It’s a rare sunny Saturday afternoon in March, and the water is calm at the North Van Canoe Club. Mike Billy opens the canoe shed, and people start to arrive for practice.
Every day at 5 p.m., from March until August, people from and around the Squamish First Nation come here to train for the war canoe races held on the coast of British Columbia and Washington every summer.
“C’mon, it’s getting dark soon,” says Mike, who is in his late 40s. He carries a one-man canoe from the shed down the concrete boat ramp into the water. His sweatpants are tucked into black water boots, and he’s wearing a white wool toque and a T-shirt.
Mike is struggling to keep Squamish canoe culture alive, because he believes paddling is a crucial part of the nation’s history and culture. He learned how to paddle from his father, who learned it from his father, and so on, since the sport began in the 1870s.
However, the popularity of canoe racing has dropped substantially in the last 30 years. When Mike first started in 1979, there were sometimes 32, 11-man canoes competing. At races today, there are 10, 11-man canoes at the most.
“I miss the days when there were a lot of canoes,” he says. “I miss the competitive part of it. When I first realized it went so low, I start to wonder, ‘Does it matter? If there’s nobody there to race against, does it really matter?’ It used to hurt me.”
But he decided it does matter.
So every day at 5 p.m., since the canoe shed was built in 1982, he unlocks the chain gate, lifts the garage door and slides canoes off their shelves. Since he works as a contract carpenter, his work schedule is flexible.
“My dad is here every day,” says Cathrine Billy, who is 23. “Even if there is a funeral. He might not stay, but he comes and opens the shed.” This is her third time out this year. After taking a three-year break from paddling, she has started coming to practice again.
Only the most committed paddlers start training in March, when the air is crisp, the water icy and the sky is dark by 6:30.
For the last five years, most of the early trainers have been under 25 years old.
Twenty-three people showed up to the first practice on March 1, but since then, an average of eight people come out each night.
Tonight all three of Mike’s children—Cathrine, Mike Jr. and Reeva—have shown up, along with three teenaged brothers, nicknamed “the Burrard Boys,” and Wynonna Point, 24, who is new to paddling.
Mike’s children were raised on the water. “I can’t even remember the first time I was in a canoe. I’ve been doing it since I was so young,” says Reeva, a tall, soft-spoken 14-year-old.
Even as a baby she joined her father. They would go to a shallow area of Cultus Lake, where the water is calm, and he would hold her as she got used to the water.
While most of her canoe friends learned how to paddle when they were 13 or 14 years old, Reeva started paddling as soon as she could sit up. She began training more seriously at age nine, covering five kilometres a day.
“It’s not very typical for people to start as young as my brother and myself,” she says. “People often wonder, ‘How do you get your kids to keep their balance and keep their canoe straight?’ And my dad just says that we’ve been doing it for years.”
As she gets older, she finds it more difficult to find time to practice. School is a priority because she wants to get into the University of British Columbia’s competitive psychology program.
She currently attends Brockton Preparatory, a college preparatory school, which assigns heavy homework loads so students can enter university a year early.
Out on the water with the North Van Canoe club paddlers
Her brother Mike Jr., who is 12, doesn’t have to worry about college yet.
He began paddling even younger than Reeva. He paddled in a canoe on his own for the first time when he was five years old and acted as a skipper for a team of older teenagers when he was only eight.
After the race, an onlooker asked how long Mike Jr. had been skipping. It was his first time.
“[He] has a natural ability to do things that only a seasoned veteran would know,” says Mike.
A rare opportunity to gather
Historically, Coast Salish people used war canoes to defend their villages. The canoes were designed to be faster and lighter than attacking canoes from northern tribes.
Hundreds of years later, after European settlement, war canoe racing began. According to Damara Jacobs, who is curating a website about Coast Salish canoes for the UBC Museum of Anthropology, the races were a tourist attraction.
But the races also played an important cultural role. She says, when the Canadian government banned potlatch ceremonies from 1884 to 1951, many First Nations activities went “underground.” War canoe racing was still permitted though, because it was considered a sport.
During the ban, races were very important because they provided a rare opportunity for First Nations tribes to openly gather together.
Passed from generation to generation
In the early 1900s, Mike’s grandfather was the go-to-guy for a canoe in Squamish. He didn’t often paddle, because of his asthma and bronchitis, but he established himself as the nation’s canoe carver.
He passed the skill onto his son Cedric Billy, Mike’s father, who taught taught his own sons.
Mike’s native name, Lemchach, means canoe-builder. He says he remembers the first time his father introduced him to carving.
“He had three logs put in our front yard for each of his three sons. He brought us out front when we were of age and said, ‘I’ll show you this once and once only.’”
“Two of us got it. One still works on it,” Mike laughs.
He only carves when he feels happy, and since his father has been in the hospital for the last couple months, Mike has not picked up his knife.
Memories of paddling
Mike dad’s, Cedric, was an avid paddler until he tore ligaments in his shoulder in his early 30s. Today, he is in the hospital with a broken hip.
At age 76, he sits in a wheelchair in the common area at the Lion’s Gate Hospital. He looks wistful when he recounts his paddling days.
“I haven’t been to races in the last two years. I don’t know what’s going on now…[I’m] not too young anymore, you know. I wish I could bring those days back though. I can dream. I can look at pictures.”
He has not been to a practice or watched a race in the last two years. Not because he doesn’t want to, but he’s afraid it would be too painful.
“Oh yeah I miss races.” His voice becomes soft. “They used to even ask me just to go down there and coach them. I said I can’t do that– I’ll start crying. Too hard on me.”
Mike explains this is common for retired paddlers. They often yearn to be on the water, and watching other paddlers is a difficult reminder that they cannot be. Also, the drop in participation is tough for his dad, just as it is hard on him.
“I can’t understand it,” says Mike. “Everybody, they’re all missing out…when you’re out there touching Mother Earth and being part of it all, it’s like: Oh, I’m a king! I’m rich. And I wonder why other people don’t do it.”
The return to ocean-journey canoeing
One theory about the drop in war canoe racers is that more paddlers are returning to ocean-journey canoeing, which was revived internationally in 1986.
Ray Natraoro, 39, carves canoes and is also from the Squamish Nation. He is also from a canoe-carving family, and has a war canoe racing background.
He was trained to carve war canoes. But since he started carving on his own, he only has requests for ocean canoes.
“For a long time, there was only war canoe racing around,” he says. “I think there’s a bigger interest in sea-going canoes because it’s pretty new again.”
The growing trend doesn’t change Mike’s mind. He sees the value in the ocean journey but says he has no plans to go on one.
“I understand that ocean-going canoeing is a good thing and it’s a revival of our culture. And the songs that they sing and the potlatches they have are so beautiful. But for me, [war canoe racing] has been handed from father to father. That to me is the most precious thing that our people have. That we have always had.”