Members of the Squamish and Musqueam Nations are celebrating the launch of three canoes to race in the war canoe circuit — two of them newly built cedar strip canoes, and one decades-old refurbished dugout.
The new vessels were unveiled at a ceremony in Vancouver on Thursday, with speeches, food, and a brief voyage in one of the canoes around False Creek.
“It’s a big day in my life. It’s a day I’ll never forget,” said Mike Billy Sr., a seventh-generation canoe builder who has the hereditary Squamish name, Lemxacha Siyam.
Billy helped lead the project, called the Canoe Cultures program, which is funded with grants from the federal, provincial and municipal governments and supported by developer Concord Pacific.
The cedar strip canoes will be used by Squamish Nation pulling crews, one based in North Vancouver that includes Billy’s son, Michael Billy Jr., and one in Squamish.
The dugout canoe is about 70 years old, and was restored as part of the program under the leadership of Musqueam canoe carver Dickie Louis. It will be used by a Musqueam team.
“It’s a big deal, yeah, for the clubs that are getting them. Our club is very excited. We could never afford something like this, and the time that it takes to make one of these, it was all gifted to us,” said Billy Sr.
“I started paddling as far back as I can remember, and my kids will tell you the same things. Their earliest memories are in a canoe,” he said.
Billy Jr. confirmed his father’s comments, saying he has been involved in paddling canoes and building them his whole life.
“Every crew would love to have a new canoe,” said Billy Jr. “It’s not just a canoe to us, it’s something that has a soul, something that has a life, something that you have to take care of and nourish.”
Billy Jr., who has the hereditary name Stolta.ken, looks forward to racing the new canoe on the war canoe racing circuit, which includes First Nations as far south as Seattle, along southern Vancouver Island, in the Fraser Valley, and up to Squamish.
He said the traditional war canoe races evolved from a culture of vying for the best spots to fish, and turned into a sport sometime in the 18th or 19th centuries. During the potlatch ban and other restrictions on First Nations social gatherings, war canoe races served as a way to get together with other nations.
“It is competition, but it is also very good medicine for your soul,” said Billy Jr. of the races, which take place at the host nations around the Salish Sea throughout the summer.
Billy Jr. said the cedar strip canoes were carefully made without nail holes in the upper strips to give them a more refined look, but the canoes were bound to get marred by use in the races.
“Eventually it is going to get beaten up. It is called war canoeing. Eventually we’ll have to battle with it,” he said.
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