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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 |

Ian Gill is a former newspaper and television reporter, author, and social entrepreneur who has spent 20 years working on conservation and development initiatives in Canada, the US and Australia. Conflict alert: He is a senior associate with The Social Projects Studio, and a colleague and co-conspirator of Ric Young's.

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.

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."

To cut a very long story short, in 1994 the Kitlope was protected. West Fraser Timber Company voluntarily surrendered its right to log the area, and the Harcourt government of the day designated the Kitlope as a protected area. Today, it appears on government maps as the Kitlope Heritage Conservancy.

But to the Haisla, it is so much more than that, which is why Cecil's story has become a container of meaning that so profoundly transcends the standard narrative of environment vs. industry or good vs. evil which continues to impoverish and misguide our approach to development world-wide.

To the Haisla, what happened in the 1990s was only incidentally the "saving" of old-growth forests from logging. What really got protected in the Kitlope were the Haisla's stories.

"You know, you guys call it 'the Kitlope,'" Cecil says. "But in our language we call it 'Huchsduwachsdu Nuyem Jees.' That means 'the land of milky blue waters and the sacred stories contained in this place.' You think it's a victory because we saved the land. But what we really saved is our heritage -- our stories which are embedded in this place and which couldn't survive without it, and which contain all our wisdom for living."

It sends a shiver up my spine every time I hear, or read, or write those words: "All our wisdom for living."

'If you kill the land, you kill our stories'

Little wonder that in Darwin a couple of weeks ago, The Magic Canoe struck so deep a chord with people from around the world whose own wisdom for living is under such sustained attack everywhere.

Little wonder that in Jessie Housty, meanwhile, a worldwide audience of Indigenous land and sea managers saw not just a kindred spirit, but a beacon of hope. Housty, as Young pointed out in his talk to sustained applause, is the youngest ever elected councillor on the Heiltsuk Tribal Council. "She was a very powerful figure at that gathering," Young said. "She represented the future... the reason for trying to make things right."

Housty has earned a reputation in British Columbia environmental circles as a determined and articulate defender of the rainforest coast. She has been a tireless organizer against Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway pipeline proposal, at one point pouring molasses over herself as a graphic expression of her nation's fear of oil spills as a result of increased tanker traffic.

She also works with other Heiltsuk band members, and with other nations along the coast, to promote Indigenous stewardship of land and sea resources -- hence her presence at a conference about just that.

Housty -- young, articulate, female, Aboriginal -- caught the eye of the Australian media, in particular the Fairfax press, which accompanied her on a side trip where she met Koongarra traditional owner Jeffrey Lee, who is famous in Australia for having said no to a $5-billion uranium mine that might have meant as much as $7.5 million to Lee alone.

"Money don't mean nothing to me," Lee told a Fairfax reporter. "Money come, money go. Once you take my land away, you can't put it back together again."

The Sydney Morning Herald billed the encounter as an Australian lesson to Canadian Indigenous people that they can and should say no to industrial developments like uranium mining or Enbridge. To judge by Housty's response to the reporter, she doesn't need much schooling: "The money is the least interesting thing. If we want to calculate the value of a proposal, the question is, 'What's at stake?' My identity is based on the stories my people have written in the landscape. If you kill the land, you kill our stories. If you kill our stories, you kill the people. It's as simple as that."

There is a remarkable inter-generational echo in her response that tracks back through Cecil Paul and through the wisdom of her own nation's elders, who have been among the fiercest defenders of their territory of any of B.C.'s coastal First Nations.

The power of 'disruptive narrative'

But as appealing as Housty's declaration is, is it really "as simple as that?"

Or has her simple truth, and Cecil Paul's, become too hard for us to hear in the modern age?

If so, then perhaps that's why The Magic Canoe story gains power in the telling and the re-telling, as more and more paddles are painted and more and more people join the journey towards something few of us can define, but for which so many of us yearn. Compelling stories like The Magic Canoe capture our imagination, engage us emotionally, and move us.

"I continue to examine the story for deeper layers of meaning," Ric Young says. "Because it gets to the how and the why of change that is worth dedicating our highest hopes and deepest courage to. How? Here is a man who had nothing, no money, no power, and yet in the face of the seemingly impossible, where there is no power, there is in fact enormous power. Cecil taught us that if you have the capacity for real moral courage, you can trigger that in others, and courage grows."

In his work on social innovation, Young has grown increasingly interested in the role and power of narrative, so much so that he has developed a conceptual model that he calls "disruptive narrative."

"A disruptive narrative changes the conditions in which publics and stakeholders can pursue bold possibilities by changing the collective imaginary," says Young.

"Boldness must be a key characteristic of the core narratives that transformational leaders tell. And indeed, before leaders can convince others of bold possibilities, they must believe in these possibilities themselves.

"All transformational visions encounter the stout defence of doubt and denial, skepticism and pragmatism. The power of a disruptive narrative is vested not only in the way that it is framed, but in the way it is championed."

In Young's view, there is no story without a challenge. Transformational leaders don't minimize the challenge; they maximize its worth and summon our courage for pursuing it. That's what Cecil Paul did in the Kitlope.

"Long before the possibility has become a reality, a successful disruptive narrative alters our sense of what's possible, and why it's worth pursuing. Disruptive narratives change our sense of -- and relationship to -- the future," says Young.

This is at the heart of his call to boldness.

With the courage he has gained from knowing Cecil Paul, Young has chosen to stand outside the current buzz around social innovation that has business schools and design labs in its thrall. The field of social innovation, Young believes, constantly falls short because of a failure to realize how central to change making story making is. The lesson from Darwin, he felt, was the affirmation that story matters profoundly.

"For 250 years indigenous people have been told that their stories have no meaning," says Young. "We are at one of those hinge points in history in the discovery and invention of a new narrative in which we can locate ourselves and live with dignity and meaning. That's what's in play right now."

And The Magic Canoe? It's a vessel that steers us to the magic that exists in the world, lest we lose sight of that, and we lose our way entirely.  [Tyee]

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