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'The Magic Canoe'

This Haisla tale is proof that stories hold power to change the world.

By Ian Gill, 15 Jun 2013,


A Haisla canoe at the mouth of the Kitlope River. Photo by Sam Beebe.


The World Indigenous Network Conference held in Darwin, Australia at the end of May brought together 1,400 indigenous leaders to explore common purpose in the face of juggernaut industrial developments around the globe.

Among them were a number of Canadians, three of whom -- perhaps unknown to many in their own country -- offered one of the most most moving and important lessons of the entire gathering.

They appeared on stage together -- Jessie Housty, a young indigenous leader from the central coast of British Columbia, holding a canoe paddle in her hands; Ric Young, the Toronto-based founder of The Social Projects Studio and a world-leading architect of social change initiatives; and, looking down on the huge stage and lighting it with a smile every bit as radiant as Nelson Mandela's, indigenous elder Cecil Paul.

Once billed as a Rainforest Action Network "hero of the planet" for his efforts to save his forest homeland in the 1990s, Cecil is one of the gentlest and most beloved of British Columbia's rainforest warriors.

Wahid as he is known in his language, was there in photograph only. But he had approved of Young's travelling to Australia to tell his story, which is arguably one of the greatest stories of our time.

That is the story of The Magic Canoe.

A journey into cultural memory

I have heard the story dozens of times, and it is impossible to tire of it. In part that's because Cecil is my friend. I was privileged to introduce him to Ric Young many years ago, and now he is Ric's friend; indeed, he is a friend to anyone who is willing to listen to his parable.


Jessie Housty, Ric Young and Cecil Paul onstage at the World Indigenous Conference in May.

The telling and re-telling of The Magic Canoe is an act of witnessing. It is at once a journey into a fragile container of cultural memory, and an invitation to make a bold journey into the unknown.

To be introduced to Cecil Paul's story is such an exquisite privilege that -- of all the stories that some of the world's oldest storytelling cultures have gathered in Darwin to share -- it was Cecil's Magic Canoe that transported the mob in Darwin to a new place of possibility.

Cecil's story was known at first to just a small circle of people who were associated in the 1990s with efforts by the Haisla First Nation and Ecotrust to protect the Kitlope, a vast swath of old-growth forest in northern B.C.

In the hands of Ric Young, however, the story has begun to reverberate exponentially, its underlying call to boldness finding a home with audiences desperate for way-points on the pathway to positive social change.

Young's appreciation for The Magic Canoe arises from his role as a seminal force for social innovation in Canada. He initiated one of the world's first social innovation think-tanks a decade ago as a collaboration between DuPont Canada and McGill University. That work gave rise to the best-selling book Getting To Maybe. Young was recently appointed a distinguished visiting professor at Ryerson University and is currently developing a new vehicle for social change known as The Boldness Project. He is also working on a book on social transformation entitled The Magic Canoe.

The Magic Canoe, Young says, "has become a powerful metaphor for large-scale transformation and social change... it is one of the best stories I know. I consider the story, which Cecil has given me permission to tell, to be one of the most important and treasured gifts that I have received in my life."

One reason is the source. Cecil, Young says, possesses extraordinary moral courage and authority, all the more so because the power of his ideas is so disproportionate to our dominant culture's view of him as an old Indian man existing at the margins of our economy and society.

Another reason is that Cecil's story, while particular to his own culture and experience, is a universal story that takes on a greater urgency as the world lurches towards an uncertain and unstable future.

"The 21st Century is a battle for narrative," Young says. "In the developed world, we are not only running out of resources, we are running out of narrative. We've come to believe that we live in an economy and that our entire well-being depends on that."

On the contrary, Young believes -- and he says this was amply on view in Australia and in the reaction that The Magic Canoe got at the conference there -- "story matters profoundly. People (in Darwin) were captivated by the sense of possibility in The Magic Canoe. My hunch that there is something universal and archetypal in this story was borne out."

Alone in a canoe...

So what is the story of The Magic Canoe? Young's most recent re-telling of it, at the World Indigenous Network Conference, can be seen online.

In essence, the story is this:

Cecil, now in his seventies (his exact birth date is not known), was born on the banks of the Kitlope River, and there he happily played out his first few years before being seized in the residential school swoop that destroyed so many First Nations people in Canada. Cecil emerged from that system a broken young man, and fell into decades of drunken despair. It was a path all too familiar to Aboriginal people of his generation.

So far, so bad.

But somehow the fog that enveloped Cecil lifted a little, and he had a vision of his grandmother, long dead, and from her, he heard these questions: Who are you? Who are you really? Why are you here? What are you for?

Cecil resolved to give up drinking and return to his community in Kitamaat to become a positive force in a very broken village. One day, out fishing in the Kitlope, he came across surveyor's tape on the banks of the river that marked the valley for logging.

Cecil knew that this was the last part of Haisla territory untouched by industry, and although it might mean jobs and money for his impoverished community, something inside told him that logging the Kitlope would destroy the ecological and spiritual foundations of the Haisla people.

Thus began a lonely journey to convince his community they should spurn offers of jobs and quick money and instead build their recovery as a nation on the protection, not the destruction, of the Kitlope.

"I was alone in a canoe," he has said. "But it was a magic canoe. It was magic because it could make room for everyone who wanted to come on board, to come in and paddle together. The currents against us were very strong. But I believed we could reach our destination. And that we had to for our survival."

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