By Conor Mihell
It had been decades since the coastal waters of British Columbia saw canoes like the ones that plied the Inside Passage in the summer of 1997. Aboriginal artist Roy Henry Vickers and Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) staff sergeant Ed Hill brought native people and corrections officers together for the 31-day VisionQuest journey from the interior town of Hazelton, B.C., down the Skeena River to the Pacific Ocean and south to Victoria. They paddled Pacific Northwest-style canoes—a mix of massive 40-footers replicated in modern composite materials and authentic cedar dugouts—and stopped in the long houses of coastal First Nations communities for potlatches and healing ceremonies.
“We had serious emotional talks about our past and generally had a life-altering journey,” says Hill. “I realized all the good work that had been done between police and First Nations because of those canoes. When we arrived in Victoria I thought, ‘This can’t be the last time we do this.’”
Hill recognized the expedition’s success in bridging cultural gaps and easing racial tensions through communication and fostering a sense of trust. For decades, government First Nations suppression strategies like residential schools and outlawing traditional gatherings like the potlatch were typically enforced by police officers. “When we were punishing them for speaking their language at residential schools, burning their artifacts and putting them in jail for potlatching, some of these traditions were kept alive behind our backs,” says Hill. “Through these journeys they’re trusting us with their culture and sharing it with us.”
In 2001, Hill organized a sequel to VisionQuest known as Pulling Together, which involved an expedition of three canoes paddled by police officers and native people on the Fraser River in southwestern B.C. Hill says the program was initially plagued by the usual tensions—some aboriginal people were perturbed by the idea of sharing canoes with cops while some non-native communities along the route did not want to host overnight gatherings.
Since then, however, the annual Pulling Together trips have become wildly popular. In early July, Hill and 250 to 300 “pullers” will paddle from Tofino to Port Alberni on the west coast of Vancouver Island. The eight-day trip will be supported by a ground crew of about 100 and involve social service workers, fisheries officers and members of the Canadian Navy. While the 15 to 20 Pacific Northwest-style canoes involved in this year’s journey are its most emblematic symbol, Hill insists that the significance is far greater. “The canoe is only one part of this beautiful First Nation culture,” he says. “It’s a vehicle that moves us from one place to another, but it also takes us on a cultural, spiritual and emotional journey.”
From the journals of past participants, it’s clear that Hill’s goals are being realized. “I was honored to receive an eagle feather today,” wrote one native paddler in 2005. “Tears poured down my cheek, instant smile. For once in my life I felt special… they gave me the feather because they know how much I’ve grown.”
Similarly, a white RCMP officer shared her experience in Women Police magazine: “As I sat around and looked around at our flotilla, people of all nations, young and old, were laughing, singing and relaxing together. Forgotten were the stigmas and burdens of society’s images of each of us. Cops and kids, Indians and white folk, it didn’t just matter anymore.”
For Hill, each Pulling Together trip is a chance to learn about the Pacific Northwest’s rich aboriginal history—an opportunity that’s supported by his fellow paddlers, ground crew and members of the communities where they stop and experience cultural traditions along the way. “The culture we tried to kill is the very culture we’re bringing back together again through these trips in these canoes,” says Hill. “That’s the magic.”