Matthew Sheena is paddling down the west coast of Vancouver Island this week with 100 other aboriginal youth. Their travelling companions are members of the Vancouver Police Dept., the RCMP and other front-line enforcers – people who inspired Mr. Sheena to trade in his high-risk lifestyle for a chance to don a uniform.
Mr. Sheena, 21, is a veteran of these annual journeys. It is his seventh time out with Pulling Together, an annual trip organized by first nations and British Columbia police forces, including RCMP and fisheries officers.
The relationship between police and B.C.'s first nations is often uneasy, a result of clashes over fisheries resources and the disproportionate numbers of native people who end up in the justice system.
The enforcement of federal rules about what native fishermen can and cannot do with salmon they catch for food and ceremonial purposes has particularly stirred resentment. So when Mr. Sheena stood up in a longhouse ceremony last summer and announced his intent to become a fisheries officer, the young member of the Upper Nicola band from the Okanagan Nation was beating an unusual path.
Mr. Sheena, who now lives in the Renfrew-Collingwood area of Vancouver, said he sees his calling as a mediator between the two worlds.
"The first step is getting aboriginal youth like me interested in understanding that they [police and conservation officers] are not the enemy," he said. "It hurts me to see aboriginal youth rebelling the way they do. There is a lot of misunderstanding, a lot of bad history. I see that and I want to change that. I want to start closing the gap, to be the mediator."
He has returned to school to pick up the high school credits he needs to get into a college program that will prepare him for a career in the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
It's not a path he could have imagined when he first climbed into a canoe, an unhappy and untrusting 14-year-old. "It was a very dark time for me," he recalled without elaborating.
His mother first coaxed him out on the water to take part in a traditional first nations canoeing trip. Recognizing her son's need for a positive outlet, she helped organize the Renfrew Collingwood Aboriginal Youth Canoe Club in Vancouver, a youth-led program that offers opportunities to participate in traditional canoeing practices.
"The first real trip I ever took, it was hell, it was a 10-hour pull," he recalled. "We ended up at Stanley Park, my mom's favourite place in the world. Then I realized – wow – I got here myself. My arm power, and the power of the other paddlers."
This year, he is paddling with his Collingwood team in the club's canoe, the Soaring Eagle. He's on the water with kids from Tsawwassen, Semiahmoo, Tsleil-Waututh, Musqueam, even youth who have travelled from Alberta for the event.
The Pulling Together canoe journeys began in 2001 to build relationships between police and first nations. This year, 19 canoes that carry 13 people each are making the eight-day journey, visiting remote native villages between Tofino and Port Alberni.
It is also a chance for urban aboriginal youth to be immersed in native culture.
Jason Knight is a Vancouver Island fisheries officer who helped plan this year's event. He was drawn into the orbit of Pulling Together three years ago, after spending some time with a group of aboriginal youth.
"Listening to the kids talking about the adversity they face – not a lot of hope for employment, not having a lot of options to move forward – as a parent, it struck a chord," he said. "It made me want to pack some of them up and take them home."
For him, the journey is about offering positive role models to youth – first nations or otherwise, all are welcome to test themselves. They'll cover 105 nautical miles, much of it on open ocean waters. They'll work side-by-side with officers preparing meals and setting up tents. "All that uniform, all that enforcement facade, drifts away," Mr. Knight said.
One latecomer to this year's trip was a young woman who signed up at the urging of her parents after she had a few run-ins with fisheries officials. She's travelling with DFO officers.
"The whole idea is to get people to experience and build relationships through different cultures and communities," Mr. Knight said. "When I took that first group, some of the kids didn't know any songs or dances, there is that cultural gap." One of those youth he later spotted dancing in front of her community – she had connected. "Sometimes it is those little changes. If you can help one child, it makes it all worthwhile."
Mr. Sheena bonded on his second journey with another youth who won't make it this time out. His friend was killed at the age of 18, a victim of youth violence. "He didn't start on the right path, but he was making his way there," he said. "He was very abrasive at times but he was ours, he was a good soul."
He credits his time on the water with helping him clean up his own act. "If you put paddles in youths' hands, you'll have no hands to smoke, no hands to drink."