After a year of public health restrictions multiple First Nations from across the Salish Sea have returned to compete in traditional canoe races.
The races were held Saturday, July 31 and Sunday, August 1 by Snuneymuxw First Nation in Nanaimo. This was the third week of races so far this year, but the first for Snuneymuxw since 2019.
Race brackets included children 10 and under all the way up to adults. Several First Nations attended including Saanich, Esquimalt, Stz’uminus, Musqueam, Sto:lo, Malahat, Chehalis, Chilliwack, Brentwood Bay, Penelakut, Cowichan and Lake Cowichan among others.
Normally, the race season begins in early May and lasts until the end of August. Each Nation takes turns hosting race circuits throughout the season. Nations from the United States like Lummi and Tulalip also compete in the circuit, but due to the pandemic international travel is on hold.
Over the weekend, Snuneymuxw was buzzing with race day activities. Vendors set up along Shoreline Drive, visiting families camped near the beach, and residents cheered on canoe teams from their backyards, patios and balconies. Out on the water, teams competed to see who would be the first to reach the finish line.
Paul Wyse-Seward who organized the event on behalf of Snuneymuxw said it was great to get back to canoe racing after a year of hiatus.
“We love to see our relatives from afar. The biggest medicine is always coming together and seeing your family and friends that you can’t see on the daily,” Wyse-Seward said.
Snuneymuxw was supposed to host Tribal Journeys — an annual canoe journey that brings together Nations from California to Alaska — in the summer of 2020. However, the pandemic forced them to cancel. In light of that, Wyse-Seward says it makes seeing the canoe races in Snuneymuxw all the more special.
“It’s amazing. It’s emotional for me to look and see our beaches filled with relatives. It doesn’t cost anything to give a smile. You can’t put a price to that,” he said.
Wyse-Seward’s family has been organizing the races in Snuneymuxw for generations. His grandfather, Bill Seward and his mother Mavis Wyse organized the races before Paul. He grew up around the canoe races and has been out on the water with his family since he was a baby.
“My first race I was maybe eight or 10 years old. But the first time I was in a canoe I was a newborn. My grandfather wrapped me in a blanket and put me in behind him when they were training. I’ve been on the water all my life,” he said.
Wyse-Seward thanked DBL Disposal Services, Kwumut Lelum, Island Braves and the Warpath Canoe Club for sponsoring the event. He also thanked each Nation that attended the races.
Stz’uminus First Nation Chief Roxanne Harris has been paddling with a club in Nanaimo for the past couple of weeks and has competed in canoe racing for over a decade. Harris says getting back on the water has been spectacular.
“It feels like a sense of normalcy back in my life. It feels good to be back with our canoe families and travel together,” she said.
Harris and her team practice every night from Monday to Thursday, then they travel on Fridays before competition starts on the weekend. She says it helps keep her in shape and provides balance from her busy job.
The canoe races are more than a great way to stay and shape while spending time with friends and family. For many First Nations along the coast, canoe racing is a tradition that goes back over 100 years.
“The Salish Sea was our highway back in the day. We still honour and respect it. We hold our water sacred — not only the saltwater but the rivers, creeks and lakes. They’re all connected,” Stz’uminus Elder George Harris said.
Harris is happy to see the tradition carry on with younger generations. Over his lifetime, Harris has raced with 34 canoe teams. Harris says that the most important aspect of the races is passing on traditional teachings to the youth.
“It makes me happy… this is a sacred inheritance from our ancestors. It’s being on the land and connecting to the water as our ancestors did.”