First Nations and public servants paddle towards reconciliation

Annual Pulling Together Canoe Journey begins in Mount Currie on Saturday (July 2)

A long-time initiative to foster reconciliation and bridge the gap between First Nations and first responders is continuing its efforts with the 16th annual

Pulling Together Canoe Journey, taking off this year from Mount Currie on July 2.

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The group of approximately 300 canoers, a combination of aboriginal community members and public service workers, will paddle along the Lillooet River and Harrison Lakes to the Fraser River, through the traditional territories of the Lil’wat, Samahquam, Skatin, Xa’xtsa and Sts’ailes First Nations, before ending their journey with a celebration in Mission on July 11.

This initiative began nearly two decades ago, when now-retired RCMP Staff Sgt. Ed Hill helped organize the VisionQuest Journey of 1997, which saw RCMP officers and First Nations peoples travel down B.C.’s coastline by canoe, visiting Aboriginal communities along the way. He was inspired to plan a similar journey in 2001 and called it Pulling Together.

Since its inception, the Pulling Together Canoe Journey has expanded to include many First Nations organizations, communities, public service agencies and additional municipal, provincial and federal law enforcement agencies among its participants.

“It’s so critical to get people together for a better understanding,” said Rhiannon Bennett, president of the Pulling Together Canoe Society. “(The journey) provides an opportunity for frontline workers to understand aboriginal people and the issues and barriers we face, and it provides an opportunity for the aboriginal people to better understand frontline workers’ culture. They’re very different cultures … We still have a long way to go for reconciliation to happen.”

The canoe is an appropriate and symbolic vessel to help foster this reconciliation, explained Bennett. “Everyone has to pull together to get from one point to the next,” she said. “You really start to appreciate each other, and you start taking away a lot of those barriers between you when you have to work together.”

Each “canoe family,” which carries a minimum of eight pullers and a skip, holds members of a particular region’s indigenous community, along with that region’s neighbouring public service agencies. Most of the boats used for the journey are modern variations of traditional aboriginal canoe designs.

The annual event changes course and location each year in order to introduce the initiative to different groups and communities.

“There’s a core group of canoes that have been a part of every journey, but there are normally a few more canoes from each region,” said Bennett. “The communities will go out and purchase a canoes and take part in every year after that. We’re running a smaller size this year because of the remoteness of the journey.”

Bennett said formally structured discussions between aboriginal and public servant participants are eschewed in favour of the more harmonious, unplanned bonding experiences that often occur throughout the trip. “We find that the most beautiful moments of reconciliation happen organically,” she said, offering simple examples like sharing a meal, or standing in the shade together to beat the heat.

The journey also includes a talent night, in order to familiarize participants with the many cultures present not only within the province, but also within their canoes.

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