'The border is not our border': Tribal canoe trip to B.C. navigates tradition and history

Julian Brave NoiseCat, a recipient of the 2017 CJF-CBC Indigenous Journalism Fellowships, files his second dispatch from the annual Tribal Canoe Journey paddling trip, as delegations arrive in Esquimalt Harbour in British Columbia.
A canoe representing the tribal community of Queets, Washington, arrives in Esquimalt Harbour on July 25. (Julian Brave NoiseCat)

Julian Brave NoiseCat (Secwepemc/St'at'imc) is one of two recipients of the 2017 CJF-CBC Indigenous Journalism Fellowships, established to encourage Indigenous voices and better understanding of Indigenous issues in Canada's major media and community outlets. He is reporting on the annual Tribal Canoe Journey paddle to Campbell River, B.C., with generous support from the fellowship. Read his first dispatch here.

Esquimalt Harbour, B.C., July 25 — Five canoes representing the Jamestown S'Klallam, Queets, Quileute and Quinault tribes departed Washington state, crossing the treacherous Strait of Juan de Fuca for Vancouver Island. Eight more canoes from the west coast of Vancouver Island arrived with them in Esquimalt Harbour on Tuesday, July 25.

These 13 vessels are just a fraction of the canoes that will set out from ports as far north as Lax-Kw'alaams in British Columbia and as far south as the Quinault Nation in Washington on the annual Tribal Canoe Journey.

All the canoes — over 100 of them from dozens of communities — will converge at Campbell River, halfway up the east side of Vancouver Island, from Aug. 5 to 10 for a week of potlatch singing, dancing, feasting and giveaways.

In theory and by law, Indigenous Peoples from the United States and Canada can cross the international border freely under the terms of the 1795 Jay Treaty. In practice, it's usually more complicated. In years past, the Canada Border Services Agency checked pullers' passports and tribal identification cards as their vessels crossed the international boundary.

This year, however, the CBSA allowed canoes to cross without scrutiny — though when asked, they declined to explain why, stating that they "do not speak about specific organizations, events or individuals."

"Nothing happened," said Cathy MacGregor, an elder from the Jamestown Sk'lallam, of crossing the border in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, "except the whales, the humpback whales … one whale came around our support boat and our canoe and was showing its side. We could see the barnacles on the fins."

A delegation from the Esquimalt and Songhees First Nations greets canoes as they enter Esquimalt Harbour. (Julian Brave NoiseCat)

'Our people never forget'

After the whale sighting somewhere near the U.S.-Canada border, the Jamestown Sk'lallam and 12 other canoes gladly greeted a sovereign authority other than the CBSA — the Esquimalt First Nation.

"The [Canada-U.S.] border is not our border," Andy Thomas, hereditary chief of the Esquimault First Nation, told me as he welcomed canoes into his territory. "We try to make sure that our people never forget."

A young girl playing on the dock pauses to watch the canoes arrive in Esquimalt Harbour on July 25. (Julian Brave NoiseCat)

The Lekwungen-speaking Esquimalt and Songhees First Nations' reserve lands encircle the ethereal Plumper Bay, which lies just west of Victoria and abuts the Canadian Forces Pacific Coast naval base. From where Thomas stood on his homelands, the rocky white caps of the Olympic Mountains shone bright and resolute across the strait.

As canoes pulled into the bay around noon, they didn't just approach Canadian soil — they also crossed into Esquimalt and Songhees territories protected by treaties signed in 1850 between ancestors of the Esquimalt and Songhees First Nations and James Douglas, the first governor of the Colony of Vancouver Island.

Thomas of the Esquimault First Nation and his Songhees cousin, Elmer George — one of the last remaining fluent Lekwungen speakers — waited dockside to welcome the canoes and pullers to their sovereign territories.

As each canoe approached, they put their paddles up, tips pointed to the sky, signalling that they come in peace. In each canoe, one crew member stood carefully. In a short oration, they asked their hosts' permission to come ashore.

George responded, welcoming each canoe family in the first language of these territories.

"We are the Esquimalt Nation," Thomas translated. "We want to welcome you ashore to share a table with our families here."

A crew member stands in the canoe, asking the Esquimalt First Nation's delegation permission to come ashore. (Julian Brave NoiseCat)

Do not step in the water

Over the course of about three hours, Thomas and George received canoes from Ahousat, Hesquiaht, Jamestown Sk'lallam Lower Elwha Klallam, Malahat, Nanoose, Queets, Quileute, Quinault and Scia'new.

Each time, they had to relay an important message to the canoe before it docked: Do not step in the water or walk on the beach.

A barge belonging to Vancouver Pile Driving, a marine construction company, ran aground here in May 2016, spilling 30,000 litres of diesel into Esquimalt Bay — one of the largest spills on the west coast of Canada in decades.

The company is monitoring the situation until 2018 because the Esquimalt do not have the resources to do so. Vancouver Pile Driving did not respond to my request for comment.

Research has shown that diesel fuel spills are toxic to animals and humans, and correlated with cancer as well as immunological and reproductive disorders.

Fourteen months later, the water and beaches at Plumper Bay still aren't safe.

A canoe from the Jamestown Sk'lallam tribe crossed the Strait of Juan de Fuca along with four other canoes from the state of Washington on July 25. (Julian Brave NoiseCat)

In theory, the Esquimalt and Songhees First Nations hold unfettered rights to these waters. In practice, it's always more complicated. If they asserted their treaty rights by going into their waters or even onto their beach, they could be exposed to long-term and potentially life-threatening health effects.

"Somebody's got to clean it up pretty soon, and we're going to make sure that they do," Thomas said. "We need to protect our treaty and get it back into standing."

Their survival as nations and as people depends on it.