Sailing Across a Splendid Forest & Mountains View – British Columbia

Sailing Across a Splendid Forest & Mountains View – British Columbia

Growing up on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, I found it easy to mock visitors from abroad. “This place,” they’d whisper. “I can go swimming in the morning, siding in the afternoon, then kayak home for dinner.” The views, the landscape, the wildlife—that was the refrain. Even in the cities, the scenery dominates. On any clear afternoon, look up from the streets of downtown Vancouver and you’ll see the snowcapped North Shore mountains glowing pink, an ostentatious show of natural beauty so commonplace that most residents barely take notice.

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Sailing the waters off Vancouver Island

There were times when visitors’ compliments sounded like admiration for a two-dimensional backdrop. But B.C. is a complex place, especially when it comes to its aboriginal communities. With a population of just more than 4.5 million, the province is home to around 230,000 aboriginal people from 203 different First Nations, who among them speak 34 languages and 60 dialects. Today, these groups live a life of ostensible equality, but centuries of oppression began a cycle of social devastation that hasn’t yet been fully resolved. In many aboriginal communities, poverty, homelessness and substance abuse still loom large.

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a floatplane docks in Prince Rupert

Indeed, residents of B.C. live in a province of uneasy contrasts. My village on the island was a haven of middle-class comfort, bordered by the poverty of a First Nations reserve. As a child, I walked down the stony beach and saw wealth and privilege give way to sudden hardship. This, I was told once, was my first experience of apartheid.

As an adult I spent more than is years living outside Canada, and from time to time I would catch a glimpse of the ancient cedars and airborne orcas used to advertise my home province. I wondered which B.C. the visitors were coming to see. Was it possible to engage with the region’s complexities and to approach its original residents in away that went beyond the superficial?

If I was asking that question of others, I realized, I first needed to answer it my self. So I planned atrip that took me from mid-Vancouver Island, the land of Snuneymuxw and Snaw-Naw-As First Nations, north to Port Hardy, then on to the remote, fog-shrouded islands of Haida Gwaii, home of the formidable Haida people, to find out whether it was possible for a visitor to take in B.C.’s nuanced human stories while still keeping those forests and snowcapped peaks in view.

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Sea lions gather on a rock near Windy Bay, off the coast of Haida Gwaii

Port Hardy, a seaside town of 4,000 people on the northern tip of Vancouver Island, is today known as a destination for storm- watchers, sport fishermen and hikers, though the place has retained a plaid-shirt solidity that reflects its past as a center for logging and mining. Outside the airport I was met by Mike Willie of Sea Wolf Adventures. Willie is a member of the Musg’amakw Dzawada’enuxw First Nation, and he runs what he calls boat-based cultural tours across the waters into Kwakwaka’wakw territory. That includes the village of Alert Bay, the Namgis Burial Ground, with its totem poles, and the unpredictable waters nearby. He goes from Indian Channel up to Ralph, Fern, Goat and Crease Islands, and as far north as the Musgamakw Dzawada’enuxw territory, also known as the Great Bear Rainforest—a 65,000-square-kilometer nature reserve that is home to the elusive white “spirit” bear.

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I’d arranged to travel with Willie to the U’mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay, as well as to Village Island,  the site of an infamous potlatch—a feast and gifting ceremony through which First Nations chiefs would assert their status and territorial rights. {Potlatches were banned in 1884 by the Canadian government, on the grounds that they were contrary to “civilized values.”

The ban was repealed in 1951.) As we set off, Willie told me about the ceremony. “The potlatch was an opportunity to reaffirm who you were,” he said. “It was away to get through the harsh winters. We gathered: that was the medicine.”

Willie took me to my lodgings, a beachfront cabin at the Cluxewe Resort outside the logging town of Port McNeill. The resort was comfortable but definitely designed to propel visitors outdoors. (A note inside my room reminded guests to please refrain from gutting fish on the porch.) I spent the evening reading, accompanied by a soundtrack of waves sweeping the beach outside, and the next morning, I took a walk along the stretch of pebbly Pacific shore in front of my cabin. I wanted to reacquaint myself with the past, inhale the moisture in the air, smell the cedar. Up above, unhurried eagles swooped, exuding a proprietary air as they circled and fell and circled again.

As l walked, it struck me that this beach, like so many others, has been home to the Kwakwaka’wakw people for thousands of years. Canada, on the other hand, turns a mere 150 this year, and it seemed to be a good time to reflect on the nation’s progress. The contrasts and contradictions I found in B.C. are playing out on a national scale. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, set up as a response to the abuse inflicted on indigenous students in residential schools, concluded its findings in December 2015, attempting to redress the legacy with 94 Calls to Action. The Idle No More movement has been confronting the issues facing First Nations through a series of rallies and protests.

Meanwhile in B.C., tourism revenue is expected to double in the next 20 years, with the aboriginal sector playing a starring role. {This year it is forecast to bring in C$90 million.) Something is happening. This is not about “having a moment”; moments recede. This is a long slog for respect, an effort to change the way Canadians view the aboriginal community’s land and lives.

In preparation for our trip to Alert Bay, Willie drove me into Port McNeill for a breakfast of eggs and bacon at an unpretentious place called Tia’s Cafe. The town is small, so it wasn’t a huge surprise when Willie’s uncle Don wandered in. He told us there was excitement up in Kingcome, site of the family’s First Nations community. He said the oolies, or oolichans—smelt fish used for making oil—had arrived, and the villagers were out fishing last night.

“Sealions were spotted in the river,” Uncle Don said. “It’s strange to see them up that high.”

“And there’s excitement?” Willie asked.

Don raised an eyebrow. “Oh sure.”

Willie came to the guiding business in an organic way. In 2013, he started a water-taxi service between Alert Bay and neighboring Telegraph Cove, and en route he’d tell passengers about Kwakwaka’wakw life. Back then, the creaky remains of the notorious First Nations residential school in Alert Bay, which housed aboriginal children from 1929 to 1975, were still standing, and visitors were sometimes moved to tears when he told them about the abuses that took place there. But there was so much more: the totem-pole ceremony; the death protocol; family crests. You can look at a totem pole and appreciate the art, Willie explained to his passengers, but true appreciation comes from an understanding of its meaning. As he put it, “Wouldn’t you rather see B.C. through fourteen thousand years of history?”

Inside the U’mista Cultural Centre, in Alert Bay, which was set up to protect the heritage of the Kwakwaka’wakw community, I walked among the masks—a collection of painted wooden beaks and faces peering forth into the dimly lit exhibition room. In this culture, masks function not only as decoration but also as a form of historical and legal documentation. They also serve as tools of social instruction. Willie and I stopped in front of Gwalkwaml, or the Deaf Man, a one-eared mask with a downturned mouth and wisps of black horsehair. “It shows a head chief of a clan,” Willie explained. “He didn’t want to hold a potlatch, and the clansmen weren’t happy about that, so they killed him.” The mask, worn during retellings of the story, became a warning.

Back at the dock in Alert Bay, brightly colored houses huddled alongside boats ranging from weathered to freshly painted. As we left the harbor, Willie offered me pate of wild sockeye salmon from the Nimpkish River, and I ate as much as I could before we began cresting waves. Over the roar of the engine, I asked him why interacting with tourists was important. “We need to be vocal,” he said. “We need to talk about our evolution and bring people closer to our reality.” Oral-history cultures,

I was reminded, need audiences. “Every time we tell this truth,” he said, “it’s strengthened.”

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