On the surface it is a stunningly crafted traditional Coast Salish cedar canoe, but Chemainus Secondary School alumni John Marston’s gift to his former school also has deeper meanings.
“The canoe comes with so many teachings and carving the canoe I learnt this very quickly,” Marston said told students, teachers, elders and community members who gathered at Kinsmen Beach Thursday morning to see it carried into the sea.
“There’s a spirit that grows in every tree, in every cedar. It’s our medicine for our soul and for our people. And when we begin creating something that will take us safely on the water you become connected with that and you have to nurture that…”
The project began two years ago when Marston and friend George Seymour, now a language teacher with the Cowichan Valley School District, embarked on carving a totem for the school.
However, when funding for the project fell through they embarked on a different path.
“My relative actually changed that cedar tree’s life. From a pole it turned into a beautiful canoe,” Seymour said. “He decorated the inside and outside and this is a canoe from the past that he brought back forward for us to see.”
Marston’s design is a smaller version of a canoe used by Coast Salish ancestors for transporting goods as well as travel at sea.
Otter Point Timbers Mike Steeves said he jumped at the chance to donate a log to assist Marston and Seymour, also a former employee.
“I’ve been interested in and appreciated First Nations art ever since I was in high school,” he said. “It’s great that it involved the school too and getting the kids to appreciate the history and the art form – it’s an elegant design and unique in the world.”
As the dugout canoe took shape Chemainus students were given a rare opportunity to watch right outside their school as the artist used the traditional method of expanding the cedar log using hot rocks.
Principal Sian Peterson said the school community was grateful to have Marston share his teachings.
“When it first started we did canoe themes in the classes and it’s a natural integration of Aboriginal content for us so today seeing it come to this point is extremely gratifying for us as a school and for all the people that have been involved,” she said.
Marston said the goal he and Seymour set out to accomplish was to bring some “public representation of our culture to the school so that when people came to the school they would know they’re on Coast Salish territory.”
“This is extremely important for all of us to understand that the land that we all live (on) here today is Coast Salish territory, it’s traditional territory and it has been for thousands of years,” he said.
“This wouldn’t have happened without everyone and their participation and their love for our culture and our ways.”