Elders & Teaching: Traditional Canoe Project

L'ecole de l'Anse-au-Sable, Kelowna's Francophone school, has a total student population of 188, ranging from preschool through grade 12. Within this small school, 14% of the student body identifies as having Aboriginal heritage - notably higher than the 10.5% provincial average of Aboriginal student enrollment in BC schools.[1]

As Principal of this minority language school, Daniel Blais understands the importance of cultural preservation, and is committed to fostering inter-cultural respect among his students and within the community at large. Blais has put his beliefs into action, supporting two large inter-cultural projects within the last five years.

First, students helped design and carve a totem pole (or "Story Pole") which now stands tall in the school cafeteria, the worn-down bear's nose showing evidence of small hands regularly touching and rubbing the carving for good energy. When the totem pole was raised in 2012, a member of Westbank First Nation was impressed by the result and suggested a canoe as a great second project. (Totem poles are coastal, while canoes have been historically integral to the people of Westbank First Nation in terms of sharing culture, trading, travelling and socializing, In fact, canoes were integral to life in the Okanagan, connected people from Lake Okangan south to the Washington lakes.)

The Totem, explains Blais, had opened a new relationship with Westbank First Nation and "to keep that relationship, to keep the respect there, is highly valued." Thus, when approached with the idea to involve students in the carving of a black cottonwood canoe " a symbol traditional to the Okanagan and an art that is nearly lost" Blais agreed.

With support from the Central Okanagan Foundation, the Centre Culturel Francophone de l'Okanagan (French Cultural Centre) partnered with Westbank First Nation (WFN) and Francophone School District 93 to create the "Elders & Teaching: Traditional Canoe Project."

The immediate challenge was in finding a black cottonwood log appropriate for canoe carving. Enter Tania and Corey Whalen, the parents of two boys who attend L'ecole de l'Anse-au-Sable and who were instrumental in the completion of the totem pole project. The Whalens were able to source, and transport, an impressive black cottonwood log to the school. Tania Whalen participated in the ceremony to bless the log and felt privileged to be part of the smudging practice. (Smudging is a time-honoured purification ritual using sage, sweet grass and other herbs.)

Lead carver, Elder Richard Louis, taught students about traditional methods and tools as they helped transform the log in the school cafeteria. Students were encouraged to transfer their energy into the wood by feeling the log, carving with positive intent, and having fun playing inside the canoe. In doing so, students deepened their connection to nature, gained respect for what the earth provides for human use, and were motivated to minimize waste (the log's centre piece is used to make paddles). Should the canoe begin to split, students will be taught how to work with the wood and will share in maintenance responsibilities.

"We had to do it right," says Blais of the carving process as experiential learning, "Kids need to see it and live it to have that sense of connection." The process has been one of meaningful learning, sharing, and cooperation; not one of assimilation, ownership or control. "The canoe is for the children and for the community; it will belong to no individual," says Corey Whalen, "it belongs to Mother Earth."

Since its start, the project has connected people of multiple generations, and of different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. It has also strengthened relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students. Those close to the project, such as l'Anse-au-Sable parent Corey Whalen, have witnessed these positive results. In his words, the canoe project "changed the attitude of people and the dynamic between students' Aboriginal traditions become 'cool'."

A final step in the process is for Elder Richard to burn traditional symbols into the side of the canoe, alongside original symbols contributed by students and their parents. Student drawings to be etched into the canoe include a representation of energy and water, a dreamcatcher with a smiley face, and a mountain range with an abstract eye above to represent the Creator watching over us. These symbols will be etched into the canoe's side along with traditional symbols of the Okanagan Indian Band and Westbank First Nation.

Once finished, the canoe will become a "classroom on the lake," teaching children about environmental sustainability and water safety (in order for students to partake in the "canoe classroom" they will need to successfully complete a water safety certification program). Through these special "journeys" on Okanagan Lake with WFN students and Elders, the canoe will further inter-cultural exchange and deepen inter-generational connections long into the future.