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Nyïbegh: When a canoe is not just a canoe

The Dze L K’ant war canoe is a symbol of the reclamation of culture and a vessel for healing
Mel Bazil, an alcohol and drug counselor with the Dze L K’ant Friendship Centre, explains paddling techniques to a group from Pacific Inland Resources before taking them out in the centre’s war canoe “Nyïbegh” Sept. 29. (Thom Barker photo)

Nyïbegh, the Dze L K’ant Friendship Centre’s war canoe, glides gracefully through the mirror surface of Lake Kathlyn turning as approaches the beach. In unison, the 10 paddlers raise their paddles to an upright position, signalling they come in peace.

Prior to the arrival of European settlers to North America, this is a scene that would have played out on innumerable occasions. For decades afterward, however, such cultural activities were prohibited.

On this occasion, it is symbolic of the reclamation of culture and an exercise in outreach with the hope of furthering the relationship between local First Nation and settler communities.

The paddlers, save the host and instructor Mel Bazil, an alcohol and drug counselor with the Friendship Centre, were employees of Pacific Inland Resources.

Orange Shirt Day

The occasion for the paddle was the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation (NDTR), also known as Orange Shirt Day.

The symbolic launching of Nyïbegh on Orange Shirt Day at Lake Kathlyn in honour of residential school survivors and in memory of thousands of children who never returned, predates the NDTR, which was just instituted last year by the federal government.

On the NDTR, Bazil says “it’s a start.”

Carefully choosing the word ‘conciliation’ rather than ‘reconciliation,’ he says he is unconvinced he will see it in his lifetime between Canada and First Nations likening the process to a massive cruise ship turning around.

He remains hopeful about it is happening locally, though, noting that during the Great Depression, for example, First Nations people helped feed settler communities during times of food shortages.

“I think is possible between the local settlers and the local Indigenous peoples. Because when you look at the spirit of the treaties across the board, the spirit of the treaties were actually about a settlement between local settlers and the local Indigenous peoples, not a nation-state that came later.”

This year Dze L K’ant wanted to share the experience of the canoe with the broader community. Throughout the day on Sept. 29, the day before Orange Shirt Day, groups came, had a lesson in paddling, took her out on the water and came back to the public beach at Lake Kathlyn where a sacred fire burned and food was served.

Both Bazil, a third-generation survivor, and Mavis Banek, who was forced into residential school in the Fraser Valley when she was nine years old, expressed gratitude for people coming out and sharing in the cultural lives of their people.

In turn, Banek shared her own story, telling the group about fleeing from residential school to the United States when she was 15.

“I made myself where I ran and I jumped a freight train,” she said. “I jumped on a box car and my legs were flying all around, but I hung on. I knew I had to cross the border.

“Well, number one, I knew I had to be strong. Number two, get the train so that I didn’t get the road because everybody that ran on the road got taken back.”

Number three was making sure she made it out of the country because the Canadian government couldn’t get her there, she said.

She was also very grateful to be able once again be able to practice the cultural activities of the past.

“Thank you very much for coming and sharing,” she said. “Being able to do something cultural is so awesome. You participated in something that was banned and here we are sharing it. Thank you very much.”


The Friendship Centre purchased the canoe in 2005 when they were invited to take part in a Rediscovery International Foundation canoe quest in 2006, Bazil explained.

“There was three groups,” he said. “There was a Gitxsan Rediscovery Camp …. we were the Friendship Centre and the other group was from Nuxalk and the Nuxalk were our hosts.”

After spending some time with their hosts in Bella Coola, they paddled to Bella Bella then on to Klemtu up the coast and then returned.

Bazil said it was an amazing trip on which many good things happened, most importantly the transformational power of healing through reclaiming culture denied to Indigenous people for so long.

“We purchased the canoe for residential school survivors to take them on a journey in the ocean, and to transform our pain into strength. And I believe it worked. And we purchased a canoe so that we could work with our community, like we are today and get our strengths back.”

But the legacy of Nyïbegh has become so much more than its first purpose, Bazil said.

“Although it was initially for residential school survivors to take a trip in the ocean, eventually it became about going with schools, with all the intergenerational communities, but then also the broader community too. The colleges come with us, the schools. A lot of staff from the secondary and elementary schools as well as the college staff.

“I’m very thankful too. Today a group just came with us just now and they were really immensely gracious outside there. It’s a different world when you’re on the water. Again, for me, it means I’m transforming my pain into strength. That’s what the canoe represents for me personally.”

That is perfectly reflected in the name of the boat.

“The canoe’s name is Nyïbegh and it translates to from Witsuwit’en to English, balance, stability on the water and in our lives,” Bazil said.

Nyïbegh is decorated with traditional Witsuwit’en colours and designs, but there is one slight nod to an entirely different kind of culture.

On the stern is a small decal of Darth Vader. Bazil, a huge Star Wars fan, fondly recalls seeing the original movie in the Smithers theatre back in 1977.

“That’s my seat and it’s just kind of honouring that,” he said. “That’s been my seat since 2006.”

A group of paddlers from Pacific Inland Resources pulls the Dze L K’ant Friendship Centre war canoe “Nyïbegh” through the mirror surface of Lake Kathlyn on Sept. 29. (Thom Barker photo)
A Darth Vader decal on the stern of the Dze L K’ant Friendship Centre’s war canoe designates the rear seat belongs to Mel Bazil, an alcohol and drug counselor at the centre and huge Star Wars fan. (Thom Barker photo)

Thom Barker

About the Author: Thom Barker

After graduating with a geology degree from Carleton University and taking a detour through the high tech business, Thom started his journalism career as a fact-checker for a magazine in Ottawa in 2002.
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