many of their paddlers dressed in traditional clothing.

Among the paddlers were TRC chair Justice Murray Sinclair, TRC Commissioner Marie Wilson, and Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations and hereditary chief of the Ahousant First Nation in B.C.

Atleo described the gathering as a “significant moment,” not just for First Nations people but for the whole country. The canoes “mark a significant emergence of indigenous culture up and down the coast,” Atleo told reporters after he disembarked from a canoe.

Asked what message the event is sending to the government, Atleo said, “This is a moment for action to be given to the apology given by the prime minister in 2008. Good words, strong words, now needing to be implemented; full partnership with and by First Nations directly.” He added, “It’s really important that the stories of the survivors be heard.”

The Rev. Laurel Dykstra, from the Anglican diocese of New Westminster, who joined paddlers in the Anglican dragon boat, addressed the crowd at the event. She spoke of the need to “step up, to be in solidarity with peoples of this land.” Non-aboriginal people “benefited from the harms done, from the lands taken,” said Dykstra.

Dykstra spoke about how the Anglican church has been “a church of perpetrators” but also “a church of survivors.” The Anglican Church of Canada, which operated over 30 of the federally funded Indian residential schools, has apologized for its role in the school system. Today, it has an active indigenous ministry, whose clergy and membership includes former residential schools students. “We’re beginning to take steps to undo the harm of residential schools,” said Dykstra.

Archbishop Terence Finlay, the primate’s envoy on residential schools, said the event was “an awesome way to start Reconciliation Week.” Finlay, who was among the Anglican spectators at the gathering, called the experience “very moving,” especially when viewed from the perspective that First Nations people here travelled by canoes as early as 10,000 years ago.

In fact, False Creek, which today is a popular boating area, was once the site of an ancient Musqueam village, according to the University of British Columbia’s Indigenous Foundations website.

The Rev. Lily Bell, a priest from St. John’s Anglican Church in Old Massett, in Haida Gwaii, B.C., was also among the spectators, and for her, the event held a deeply personal meaning. One of the paddlers who took part in the canoe journey is her granddaughter and namesake, Lillian. “My great-grandson is also here with me and I’m so happy that my grandchildren are part of the events, along with the elders; that they’re not separated and are here as part of the healing,” said Bell in an interview with the Anglican Journal. “I just feel the excitement of being together, of being with so many nations. I’m also happy that our church is here as part of the healing.”

Bell herself never went to a residential school, but her parents and some of her siblings did. “I never went, but I feel like I was just as affected by those who went because I live with my people, and you feel and live their pain,” she said.

Representatives of B.C. chiefs welcomed participants to their traditional territory and offered messages of peace, compassion and reconciliation.

“To reconcile means to re-establish a close relationship. It means to resolve something,” said a representative of Maureen Thomas, chief of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation.

Jerilynn Webster, a young hip-hop artist and performer, electrified the crowd with a spoken-word poetry about reconciliation.

Webster, a member of the Nuxalk and Cayauga Nations, began by saying: “Brothers and sisters, brothers and sisters, we were children. We were children.

My heart is burning, my heart is learning. Learning about truth, learning about reconciliation, thinking deeply through complexities-suicide, residential schools, addictions, addictions, diabetes, child poverty, missing murdered women, depression, post-traumatic stress, homelessness, inter-generational effects.”

She ended with an exhortation about healing and reconciliation, saying, “It’s time to unlearn, relearn, unlearn, relearn, aka decolonize, aka reindigenize.” People must “reconcile with self, reconcile with land, reconcile with creator, reconcile with groups and individuals; mend all broken relationships with self, with land, with creator, with groups and individuals,” she added.

The four-hour gathering drew diverse participants, including representatives of the Japanese-Canadian, Chinese-Canadian and Jewish-Canadian communities.

Japanese-Canadian award-winning scientist and environmental activist David Suzuki addressed the crowd from a canoe, saying, “Canada will not be able to move on until we come to grips with our past.”

Suzuki said Canadians have much to learn from First Nations people, particularly when it comes to environmental stewardship. “The Harper government is offering millions to get the pipelines going [in B.C.], but the First Nations people are saying there are things that are more important than money,” said Suzuki.


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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