Toronto Star, August 1 2015: The dolphins are on their way to lunch. We’re near the top eastern tip of Vancouver Island when our boat is surrounded by dolphins in a hurry to get to some herring at the end of the inlet. I start counting them, as we’d done with the six orcas the day before, but I give up when I see there are as many dolphins as there are whitecaps on a windy day.
“Coming through the islands never ever gets old,” says our guide, Mike Willie, grinning from the back of the boat as we watch the dolphins dart all around us. It doesn’t take long to figure out that people are in the minority around here. You spend hours on boats or in the rain forest without seeing any other trace of humanity, but you sure see a lot of life.
Just look up to see an eagle, or 10. Count three black bears on one hike. Throw in a handful of humpback whales, a smattering of seals and a few people happy to show off their corner of the world and you’re pretty much guaranteed to leave with a whole new view of “nature.”
“The ocean is our grocery story and the forest is our pantry,” Willie says as our boat stops to find three big crabs crawling around inside a crab pot. Willie, a member of the Musgamakw Dzawada‘enuxw First Nation, was born in nearby Kingcome Inlet (population 80). When he’s not running a water taxi or teaching local language and culture at a school in Port Hardy, Willie’s running Sea Wolf Adventures giving visitors a deeper understanding of this place and the people who have lived here for millennia.
Alert Bay’s U’mista Cultural Centre is right next to a big green field marked with faded “Caution” tape tied around pegs. As kids play in a soccer tournament nearby, Willie explains it’s the site of St. Michael’s Indian Residential School. Hundreds of First Nations children from Prince Rupert to Campbell River were forced to live here between 1929 and 1974. The school was in disrepair and was torn down earlier this year.
Inside the cultural centre, black and white photographs of students from the 1940s line the walls along with heartbreaking written recollections of living in “St. Mike’s.” Willie and his brother, in sneakers and ball caps, tell us about their uncle who stole a row boat at 10 to try to escape the school, rowing until his hands were raw. Willie’s mom only revealed a few years ago that her chronic ear problems started when she was hit in the head, bursting her eardrum, for speaking her language at the school.
“People are just starting to share their stories,” says Willie, 37. With generations of children removed from their families, people had “zero parenting skills” a terrible deficit that’s still felt today. But as younger people learn about their elders’ experiences in the residential schools, “love and respect are coming back.”
“In order for anyone to succeed, you have to feel good about who you are and where you came from,” says Willie. “We are teaching our little guys and building a cultural foundation.” A big part of that is the potlach, a community meeting that dates back centuries and was banned for generations. The potlach resolves disputes, celebrates weddings and mourns the dead.
“Like a pod of killer whales, the social structure was really, really tight,” says Willie, as he explains dozens of elaborate potlach masks in the cultural centre. They had been taken by the RCMP in 1921 and returned in recent years from museums (an undetermined number are still missing).
These days, the community holds regular potlaches in the longhouse a few streets up from the cultural centre. As we arrive, half a dozen eagles swoop above and another soccer game is taking place in the adjacent field. Spectators’ drumming and cheering is interrupted by an announcement about the 50/50 over the PA. We have a look inside the longhouse and watch a few minutes of a recent potlach on an iPad.
As our boat heads out from Alert Bay, we pass the Namgis Burial Ground with totem poles that date back centuries. They have whales, eagles, bears and other wildlife carved into the wood. As we pick up speed across waters teeming with marine life toward lazy, low mountains, I feel enriched knowing a little about the other lives indigenous to this place. “We’re pretty resilient,” says Willie, gently, and I understand that the beauty of Northern Vancouver Island goes well beyond what you can see.