Once a seafaring tribe with its origins in Benson Island in the Broken Group, the Tseshaht First Nation has, over the centuries, become landlocked. Two grassroots organizations are hoping to change that.
Tseshaht Ahp cii uk and Tseshaht Recreation have proposed a return to the tradition of journeying in ocean-going cedar canoes with the carving of a 30-foot canoe and the construction of an accompanying shed. The organizations have jointly applied for up to $150,000 in grant money from the Aviva Community Fund, which will award a million dollars to worthy projects across Canada.
Both Anne Robinson, co-ordinator of the non-profit society Ahp cii uk, and Tyrone Marshall, co-ordinator of Tseshaht Recreation, who are spearheading the project, hope a return to the canoe culture will reinforce family ties and inter-tribal relationships important to a healthy First Nations community.
The idea of building a cedar canoe cropped up two years ago, when Ahp cii uk members began talking about how they could improve life for Tseshaht community members. Back then no one was interested in championing the idea, so it was set aside. However, it was never forgotten.
“The whole essence in getting in one canoe is important to the community,” Robinson said. “It’s getting together and moving together; bringing balance to the community.
“Our community wants to ‘Go Home’ by our traditional means, to the Broken Group Islands,” Robinson wrote in her proposal to the Aviva Community Fund. “We want to be able to carve more canoes into the future and to be fully represented as a tribe in future northwest coast canoe gatherings such as Tribal Journeys.”
“The idea is we reconnect with our home land,” Marshall said. “A 30-foot cedar canoe would make that connection stronger.”
Marshall is the Tseshaht Recreation co-ordinator and a youth worker too. Last July he paddled with the Tseshaht team in Pulling Together, the canoe journey that saw more than a dozen canoes paddle up the Alberni Inlet from Tofino to Clutesi Haven Marina. The Tseshaht purchased a fibreglass canoe for the journey, but discovered it wasn’t suitable for ocean voyages. They instead borrowed a canoe from the Hupacasath First Nation’s defunct Choo-kwa Ventures, and left the fibreglass canoe for the community to use.
Marshall said his idea for the canoe “was answering the call from people wanting to go out on the water. “People wanted a different way to exercise or a different way to be on the water besides fishing.”
Once the cedar canoe is built, he envisions groups from the Tseshaht community voyaging once again to Benson Island. “It brings together our culture as well as the fitness aspect of paddling,” he said.
The Tseshaht canoe proposal encompasses the carving of at least one canoe, the building of a specialized shed that can house up to four canoes, and the blessing and launching ceremonies. The Tseshaht have three logs already chosen and stored in a sort yard. Ahp cii uk has estimated what it will cost to hire a carver, and will ensure that two Tseshaht youth are chosen to apprentice under the carver and carry on the canoe carving once the initial project is finished.
A shed will ensure proper care of the canoes and increase their longevity. “In the most basic way it provides shelter from the northwest coastal elements,” Robinson wrote.
“It will reinforce the traditional value of ‘respect for all living things’.”
Upon completion and prior to the first paddle a traditional ceremony will be done to cleanse, celebrate and “call” the life into the canoe, making it ready to “safely carry our most precious cargo,” Robinson wrote.
“Once it has been called to life it is mandatory that it be cared for, protected and respected as any other living being.”
The Aviva grants rely on community voting to move up in the ranks. Robinson said they decided to apply for this particular fund because they were heartened by the community support thrown behind teacher Kama Money’s Red Rose campaign two summers ago to go on a humanitarian trip to Africa, and last year’s Ultimate Fishing Town success.
“We felt a confidence in doing so because the people in the Valley have pulled together before for online competitions,” she said.
Two more rounds of Aviva Community Fund voting will happen between now and November (voting in Round 2 is currently underway).
But the Aviva fund is only one means to an end, she said; if the Tseshaht canoe project doesn’t win, other funding sources will be investigated. The project will go forward either way, she added.
“The project is still critical. It’s still important.”