The A'wila Canoe




What can be learned about people and their places by studying objects they make?

Lesson to adapt from Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia:

download fileThe Root Speaks - download PDF file >>

Learners consider objects created from the trunk, bark, and roots of a cedar tree. They explore culture through objects and develop their observational skills by examining local tools. They learn about past and current uses of the object within the cultural traditions and discuss the the tools and technologies used to make them.

Learning objectives:

- Develop understanding and respect for cultures.
- Enhance observational skills
- Explore cultures through objects
- Draw attention to the importance of traditions
- Communicate value of a our natural resources


Lessons to adapt from the GoNorth! Curriculum & Activity Guide:

GoNorth! Curriculum  and Activity Guide Qayak - View lesson in online book >>

Learning objectives:

- Explore how inquiry leads to discovery
- Understand weight to surface ratio relationships
- Discover the role of water pressure to buoyancy
- Apply Archimedes principles building a vessel

The vessel for A'wila Tribal Journey 2010 is a mighty some 8 meters (23-feet) canoe named 'The Perfect Storm' or A'wila In the native language of the Kwakwaka'wakw people.

The canoe was carved by native youth and Mervyn Child from the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation out of a fallen cedar tree that fell during a massive storm in 2003 taking down some 10,000 trees in North America's largest natural park: the Stanley Park in Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada.

Copyright: The Constant Art Society

The Story of A'wila

From Fallen Cedar Log to a Traditional Dugout Canoe

by Journey Leader Christine Germano

Many trees fell during a devastating storm at Stanley Park in December 2006 --but its spirit has been moved on in three ambassador cedar logs. During the summer of 2007 the youth from East Vancouver had the opportunity to mentor under a professional native carver Wayne Alfred. The youth carved their own personal Talking Sticks, learn traditional ways of their culture and at the same time work with me to document the process through photography and writing!

A series of synergistic connections occurred when I met Constable Rick Lavallee at the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre in February 2008. By a stroke of luck the Vancouver Park’s Board donated two fallen trees to the Vancouver Aboriginal Community Policing Centre with similar hopes of transforming the fallen trees into community canoes. Soon, a community collaboration formed including the Constant Arts Society, Britannia Community Services Centre, Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre, Vancouver Aboriginal Community Policing Centre, Vancouver School Board (Britannia Secondary and Aboriginal Education) and the Vancouver Police Department. The project became a working symbol of cooperation and respect between all people who live, learn, work and play in this community.  The following letter of agreement was drafted
and signed by the partners involved:

" With the goal of fostering better relationships and “Working Towards Unity” we agree through this partnership to see these cedar logs transform as a symbol of cooperation and respect between all members dedicated to making this community on where all youth feel safe and a sense of belonging.This alliance will provide support to the artists and youth so that individual experience will be one that may build bridges and open avenues towards respect of First Nations culture and the civic system that are in place to educate, protect and serve all who live here."

Our journey began February 26 2008 with the selection of the logs at Clark Street just north of 6th in a lot containing over 10,000 fallen logs from the Stanley Park storm. At this moment I convinced Jim Laudon to donate an additional log to the Constant Arts Society and project!  Just a week later on March 5 the logs arrived at the Britannia Secondary School and were placed on the small patch of grass under a cedar tree and feet from the Britannia swimming pool, hockey arena and high school. The logs were blessed by Squamish elder Bob Baker on April 8th. Even though the it was pouring rain there were over 100 distinguished witnesses including Elders, Chiefs, VSB staff, students, the VPD and the Chief of police. The logs were blessed using spring water from the Capilano river and cedar bows from the valley. It was this ceremony that set the stage for a safe and very respected project amongst the youth and community.

Mervyn Child from the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation, lives in his home town of Fort Rupert so our canoe was completed in just three visits. Under the mentorship of such a professional Aboriginal carver the youth had the unique opportunity to learn and artistically explore their own creative potential while witnessing the skill and work involved in creating a Tsapas (Mowachat) Canoe. In May the log was shaped out and the carving of paddles began to introduce the use of carving tools. During the summer the roughly shaped out canoe was soaked and wrapped up twice a week by three youth Genoa Point, Charlees Joe and Kirsten Whitney as part of the FNES employment program. One end of the log was very rotten so Mervyn carved the front end of the canoe in Fort Rupert and attached it to the canoe on his second visit in September. As he prepared the canoe for steaming, cracks were stitched, things were reinforced, holes were plugged and the walls of the canoe were carefully proportioned. The shell of the cedar log had become the shell of the canoe.

On October 9th the canoe was carried across the parking lot to the northwest corner by Britannia Outreach, Streetfront, 8J9J, Aires, Constable Rick Lavallee and community members. The site was  prepared and the following morning at 6:30am Mervyn, I and a few courageous students met down at the sand pit and started the fire that would cook the rocks to be used hours later to steam the canoe. Over the course of the day many visitors, elders and students came by to help tend the fire, chop wood, carve paddles and sing. We roasted hotdogs and marsh mellows and over the course of the day hot rocks replaced cold rocks and the canoe slowly steamed and stretched. Mervyn and two elders from the Haida Nation, Patrick Weir and his brother slowly added 10 inches to the width of the canoe. The canoe was moved behind the pool and covered so it could dry out over the next couple weeks. 

Mervyn returned October 21st to finish the canoe and prepare it for the launch and feast on November 8th. The canoe had to be knifed, sanded, adzed, seats and paddles designed and everything had to be painted. The final two weeks of work was under a relentlessness of rain that caused the paint on the canoe not to set. Three days before the feast Mervyn and his daughter Christina worked tirelessly to remove the excess paint therefore creating a weathered effect and allowed all the stitch and patch work to be visible and appreciated.

The launch at Crab park was a huge success with over 100 distinguished guest from close and afar coming to witnesses the first voyage in “Perfect Storm”. Under a sky of sunshine and a soaring eagle, a real sense of pride rose from the youth and all involved. The canoe was then taken to the Aboriginal Friendship Center where the celebration began with Bob Baker and Wes Nahanee, who will be carving our second canoe. Following was a performance by the local Git Hayetsk Dancers and the Copper Maker Dancers from Fort Rupert. The afternoon closed with a huge feast for 400 and a rap duo by Christie Lee Charles and JB the First Lady.

It really does take a community to build a canoe. Through out the entire experience many people were involved behind the scenes working together to make this dream become a reality.  From writing letters of support, facilitating between the school board, community centers and venues to making coffee, hauling a canoe around, making cedar roses, sanding, painting or just being there as support for the students, staff, volunteers, elders, Mervyn Child and me. I am forever thankful to the many without whom this would not have happened: Beverly Seed, Debra Martel, Laura Rudland, Mike Louie, John Sakamoto Kramer, Brenda Racanelli, Enzo Guerriero, Dianna Smith, Natalie Bailey, Lori Beckstead, Anne Marie Goodfellow,  Amir Ali Alibhai, Christina Child, Bob Baker and the amazing staff at Outreach, Streetfront, 8J9J, Aires and Britannia. 

As the project evolved the entire process was documented by the students under my mentorship. The photography and writing was compiled into a textile project called “Storytelling Blankets” that included photo-transfers, writing, sewing, buttons, beads, displaying the story of a fallen cedar log to a traditional dugout canoe. The exhibit, completed with the canoe launch, food and traditional performances, opened in February of 2008 at the Roundhouse in Vancouver as part of the “Talking Stick Festival."