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Travel B.C.: Travellers were ‘in tears because they had no idea what happened to our people’

"Let’s bring lunch to some friends of mine,” Gordie Graham, the tall, gruff, grey-haired owner of Telegraph Cove Resort, says as he carries a fishing pole, a stick and his tiny dog, Sally, down a steep metal ramp to a waiting boat. The forecast had predicted 11 degrees and drizzle, but there’s warm sunlight on my face as we pull away from the cove and cruise along the shore, my hair blowing furiously in the wind.

The boat slows down and Graham readies his fishing rod as I spy bald eagles landing in the trees above us. “They know,” he says, our boat drifting as he dangles his line in the water, then, almost immediately, reels in a fish, knocks it out and tosses it in a clean curve toward the water. Just as immediately, one of these friends of his, the bald eagles, which have played this game before, swoops down to seize the fish in its talons, then soars away to enjoy its freshly delivered lunch. “A woman said to me once, ‘You’re going to make those eagles dependent on you,’” Graham says. “I said, ‘You don’t know what a crappy fisherman I am.’”

Kat Tancock

The British Columbia coast is renowned for its wildlife and wild places, and for good reason. The densely forested mountains, deep fjords and places in between are just as spectacular on sunny, blue-skied mornings as on grey, drizzly afternoons when the tops of the trees seem to melt into the bottom of the clouds. On my journey from the towns of Telegraph Cove and Port Hardy on northern Vancouver Island to Prince Rupert at the edge of the Alaska panhandle, I hike past black bears, kayak among seals, boat alongside pods of dolphins, and hear and see a humpback whale as it blows, then dives for food.

But it’s the people I meet along the way that truly make the trip memorable.

Take Mike Willie, the soft-spoken yet talkative owner of tour company Sea Wolf Adventures and a member of the Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw nation, a group of four of the 18 tribes of the Kwakwaka’wakw people, the speakers of the Kwak’wala language, whose territory centres on northeastern Vancouver Island and the northern B.C. coast.

I had first met Willie a year earlier in Victoria, at the opening of the Royal B.C. Museum’s Our Living Languages exhibit on the province’s huge diversity of First Nations languages, which runs through to June, 2017. Then, he was in his role as champion of indigenous language revitalization, the work of facilitating the use of First Nations languages by their communities and, especially, of teaching them to their children. But today, he has on his tourism hat – literally, as he’s wearing a Sea Wolf ball cap – as he picks up our group at Telegraph Cove to give us a sample of the cultural tours his company offers to visitors.

Of course, the two roles are strongly connected, although they might fall under separate columns on a government spreadsheet. As an educator in his community, Willie realized two things. First, learning the language isn’t just about grammar and vocabulary – it requires pride in speaking the ancestral tongue, something many elders (the majority of fluent speakers) had lost as part of the legacy of the residential school system, and the community had yet to regain. Second, a new source of revenue is needed for education and cultural programs beyond government funding. “I started the business to try to turn the revenues into opportunities for our elders to get back out there on the land,” Willie told me in Victoria. “It’s about reconnecting the youth to the land base instead of being stuck on our little reserves that the government laid out for us. We need to get connected to our ancestors’ homelands.”

What this means for tourists is exposure both to hard historical truths and to lighter ways of everyday being. Tours with Sea Wolf can be customized and might include a traditional salmon barbecue, dance performances by local children or wildlife viewing. Today, though, we’re focused on history, and once we dock in Alert Bay, we head straight for the U’mista Cultural Centre, run by a society whose mandate is “to ensure the survival of all aspects of the cultural heritage of the Kwakwaka’wakw.” The centre’s main exhibit is a collection of carved masks and ceremonial objects that had been confiscated as part of anti-potlatch persecution in the 1920s and taken to museums in Canada, the United States and England. While artifacts from institutions such as the Royal Ontario Museum and the Smithsonian Institution have been repatriated (in 1988 and 2002, respectively), many are still missing.

Outside, there’s a huge empty space where Alert Bay’s St. Michael’s Indian Residential School once stood, housing about 200 students from as far as Prince Rupert and Campbell River. Its very recent demolition was a difficult decision in a community split between those who wanted the building gone and those who, like Willie and his brother K’odi Nelson, thought it was an important educational tool. “We literally had travellers in tears because they had no idea what happened to our people,” Willie says.

Even for those who are aware of the legacy of the residential school system, the histories and photos on display bring out strong emotions, as do the stories Willie and Nelson share of the burdens their own parents carry from their time at St. Michael’s – although many of their tales are positive, examples of the resilience First Nations communities have displayed through these challenging past few centuries. The most obvious example is Sea Wolf itself, and its model of low-impact, respectful aboriginal tourism aimed at bringing in income to provide opportunities for the community. “That’s what it is like for me – being independent,” says Willie. “To go back prior to that 1950 mark, and everybody’s working.”

We experience another model of sustainable tourism in Prince Rupert, the day after a 16-hour ferry ride northward through the spectacular scenery of the Inside Passage. Like travelling in a bygone age, the route is almost entirely free of either WiFi or cell service, so we fill the time with sunbathing, dining (including an outdoor lunchtime barbecue), gigabytes of photo ops and many games of cribbage.

The next day, our bright yellow boat with Prince Rupert Adventure Tours might be smaller, but it’s no less comfortable. As we journey toward the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary, a provincial park established in 1994 to help protect grizzly bear habitat, staff take lunch orders and explain bear etiquette: No food on deck, no loud noise and no flashes are allowed.

Though the breeze is cool, the sky is a brilliant blue – not typical weather here in the rainiest part of the country – and the snowy peaks of the Coast Mountains before us jut into the sky. The first grizzly we spot is a little distant, but the second is easier to see, a blond with big ears munching on huge clumps of protein-rich sedge grass, the bulk of the bears’ diet this time of year. The third, a darker-coloured grizzly, is wandering along a sandbar, digging for clams, swatting flies and occasionally plopping down for a rest.

En route back to Prince Rupert, I go up to the bridge for a chat with owner Doug Davis. While he enjoys watching the grizzlies – and has an iPad full of impressive photography to prove it – it’s whale-watching season he enjoys the most, which conveniently begins just as the bears head upriver and out of sight to feast on salmon. “Everyone wants to see the orcas, but it’s the humpbacks that are remarkable,” he says, explaining how groups of the whales will work together to trap fish through a method called bubble-netting. At peak season, he adds, there might be more than 70 humpbacks at a time in the area.

That said, we’re focused on the grizzlies right now, and the fact that today, with its multiple sightings, was a light day bodes well for anyone who joins Davis and his team on a tour. “Next year’s going to be a bumper year for cubs” because of all the mating behaviour they’ve been spotting this year. By protecting the bears, letting them live their lives as undisturbed as possible, viewing opportunities – and the revenue that comes with them – are maximized. “It’s a bear’s world up there,” Davis says, “and we get to witness it – that’s what’s really special.”

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