Burnaby school's First Nations canoe not just a 'museum piece'

Gilpin Elementary School students in colourful raincoats cheered by the side of a rainy Deer Lake Friday as their principal, Blake Briscoe paddled a small wooden canoe ashore.

The short journey marked the culmination of a project that began in the 2014/15 school year, when the school first decided to host a First Nations artist in residence. For three months last school year, Aaron Nelson-Moody, whose Squamish name means Splashing Eagle – Splash for short – came to the school three days a week and interacted with students while carving a traditional skumay, a stubby vessel traditionally used by Squamish women and girls to ply the swamps and narrow streams of their territory.

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Actually getting the boat into the water was an important final step, according to district aboriginal resource teacher Tracy Healey.

“It’s just bringing it to life,” she said. “That was the intent, not to make it a museum piece, but something that we could use.”

For district elder Roberta Price, marking the event with a ceremony that included witnesses, drumming, a blessing and sprinkling cedar into Deer Lake was important too.

“Today in the larger society, we just do ceremony once in a while, like on a birthday or anniversary, but ceremony guided every single step of every single day of our lives,” she said, “and that’s what we need to bring back is that ceremony for the healing. The healing of our people in this country is not just for the First Nations. It’s for every one of us in this country to join hands and go forward in that  healing because the healing needs to happen for all.”

With the new B.C. kindergarten to Grade 9 curriculum now mandating aboriginal perspectives be embedded in all areas of kids’ education, the Gilpin project is the way of the future, according to district vice-principal of aboriginal education Brandon Curr

“It is an exciting time and this project really signifies, I think, that shift into the waters that we’re all sort of wading into right now,” he said.

As Briscoe and Gilpin Grade 4/5 teacher Raffi Mahseredjian (a teacher deeply involved in the project) tried to take the canoe out Friday before the ceremony, however, it wasn’t all smooth sailing.

“We capsized a couple of times,” Briscoe said. “I think we were trying to put two people in a one-person canoe. As a one-person canoe it was super smooth.”

He said Mahseredjian graciously bowed out and allowed him the honour of piloting the vessel.

The project as a whole was a great way to bring First Nations culture into the school, Briscoe said, but more importantly it helped connect students with the local First Nations through their interactions with Splash.

“He’s just a fabulous person, a great human being.”

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