Pulling for success

Take a walk along Spirit Trail near Bewicke Park in Lower Lonsdale around 6 PM most week nights and you’ll probably see Kaylana and her friends, ages 5-14, out training on the water. They’re the Lil’ Geese or ḵ’émḵ’emay, part of the Squamish Nation’s North Vancouver Canoe Club youth squad.

This innovative war canoeing program for children and youth not only promotes a healthy lifestyle, fostering physical and emotional strength, it also teaches a powerful component of First Nations culture to the next generation.

“It’s a tradition. My mom and my auntie and my brother used to pull,” says 11-year-old Kaylana.

Igniting cultural spirit

“War canoeing is one of the aspects of…Coast Salish culture that remains untouched by colonization,” says Reeva Billy, canoe club crew and university student.

For Pacific Coast peoples like the Squamish, canoes are both an art form and a vital part of identity, one that was almost lost during the last century.

“When I was a little girl, I didn’t race. I started later in life,” says Heather Damien, an adult co-coach of the Lil’ Geese. Passing on the knowledge and skills of one the strongest cultural sports still alive in Squamish culture is very important for her and coach Mike Billy Sr., skipper Mike Jr. and support crew Donald Damien, her husband.

Mike Sr. has been canoe pulling since 1979. Then there were about 32 eleven-man canoes competing. At races today, at the most there are ten 11-man canoes.

“It is very demanding by today’s standards to train every day,” he says. But there’s nothing that gives him greater joy than watching new and upcoming paddlers, like Kaylana as well as his own children, Reeva and Mike Jr.

“They’re racing every weekend if we can make it,” Heather says. During the season, which starts mid- March and runs to Labour Day weekend, the kids get plenty of exercise, a chance to socialize and meet crews from other nations around the Pacific Northwest as well as spend time with family, both close and extended.

Grassroots organization hustling to make it

But getting to the races can be just as challenging as racing. Transporting children and canoes to races from Chilliwack to Vancouver Island and Washington State runs between $500 and $1,000.

“We have nothing,” says Heather. “Lil’ Geese parents [are] busting their butts to fundraise, but it takes a lot of energy and work to get that money coming in.” That takes the focus away from racing and from experiencing the benefits of Squamish culture.

Caring for kids

As part of United Way’s commitment to increasing public understanding of Aboriginal life and cultural awareness, and our new Local Love initiative in Lower Lonsdale, the canoe club received $5,000 to continue building out the program with a focus on recruiting 10 – 20 more children who are most vulnerable during the after-school hours of 3-6 PM and who will most benefit from a strong social support system.

“They feel safe and cared about. It’s a good structure for them,” Heather says. “They are fit by the end of the season and they are proud of that.”

“Local love means empowering residents to connect and build community in the ways that work for them,” says Ivy Staker, community engagement specialist at United Way.

“United Way funding paired with the passion and actions of local citizens makes our communities stronger and more inclusive, neighbourhood by neighbourhood.”

Local Love in action

Kids like Kaylana also get to see great role models like Reeva showing them what success looks like.

“It [canoe pulling] helped me with my mental well-being and keeping me busy when I was growing up,” Reeva says. “I know it does that for a lot of youth [today].”

An added benefit, Reeva shares her university experiences to inspire the youth crew to pursue higher education and a brighter future.

“United Way is committed to learning from the lessons of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” says Kim Winchell, United Way’s director of Social Impact. “We are proud to be working alongside the Squamish Nation supporting Indigenous young people with more opportunities to embrace and practice their culture.”

“United Way has been a peace of mind,” Heather says. “We’re really grateful all of us to have that.”

June 21 is National Indigenous People’s Day