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‘I Was Alone in a Canoe. But It Was a Magic Canoe’

Wa’xaid died Thursday. Cecil Paul’s life shone the way to preserve nature, culture, community and hope.

Ian Gill 4 Dec

Ian Gill is a journalist, author and conservationist. He is a contributing editor at The Tyee, and co-creator of a new initiative called Salmon Nation. He lives in Vancouver and Clayoquot Sound.

I have on a wall in my home a photograph of Wa’xaid, Cecil Paul. Wa, for river; xaid for good. Good River. Cecil Paul, he of the Killer Whale Clan of the Xenaksiala people of the Kitlope Valley. Wa’xaid turned 90 last Saturday, but he had been unwell for some time. Early Thursday morning, he died.

One accident of being a journalist is that you sometimes meet and interview people who society deems to be important. I’ve met my share over the years, but it has never occurred to me to hang a photograph of any of them in my home.

But for years I’ve lived and written under the watchful image of Wa’xaid, someone who Canada not only considered unimportant but tried mightily to discard, disdain and disregard. A man who suffered abuse and addictions after being torn from his family as a boy, a man who found solace and sobriety in his culture and his land and — over time — revealed himself to be as great and powerful and visionary a man as any this country has seen. A man of unmistakably regal bearing, very much a king in his own country.

“When we get to the Kitlope, I am going to ask you to wash your eyes.… We are still blind to lots of things. When you bathe your eyes in the artery of Mother Earth that is so pure, it will improve your vision to see things. I will also ask you to wash your ears, so you could hear what goes on around you. So, I could hear you talk. I could hear the wind, and you can hear the birds and animals. If you have the patience to listen, to hear the songs of the birds in the early morning, all these things will be open to you.”

Like many other initiates to the raw power, stunning beauty and vibrant mythologies of the Kitlope Valley, in 1993 I washed my face for the first of many times at the point where Kitlope Lake drains into the Kitlope River. I saw the world anew, and I heard the story of a battle to protect the valley from industrial logging. It was a battle that began when a humble man discovered logging markers on trees along the banks of the river where he had been born and lived freely, until he was forcibly removed and sent to a baleful and malevolent residential school in faraway Port Alberni. Part of his recovery from the hard life that followed was to return decades later to his natal lands and waters. Upon discovering the imminent threat of logging, Wa’xaid reached out to others — Indigenous and Boston people (as white people were known to him and his people) — anyone, really, who was willing to join him on a journey to protect the home that he loved.

“I was alone in a canoe,” he once famously 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.” And lo, the Kitlope was saved, in 1994, and today it is known as Huschduwaschdu Nuyem Jees, the land of milky blue waters and all the stories it contains.

After his journey to protect the Kitlope, the Rainforest Action Network in San Francisco named Wa’xaid a Hero of the Planet. He recounted the story of the Magic Canoe when I accompanied him to San Francisco to help him navigate the glitterati at a gala dinner in a posh hotel, but he didn’t really need my help. He told his story in soft voice that quieted the rich and the powerful, who stood in silent awe and in many cases wept at the beauty of his oration and the crinkle of his generous smile.

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A Haisla canoe at the mouth of the Kitlope River. Wa’xaid imagined a canoe whose magic was that it could make room for everyone who wanted to come on board. Photo by Sam Beebe.

“After we won the case for the river,” he later told the writer Briony Penn, “I went up to Kitlope alone and I meditate. Did it really happen? I remember my little granny telling me of a totem pole that was stolen. We would gather in our little grandmother’s house and very faintly I would remember her stories about the old totem pole and how it was taken against our people’s will. That was when the journey of the pole begun.”

Another journey in the Magic Canoe, this time to retrieve the G’psgolox totem pole, named for a Xenaksiala chief, illegally taken from the village of Misk’usa at the mouth of the Kitlope River in 1929 by a Swedish consul-general and, decades later, discovered to be the central attraction in Stockholm’s Etnografiska Museet (Museum of Ethnography). “I’m in my canoe, trying to paddle, trying to look for it.… I realize now it was the mountain of waves going across the Atlantic Ocean,” Wa’xaid remembered. When the pole was found on the other side of that ocean, chiefs and Indians gathered in Kitamaat Village and Wa’xaid talked to his sister Amalaxa Louisa Smith and his brother Dan Paul, who carried the hereditary name of G’psgolox, and to the elected chief Gagamguist Gerald Amos and it took them many years and the work of many hands, but eventually the Swedish government acknowledged the community’s claim to the pole and returned it to Canada and, ultimately, to Xenaksiala territory.

In a gesture of staggering generosity, the Kitlope people sent a replica of the stolen pole back to Sweden, and so it was that an otherwise sour act of cultural theft became a glorious gift exchange, a linking of spirits across time and half a hemisphere.

In time, Wa’xaid grew tired.

“I told Gerald a few years ago, ‘Gerald I can’t pull anymore. I am tired and sick. Lä g ølä’s. Put our canoe ashore and rest. Build a fire; we’ll have a meeting. Discuss. I will go back in the canoe, everybody again, and that was good. Take a look at us now. We must not forget: our gift of luck is to protect. The protectors. It is a good journey.’”

Earlier this year, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society awarded its Louie Kamookak Medal, named for an Inuit historian and educator, to a person it described as “having made Canada’s geography better known to Canadians and to the world… [for his] extraordinary determination and his ability to build consensus [that] saved the Kitlope.”

I last saw Wa’xaid in Kitamaat Village in January of this year when he received that award. He was tired and frail but utterly present. There was a feast in his honour, and to my eye the least of the honours for him was the getting of a medal from Canada. What clearly brought him joy was the presence of so many young people from the village who came to bear witness, to hear the stories, to dance for him, to sit with him, each a breath of hope, each a new paddler in the Magic Canoe.

I called him on the telephone from time to time this summer and fall. The last time we spoke, he bemoaned being house bound. He laughed gently as we shared memories of our trips together — to the Kitlope, to the Kawesas, to Kemano, around campfires, on fishboats and sailboats and, yes, canoes, in the fjords of the Great Bear Rainforest and to other villages where truly great nations are reclaiming and remembering and reawakening, as the rest of Canada struggles to reconcile to the knowledge that it isn’t as great a nation as it pretends to be.

“Oh brother,” he said on the phone a few weeks ago, “sometimes l lay here and remember all the times we spent, all the good journeys, the things we got up to! I think of you and all our friends and a little tear leaves the corner of my eye.”

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‘The things we got up to!’ Photo of Wa’xaid in the author’s home. Photo by Zoe Grams.

Early last week, his sister Louisa texted me to say he had pneumonia and wasn’t responding to antibiotics. “He is slipping away slowly. Family are taking turns staying with him 24 hours a day at Kitimat Hospital.”

Louisa and I exchanged messages for a few days, including this past Saturday, his 90th birthday. “Hi Ian. He barely talks now. His breathing is irregular. I gave him your message, he nodded his head that he heard me and then very slowly took my hand and kissed it. Your love has been delivered and acknowledged with love.”

Early Thursday morning, a great, powerful, visionary and humble man, a hero of the planet, a great navigator, the most beautiful of men, breathed his last.

In his book, Stories from the Magic Canoe of Wa’xaid, written with Briony Penn, Cecil reflected on his remarkable journey.

“I think that Magic Canoe, it was the beginning of a momentum of how we could all paddle in harmony. Okay, one more trip. Let’s sit down and talk about how to put words in this Magic Canoe — the tree. Emphasize the love of all people that came aboard of the canoe. One thing alone: it was the love of the environment. There should be no hard words to the ones who are fighting. Gotta talk in a soft voice and make them come aboard.… This journey really helps a lot of people, the Kitlope, the pole itself, brought people from around the universe. All these things could never have happened alone, without beautiful friends who came aboard the Magic Canoe.”

I have on a wall in my home a photograph of a beautiful man, Wa’xaid, a friend, a member of the family. Not someone who a visitor to my home would recognize as famous or important. But to me and my family, a great man, a beautiful man who the world should mourn as the author of one of the most hopeful myths of our age, the Magic Canoe.

Cecil’s book ends, “The sun is kissing the mountains good night. Come, the Creator tells us, we are not alone. This is the Kitlope talking. I want to thank all of you who have left a footprint. I’m glad. Perhaps one day you will come here. Whatever the cause may be, whatever the journey is for us, we’ll leave this place and hope that you’ll carry the peace of Kitlope in your heart and pass it on to people. Your children, grandchildren. It is not impossible — always there is hope. Thank you for coming to my home.”

Thank you, Cecil, for coming to mine, to ours. Our journey will continue forever. We are in the canoe together, brother. The currents against us are strong, but many others are coming aboard. It is a good river. We can reach our destination. We have to for our survival.

Author’s note: Stories from the Magic Canoe of Wa’xaid, by Cecil Paul as told to Briony Penn, is published by Rocky Mountain Books. An expanded biography of Cecil, Following the Good River: The Life and Times of Wa'xaid, by Briony Penn, has just been released by the same publisher. Please purchase them from an independent bookstore. Royalties from the books go the Paul family.

Also, with Cecil’s blessing, Salmon Nation, of which I am a founding partner, is inviting people to join the Magic Canoe. You can learn more here. Better yet, listen to Cecil himself.

WATCH: In the summer of 2019 at his home in Kitamaat Village, Wa’xaid, Cecil Paul invited the world, once again, to join him in his Magic Canoe.

Read more: Indigenous, Environment

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