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In the same boat: canoe journey pulls together officers and aboriginal youth

Chantelle Desjarlais seen here in Bamfield July 6, 2011.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Chantelle Desjarlais gives a regal wave as she arrives in Bamfield, a tiny village perched on the west coast of Vancouver Island. After a choppy 12-hour crossing of Barkley Sound in a canoe, the 19-year-old member of the Penticton Indian Band has a 1,000-watt smile for the welcoming crowd assembled at the dock.

Her canoe was part of a flotilla that slipped into Bamfield Inlet under a darkening sky. The paddlers, about 250 in all, were blessed with a cloud of eagle down feathers before they climbed ashore. They are law enforcement officers and aboriginal youth and elders who spent the week camping, cooking and paddling together in rain, fog and brilliant sunshine on the edge of the Pacific Ocean.

Pulling Together is the brainchild of Ed Hill, a now-retired RCMP officer who set out to improve the often adversarial relationships between law enforcement and first nations.

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"The very culture that we," he said, tapping his chest, "tried to kill is the same culture that's bringing us back together. If that's not magic, it's a damned powerful culture."

The 11th annual Pulling Together journey left Tofino on July 2 and landed Friday in Port Alberni. The 185-kilometre trip, much of it on the open Pacific, proved to be the toughest yet.

Ms. Desjarlais took part in her first Pulling Together journey when she was 14 years old. She was part of a group of teens who had volunteered for disaster relief work and housing construction projects. They were turned down because of their age. They showed up for the paddle - though they had no canoe, no support crew. "This one canoe journey changed everything," she said.

They returned to their Okanagan community with a mission. The next year they were back with their own organization - the Kwu Sukwna'qinx Canoe Family - and their own vessel. This is Ms. Desjarlais's fifth year with Pulling Together.

While B.C. first nations students struggle with high dropout rates, every member of her original crew has graduated from high school. Several are now attending college. "They know how to better themselves," she said, thanks to their self-imposed discipline. The crew must be clean and sober, they have to stay in school and keep up their grades.

But this journey was especially challenging.

Sitting on a beach overlooking the Pachena River, Boyd Pearson was pensive as he watched the water flow by. The RCMP officer from Port Alberni, a Métis, took on the logistics job this year, responsible for safely moving the paddlers and their support crew along this rugged coastline.

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Further down the beach lay a smashed cedar dugout canoe, a mute reminder that these are unforgiving waters.

As the afternoon winds whipped up on Tuesday, the waters turned threatening. The paddlers were transferred to support vessels, their canoes towed to the shelter of Bamfield Inlet. Only then, five hours' late for a community feast, could they climb back in their canoes to wrap up the day's journey.

Constable Pearson volunteered in the hope that his community would establish its own canoe family, revitalizing the local Nuu-chah-nulth people's seagoing traditions. Despite the day's setback, he was optimistic. Tossing native youth into canoes with a bunch of cops has proven, over these 11 years, to be a formula for positive change. "It breaks down barriers," he said. "I don't wear my uniform, it lets them forget I'm a cop."

The paddlers are also immersed in first nations traditions. A planned lunch break in the Broken Group Islands was derailed because of weather. An inviting beach on Nettle Island was spotted. But Wes Nahanee, the journey's protocol adviser, insisted they could not land without a formal invitation from the Tseshaht people. Even as the swells whipped up, the flotilla was left bobbing in the waves until a Tseshaht elder could formally welcome them.

B.C.'s Lieutenant-Governor Steven Point, a paddler on the Sturgeon Warrior canoe, was among the crew who gratefully landed on the beach. Kicking off his lime-green All Star sneakers, he dug his bare feet into the sand and soaked up the sunshine.

As a lawyer from the Sto:lo Nation, Mr. Point had frequently defended aboriginals facing fisheries charges. Now he was paddling with his onetime courtroom adversaries, enforcement officers from the DFO.

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"There is such a distance between our communities. The only time you see officers come on to our communities is when they have to do their job. And that's not a very good basis for a relationship, just to see the officers when they have to come in and arrest somebody or enforce fisheries regulations," he said.

"Sometimes we take ourselves too seriously in our uniforms, and we forget these are just kids. So this activity here tends to humanize us - I like that a lot."

When Katherine Hamilton was invited to join the Pulling Together journey this summer, she wasn't enthusiastic. "I'm not going to go on this stupid thing," she told her parents.

The first nations youth from Port Alberni had just been busted for illegal fishing by a DFO officer on Sprout River. The next day her parents got a call from the department, suggesting the 16-year-old join them on a paddle.

Ms. Hamilton is, by her father's account, a stellar fisherman. He saw a chance for her to learn why protecting the fisheries is a good thing.

Sitting outside her tent on Wednesday morning, Ms. Hamilton was walking on air. She spent half a day in a canoe with the Lieutenant-Governor, and coaxed him into making up a song for the canoe. "He said I'm either going to be Prime Minister one day - or B.C.'s most wanted," she said.

She is heading back to school in the fall with a new purpose. "I'm going to keep my doors open. I'm thinking about joining the DFO. Once you get to know them, they're pretty cool."

Back at the Pachena Bay campsite, Vancouver Police Sergeant Walter Argent was in charge of feeding a small army. He keeps coming back - this is his sixth year with Pulling Together - because he has watched surly teens transform here, time and again, as they are challenged to shoulder responsibility. "We're not going to save the world, but if you can change one or two - that's why I'm here," he said.

At a feast in the Huu-ay-aht First Nations longhouse late on Tuesday, the founder Mr. Hill was mulling a tough decision. On Wednesday morning, with two days of paddling still ahead, he assembled the entire group on the beach at the campground.

"We've literally burnt out our support vessels," he said. "We have demonstrated as a fleet we have no conviction to time." The crew would have to have oars in the water by 6 a.m. to beat the afternoon winds, forecast to hit 35 kilometres per hour. "You haven't proven you can do that," he said. "We are finished."

Absorbing the blow, the crew pulled together to invite their host community for dinner at the campground, while the canoes were loaded on to trailers to be transported to a point near the end of the journey. On Friday, the crew was back in the water, dressed in their Sunday best - traditional native regalia or full dress uniforms - for their final paddle into Port Alberni.

Ms. Desjarlais expects she'll be back for the next Pulling Together journey in 2012. Her life is at a crossroads now - she must decide if she will leave her family to pursue a postsecondary education. But she is certain about one thing: "I want to canoe for the rest of my life."

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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