Last weekend, I stood in the centre of a crowded longhouse drumming and singing with Indigenous leaders, community members and Premier John Horgan. It was one of the most authentic experiences I’ve ever had. It demonstrated what real partnership looks like.
It was during a Tribal Journeys event, one that Horgan paddled to in a T’Sou-ke Nation canoe.
Tribal Journeys is an annual event spanning a few weeks in July, and First Nations from across the Pacific Northwest participate together. First Nations canoe down the coast on the traditional highways of their ancestors and stop at each Nation along the way. The paddlers follow cultural protocols by asking permission to come ashore. The host Nation offers a meal, camping and an evening filled with traditional songs and dances. In the morning, the canoes paddle to the next Nation.
This year the final destination is Lummi Nation in Washington and 100 canoes are expected to land.
It’s very common for paddlers in Tribal Journeys to make their own paddle.
Last fall, Horgan was gifted a 10-foot red cedar plank from Chief Jeff Jones of Pacheedaht Nation. It was that special piece of wood that Horgan turned into a paddle with the help of T’Sou-ke Nation Chief Gordon Planes and Songhees carver John Warren who works at T’Sou-ke Nation.
“John did most of the work, and I did a lot of sanding,” Horgan said.
Every Saturday for several weeks Horgan worked on the paddle with Planes and Warren at T’Sou-ke Nation.
“It was good to just sit and talk. It felt like a couple of friends sitting and talking,” Horgan said.
We are all busy and everyone’s weekends are full of errands, commitments and recreation. Our premier found time every Saturday to work on his paddle. This demonstrates commitment and a true authentic willingness to learn and understand.
I spoke with Horgan the day before his Tribal Journeys paddle, and he said he was nervous because he wanted to make sure he could keep up with the other paddlers and he didn’t want to let anyone down. Hearing that made me feel a lot of respect for him as a leader who wanted to ensure he was a contributing member of the canoe.
Horgan was only able to paddle for one day and he joined T’Sou-ke, Ahousaht, Tseshaht, and Ka:’yu:’k’t’h Nations at the beach at Siaosun Village at T’Sou-ke Nation.
T’Sou-ke Elder Shirley Alphonse blessed each canoe before they left. Alphonse also holds the role of the Elder to the Premier in which she greets people at the legislature, smudges offers the premier and his colleagues guidance on traditional practices.
I have never heard of another premier who has called upon an Elder to assist them and it speaks volumes to me.
“It means a lot to me and my community that John has joined us to paddle,” said Chief Gordon Planes. “It’s really amazing how we can all come together when we try. John is a part of the family.”
When the canoes arrived in Beecher Bay, Chief Russ Chipps granted the paddlers to come ashore.
That evening all of the paddlers and their families and friends gathered in the longhouse for a meal and an evening of sharing traditional songs.
Horgan was honoured by Beecher Bay First Nation and he stood and sang with them, he even brought his own drum.
“It’s simple, we shared food, song and dance and that’s good medicine,” said Chipps. “John is not standing behind us, he’s not standing in front of us, he stands with us.”
The entire day was very moving to me. I saw our premier actively participating in various cultural events and he tried his best and acted with humility. If you’ve ever spent any time in Indigenous communities, humility is a very valued teaching.
I admired Horgan’s willingness to step out of his comfort zone and immerse himself into other cultures. I meet a lot of people who want to partner with First Nations but are too nervous to go to a Nation and introduce themselves; they are nervous about making mistakes or navigating unfamiliar cultures. Horgan demonstrated to everyone in our province that it can be done, and it can be done well.
“I am grateful to Gordie and to Russ for welcoming me into their communities and including me and teaching me,” said Horgan.
“I’ve been fortunate to build these relationships.”
Charla Huber is the director of communications and Indigenous relations for the M’akola Housing Society and M°Øakola Development Services.