Pulling together in an 11-person canoe

Women enjoying positive experience training for First Nations canoe races

Michelle Jacks

Michelle Jacks

By pulling together, a group of young women are finding strength and confidence they might not have known they had. Both physically and spiritually, they are getting stronger and learning more about their culture and community.

This coming together started with a wooden canoe from the Tsawout First Nation that wasn’t being used. John Sampson says his uncle had purchased a canoe a few years ago but there were few people willing to pull (or paddle) it, let along train for war canoe races held in communities up and down the Island. A fitness trainer, Sampson felt he could find people to get interested and perhaps it might do them some good.

“There’s a lot of potential out there,” he said. “But there are hardly any canoe teams around the Tsawout area anymore.”

Both he and Janel Jack are working to change that. They agreed they might be able to find a crew of young women from the community, willing to train and work together as a group to address issues beyond the physical exertion needed to paddle the canoe.

Jack, a University of Victoria student working in the social justice field, says part of their culture lies in how First Nations communities used their canoes – building them and racing them, as well as the more historical used of travel, fishing, hunting and even warfare.

Her goal is to give the women on the team a way to move beyond the assimilation policies of past governments and the traumas inflicted by institutions like residential schools.

“You have to start with creating social change within yourself, your families and then in your communities,” Jack said. “We can start here by empowering women in the local First Nations communities.”

She said the group strives to avoid any oppression.

“More or less we are creating a health model to incorporate western and indigenous systems and cement them in our own lives and move past the trauma.”

Many of the young women are young mothers or have lived in abusive relationships.

“Two years ago was the last time I was in a canoe,” says Vivian Williams, one of the team members. “It’s a goal of mine to stay healthy and work to help bring our culture back, and here I can bond with people I have just met.”

The young women at a recent training night said they were happy to be on the team and are finding it very positive and encouraging.

For some, it’s a nice break from family – a place they can go to let off a little steam – and a way to learn more about spiritual and cultural life in their community.

“It’s fun,” added Stephanie Quilt. “I look forward to coming to canoe practice every day.”

“It’s a great experience to be connected to the water,” said Kathleen Pelkey. “And I get a sense of peace from it.”

With a cheer of “Netemot” (meaning all of one mind), the women lift the canoes (with the help of Sampson and their skipper Al Sam who came out of a 15-year retirement to help out) and carry them into the ocean. Their 11-person canoe is named Mariah Christine – and that’s also the name of their war canoe racing team.

They plan on training up to seven days a week as they get ready to enter races on Vancouver Island.

It’s a quick jump into that schedule for only having started the team on May 6.

“This has been a good experience for me,” added Kyla Elliott. “There’s a spiritual connection to my ancestors.”

Jack said the community has been very helpful in sponsorships and support for the team.

She said Terry Stewart of the Victoria Airport Authority has been supportive, as have the owners of Odyssia Restaurant in Sidney.

Jack hopes the women can share their passions and goals with each other in a quest to find life-long change.

“It can be different,” she said. “By sticking together through issues in life, we can have that change.”

Pelkey added the team has been encouraging each other since day one.

“All of us, in a way,” she said, “needed each other.”