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Canoe Crossings: Understanding the Craft That Helped Shape British Columbia

By Sanford Osler

Review By Alan Hoover

August 8, 2014

BC Studies no. 186 Summer 2015  | p. 151-52

A devoted canoeist, Sanford Osler has used his wide experience with many forms of paddle-craft to write a comprehensive and well-informed review of canoeing and kayaking in British Columbia. His up-to-date and very readable presentation includes competitive and recreational canoeing and kayaking, dragon boat racing, Coast Salish canoe racing, contemporary First Nations canoe voyaging, lesser paddle sports using outrigger and marathon-style canoes and kayaks, and a discussion of how canoe and kayak manufacturing in British Columbia adapted to new materials and technologies.

Osler proposes that canoes played an important historical role in community building. He suggests that the Interior fur trade, with its dependence on birch bark canoes crewed mostly by First Nations and Metis, was central to the establishment of BC’s political boundaries, and that without canoes to connect the widely distributed trading posts west of the Rockies, British Columbia would be a much smaller place with less expansive borders.

Canoes are also surprisingly prominent in more recent BC history. Osler argues that the popular sport of dragon boat racing, introduced from Hong Kong to Vancouver in 1986, helped develop connections between older Chinese settler populations and newer Asian immigrants to the Lower Mainland. Haida artist Bill Reid and his team carved and paddled a dugout canoe to Expo 86, a craft that inspired Reid’s “Black Canoe” bronze sculpture that graces the foyer of the Canadian Embassy in Washington and for many years adorned the Canadian twenty dollar bill. Also paddled to Expo 86 was a canoe from Bella Bella that three years later joined a flotilla of nine canoes to Seattle to celebrate the centennial of the founding of Washington State. Frank Brown, a major force in this project, invited all coastal First Nations to meet in 1993 in Bella Bella. Since then, Canadian and American First Nations canoes have travelled each year from all over the BC and Washington coasts and beyond to meet at some coastal location to celebrate Northwest Coast canoe culture. In 2013, approximately seventy canoes made the trip to Quinault on the outside coast of Washington State, and in 2014, thirty-nine canoes made the arduous trek back to Bella Bella, twenty-one years after the original Tribal Journey. These events are drug and alcohol free and celebrate First Nations cultural values, providing all participants, especially young people, with meaningful connections to traditional cultural values and practices.

Osler develops the cultural role that canoeing has played in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. In 1996, Gitxsan artist Roy Henry Vickers and an ex RCMP officer named Ed Hall led three fibreglass replica canoes from Hazelton to Victoria, stopping at First Nations villages along the way to raise support for an addictions recovery centre and, for the RCMP, to apologize to First Nations for their role in the apprehension of children sent to residential boarding schools. This initial event, Vision Quest, gave rise to annual canoe journeys known as Pulling Together, featuring a number of First Nations, police forces, and other social agencies. In 2013, some sixty paddled craft of every variety from many different groups gathered in False Creek to open Truth and Reconciliation Week in Vancouver.

The connections between canoes and Canada and their symbolic value to Canadians have been explored in earlier publications including James Raffan and Bert Horwood (editors), Canexus: The Canoe In Canadian Culture (Dundurn: 1988) and Raffan’s Bark, Skin and Cedar: Exploring the Canoe In Canadian Experience (HarperCollins: 1999). Osler cites these books, but adds a powerful west coast element with his detailed presentation of recent developments here, especially the important role that canoes have paid in building community support and addressing the ravages of the residential school experience and drug and alcohol addiction.

Canoe Crossings: Understanding the Craft That Helped Shape British Columbia
Sanford Osler
Victoria: Heritage House, 2014. 159 pp. Illus. $19.95 paper