Aboriginal Paddling Initiative Supports a Proud Tradition

Posted By: admin@canoekayak.ca

With the North American Indigenous Games taking place July 20 – 27 in Regina, CanoeKayak Canada is pleased to present this article written by Sheila Robertson about the Aboriginal Paddling Initiative.

by Sheila Robertson

To most Canadians, Aboriginal People and paddling are inextricably linked, and historically, that was true. Hundreds of years ago, North American aboriginals created the canoe, high in bow and stern, from a frame of wooden ribs covered with the lightweight bark of white birch trees. These water craft proved to be ideal for travelling streams, rivers, and lakes and for carrying a great load, and were light enough to be portable when necessary.

As Europeans ventured deeper and deeper into the continent, they discovered extensive Aboriginal trade networks in place along established canoe routes. They also found that their own heavy boats were unsuitable for plying the waterways and portaging, making the canoe an important, if not the only option.

Canoe “contests’ involving Aboriginal People and fur traders represent the earliest beginnings of canoe racing. The modern sport evolved in waterfront communities in close proximity to native settlements, in particular the areas around Peterborough, Ont., Montreal, Halifax, and Victoria.

photo: CanoeKayak BC

photo: CanoeKayak BC

Over succeeding decades, the quality of life of Canada’s Aboriginal People declined. In recent times, there has been growing recognition of the value of sport to “improving the health, wellness, cultural survival, and quality of life of Aboriginal/Indigenous People through physical activity, physical education, sport, and recreation.” Of particular importance was the National Recreation Roundtable on Aboriginal/Indigenous Peoples, held in Maskwachees (Hobbema, Alta.) in February 2000. The roundtable produced the Maskwachees Declaration, a clarion call for action to address the many social and health issues afflicting aboriginal children, youth, and adults alike, including “Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, fetal alcohol syndrome, incarceration rates, substance abuse, harassment and racism, and a sedentary lifestyle.”

One participant was CanoeKayak Canada’s (CKC) Domestic Development Director, John Edwards, the only representative of a national sport organization. His participation was prompted by the fact that one of CKC’s clubs is the Onake Paddling Club, founded in 1972 on the Kahnawake First Nation near Chateauguay, Que. From Edward’s experience would come CKC’s Aboriginal Paddling Initiative, a reflection of the organization’s belief that canoekayak represents a unique opportunity to use a traditional activity to positively address aboriginal physical activity deficiencies and to give aboriginal paddlers the opportunity to access local, regional, and national competitions.

“As a heritage sport, it seemed to me that CKC could reach out to Aboriginal Canadians,” says Edwards. “Developing homegrown leadership in aboriginal communities is essential, and I believe that volunteer activities with community sport clubs is an excellence place to start. It’s the ideal environment to hone skills.” He points out that clubs are the strength of his sport. “Our clubs are volunteer-run and community-based and one of the Initiative’s strategies is to promote aboriginal community-based clubs. They are key to providing consistent local ownership and leadership.”

Edwards convinced Sport Canada’s Sport Participation Development Program to provide $385,000 over four years to launch the Initiative. As well as the benefits noted above, the Initiative would connect Aboriginal Canadians to the Canadian Sport System through the sport of canoekayak, promote CanoeKayak as an effective method for raising levels of physical activity, and raise awareness of safety by using CKC’s CanoeKids learn-to-paddle program. He also enlisted the enthusiastic support of CKC’s provincial affiliates to source additional funding and be the primary contact with the target communities.

photo: CanoeKayak BC

photo: CanoeKayak BC

Although federal funding for the Initiative has stopped, interest has not, and Edwards reports success stories in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec. These include selecting and training teams for the North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) and running its canoeing competition, training coaches in the Sport Initiation (CanoeKids) component of the National Coaching Certification Program, welcoming new clubs in Nova Scotia, Quebec, and Ontario, and hosting a National Aboriginal Regatta and several Western Canada Aboriginal Championships.

Paddling takes hold from coast to coast

British Columbia

British Columbia began its involvement with the Initiative with an Aboriginal Canoeing Conference hosted by Canoekayak BC (CKBC). The two-day event brought together aboriginal canoeing enthusiasts from all corners of the province and laid the groundwork for future partnerships. Arguably, the most important of these is with the Aboriginal Sport, Recreation & Physical Activity Partners Council, led by director Rick Brant. Developed as a legacy of the 2008 Cowichan NAIG to “lead to transformative change in the health and well-being of Aboriginal People across the province,” the Council is the steward of the Aboriginal Sport, Recreation and Physical Activity Strategy, which supports a healthier future of aboriginal communities, families, and individuals.

Mary-Jane Abbott, Executive Director of CKBC, says that the strength of the Council is its “really incredible leaders”, who include eight regional coordinators acting as the liaison between Abbott and her staff and the communities. “Rick is really open and his staff are real go-getters,” she says. “They have a regional engagement meeting every year to report on what’s been happening and to plan ahead. I’m absolutely amazed at the number of people who show up and the quality of their reporting.”

Whether the coordinators request a coaching clinic or a training camp or a water safety program, Abbott heads directly to the community, bringing with her CKBC’s trailerload of kayaks. “We like to work in the community rather than have them come to us; it makes for better learning,” she says.

The Diditaht First Nation, located on the northeast short of Nitinat Lake, is an inspirational beneficiary of the Initiative. The remote community, accessible by a 50-kilometre dirt road and 100 kilometres west of Duncan, stretches inland to include Cowichan Lake, extends along the south-west coast of Vancouver Island, and encompasses a considerable distance offshore. Nitinat Lake is a 20-kilometre fiord that empties into the Pacific Ocean at the Nitinat Narrows, midway along the West Coast Trail in the Pacific Rim National Park. The lake is ranked as one of the best windsurfing and kiteboarding sites in the world and also has a small bay where budding paddlers can train.

Here, the Initiative is run through the local school and Abbot reports strong support from its  administration. In 2013, a Canada Summer Jobs grant paid a student to work for the Initiative so long as he finished school in June and returned in September. “Keeping kids in school in a huge feat in the community,” she says. “We hired two students for the summer and are doing so again this summer.”

photo: CanoeKayak BC

photo: CanoeKayak BC

For Abbott, success is measured by the formation of a community canoe club and parental involvement, and Diditaht has achieved both. In 2012, the community hosted the 2012 BC Aboriginal Provincial Canoe Championships in partnership with CKBC and the Council. CKBC provided staff to help launch the Initiative and stays in close touch. “It’s been very neat to work with this community because they’ve rallied around the kids, there’s a parent organization, and they have a focus, which is training for the 2014 NAIG and beyond,” she says. “The personal growth of their sport leaders over the last few years has been so rewarding to watch. They are the key to the success of our community programs. Our NAIG athletes will have an amazing experience and have made some great friends over the last few years as the team has developed.”

Recently, Abbott shared a dream with the community. “Why not fund-raise to all of Canada to help support ongoing community paddling initiatives? Why not ask three aboriginal artists to paint a paddle and then raffle tickets to win them?” That dream is about the become reality and soon the Diditaht paddlers will be known far outside their own community.

Respecting local culture and traditions is one reason the Initiative is working in British Columbia. Some lower mainland and Island communities race in war canoes that are sleek and elegant dugouts carved by the paddlers themselves and ranging from singles to 11-man in size. (They are not the eastern Peterborough-type cedar strip war canoes.) Seeing the dugouts in action convinced Abbott that “we can’t be shoving the kayak at them. We don’t want to replace their tradition and culture; we want to supplement, not take away. Theirs is another stream of paddling and it provides the kids with another opportunity.”

Abbott managed to secure eight positions for aboriginal athletes at the BC Summer Games. Each will be supported by a coach from his or her community. “It’s a win-win for everyone because the community coach will work with more experienced coaches during the Games,” she says. “Everyone is getting exposure to things they never had before and that’s going to open doors for them.”


Alberta CanoeKayak sent program coordinator Alan Ross to northern Alberta to promote the sport and the 2013 Alberta Indigenous Games, which featured canoekayak as a core sport. His visit took him to many aboriginal communities, including Cold Lake, Slave Lake, High Prairie, Grouard, Joussard, Sucker Creek, Swan River First Nation, Drift Pile First Nation, Wabasca, and Big Stone Cree Nation. He connected with several hundred aboriginals and fostered a strong interest in canoekayak.


From July 20th to 27th, 2014, Regina will host the NAIG, with canoeing and kayaking front and centre on Wascana Lake in the heart of the city. Consequently, the Wascana Racing Canoe Club offered full-day and half-day clinics for Aboriginal People to learn the basics of recreational canoeing and kayaking, including proper technique, steering, safety, from fully certified coaches. The club provided boats, paddles, lifejackets and safety kits.

CanoeKayak Saskatchewan’s Aboriginal programs extend well beyond Regina. With almost 20 Aboriginal Coaches, camps and clinics are offered in as many as 10 Aboriginal communities around Saskatchewan from Meadow Lake to Cumberland House. “CanoeKayak Saskatchewan always had a program, but the Initiative strengthened the activities they were doing,” says Edwards, adding that both Saskatchewan and Manitoba are heavily involved in marathon canoeing, a discipline raced only in North America and for which prize money is awarded.

NAIG as an instrument of change

As noted by NAIG organizers in 2012, “thousands of years before European contact, Aboriginal People held games throughout the continent of North America. Historical records dictate that many modern team sports were derived from traditional indigenous games. What is well known is that these games taught personal and social values, which were a curriculum for their way of life. These practices taught each generation values and personal qualities that are reflected throughout indigenous lifestyles and cultures to the present day — qualities such as honesty, courage, respect, personal excellence, and gratitude for the guidance of parents, elders, and communities prepared children and youth for the responsibility of adulthood.”

Today, a number of barriers contribute to the under-representation of Aboriginal People in sport. While some are cultural in origin, there are also concerns about social, geographical, and economic isolation and racism. One positive development is the increasingly strong Federal-Provincial/Territorial government’s commitments to strengthening aboriginal sport, particularly focused around the NAIG.

Canoeing and kayaking are integral to the NAIG sport program, and many of the young paddlers who will compete in Regina are the beneficiaries of the CKC Initiative. The NAIG competition will consist of male and female singles, doubles, and mixed doubles for all age classifications and in categories from 200-metres to 10,000-metres. Each province and territory is allowed to enter six male and six female paddlers for each category. Competition will be guided by CKC’s Marathon Canoe Racing Competition and Sprint Racing Rules.


The Manitoba Paddling Association (MPA) focused its Initiative funding on preparations for the NAIG, aiming to increase the number of club paddlers and to bring at least five potential NAIG paddlers to the National Marathon Championships.

At St. Theresa Point First Nation, for example, a dragon boat was transported by the MPA over the winter ice road. This remote Oji-Cree community, located on the southern shore of Island Lake in northern Manitoba, also benefited from the hiring of a summer coach to run paddling programs. Despite high water and local fires that led to evacuations, many new paddlers joined the St. Theresa Point Racing Canoe Club. As well, an aboriginal woman completed a coaching mentorship program. St. Theresa Point now has a permanent paddling facility with 18 regular members, nine of whom competed at the national championships, and close to 50 casual paddlers.

MPA personnel learned the importance of working with local supporters in order to make a difference to the community through paddling. The association also developed solid partnerships with CKC, the Government of Manitoba’s Bilateral Program, the Manitoba Aboriginal Sport Council, the Green Team Summer Employment Program, Canada Summer Jobs, Sport Manitoba, and the canoe club and the community.

Edwards is not surprised by the success of the Initiative in the western provinces. “There has been really strong buy-in, probably because of the strong aboriginal presence in vast part of the geography,” he says. “The other factor has been the recognition from the provincial governments that this was something they wanted and so actively supported.”


The Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation, near Brantford, Ont., is home to the Aka:we Canoe Club. Founded in 1999 and a CKC member since 2004, Aka:we, a Mohawk word meaning ‘paddle, was the fourth First Nations sprint club in the country. The club promotes fun, health, and well-being while maintaining the cultural aspect of canoeing. It hosts the Pauline Johnson Regatta, named for the popular Mohawk poet and performer who was once a member of the Brantford Canoe Club.

An important step forward was the selection, in 2013, by the Ontario Canoe Kayak Sprint Racing Affiliation, of an aboriginal woman coach to be a Canada Games apprentice coach. Tiffany van Every travelled to Sherbrooke, Que., with the Ontario team, and was involved in all aspects of coaching. This Canada Games program was, in part, a request from CKC that the Games provide an opportunity for Aboriginal Canadians to connect to the Canadian sport system.


Onake Paddling Club on the Kahnawake First Nation near Chateauguay was founded in 1972 and was the CKC’s first ratified First Nation sprint club. It gained fame when Alwyn Morris became the first Aboriginal Canadian Olympic champion, winning gold at the Los Angeles Games.

Funding from the Initiative has enabled the club to provide opportunities for paddlers to participate in activities such as outrigger, dragonboat, marathon, recreational, and flat-water canoeing. Sessions of CanoeKids Day Camp and competitive racing camps were filled to capacity. Services were provided to the Kahnawake Youth Center Day Camp, Our Gang Day Camp, Kahnawake Survival School senior physical education classes, Community Health Unit – Fitness Program, Eastern Door Fitness Challenge, and Live Like a Champion youth group.

In the competitive stream, Onake paddlers competed at seven local regattas, the Lake Placid International Regatta, the Bantam and Under Provincial Championships, the Midget and Over Provincial Championships, and the Provincial Long Distance Championships, winning numerous medals. Paddlers from its outrigger program raced in New York, Toronto, British Columbia, Kona-Hawaii, and Atlantic City.

Other activities included hosting the 12th Annual Dragonboat Festival, preparing athletes for regional competitions and for the NAIG, offering coaching and assistance to the community, organizing events with neighbouring communities, and hosting a regional regatta.

Situated on the Gatineau River near Maniwaki, Kitigan Zibi is the First Nations Reserve of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation, the largest Algonquin Nation in Canada. Led by teachers Jan Cote and Celine Whiteduck, the Kitigan Zibi Canoe and Kayak Club emphasizes basic instruction and wellness. Activities included an orientation to canoe and kayaking as a special end of the school year opportunity; mixed recreational canoe races for teens; the Kitigan Zibi Youth Day Camp: evening paddling training for a hockey fitness group; teaching the basics of paddling to the Performing Arts Camp for 13- to 14-year olds; completing the CanoeKids Paddling Program with 13- to 17-year-olds; evening paddling activities with teens; paddling days at the Youth Day Camp; and a Paddle Fest.

One thousand kilometres to the north is Kuujjuarapik, the southernmost northern village at the mouth of the Great Whale River on the coast of Hudson Bay in Nunavik, which is home to just under 700 Inuit people. About 800 people live in adjacent Whapmagoostui, the northernmost Cree village in Quebec.

Kuujjuarapik is the home of Allan Brown, a retired physical education teacher and an expert sprint paddler who moved north from the Montreal area in 1977. He explains that the Inuit, who are coastal people, and the Cree, who are river people, both used paddling strictly for travel. Recreational paddling was rare and competitive paddling was virtually unheard of. Safety equipment and boat safety instruction were equally rare so drowning were always a risk, leading to a general fear of the water. “With the water here, there’s a lot of factors such as cold and currents and swells and winds,” says Brown. “The winds buffet and make waves that are two to three feet high. And our tide can go as high as six feet so it’s not surprising that most people don’t go for long paddles.”

In 2010, when Brown heard about the Initiative, he wasted no time in contacting Edwards and Peter Niedre, CKC’s director of coach and athlete development, who knew the community from delivering basketball and multi-sport programs before joining CKC.

Given the fear of the water, Brown’s funding proposal focused on fundamentals. CKC’s CanoeKids program guided him as he developed a checklist that would emphasize water safety awareness and skills, develop confidence on the water, provide an opportunity to paddle and socialize in a team environment, and build overall motor skills.

Brown’s enthusiasm was contagious. “Allan felt it would be a tremendous resource if the kids were drown-proofed, and we agreed,” says Edwards. “His approach was to get kids active and reconnected with their natural environment.

Since war canoes and dragon boats are ill-suited to the challenging waters, Brown purchased sprint canoes and a Rabaska team canoe, a traditional North canoe similar to voyageur canoes that can seat up to ten people.

Niedre and Jessie Rice, a certified coach and a Mohawk from Kahnawake, flew into Kuujjuarapik in February 2011 to run a community sport and technical development course, returning in June to help start the Initiative and launch the Great Whale River Canoe and Kayak Club. “I see it as positive youth development, fitness, skills development, and water safety,” says Niedre. “It’s about getting into a community to develop leadership within.”

Initially, Brown’s program had two phases. The first took place from mid-January to the end of May in the indoor community pool, which served to get the participants comfortable with water and to practice single blade paddling, how to do a flip, how to do a rescue in the middle of a lake, how to be safe in a boat, and how to carry and store a boat. As the weather warmed, the program moved to the river. “The river is another world completely, so the kids were excited,” says Brown.”They loved it, were getting skills, and realized they didn’t have to tip.”

Also in 2011, the Eastern Arctic Winter Games came to Kuujjuarapik and for the first time featured 200-metre canoe races. The day of the races we had 2.5-foot waves coming head-on at us and so it was exciting,” says Brown. “The hard part was getting everyone lined up at the start!”

Although funding remains a challenge, Brown is undaunted. “There’s lots of things in the way, walls and obstacles to overcome, but I’m not letting go; this is not going to be dropped,” he says. He is hoping to persuade the regional government and Nunavut Adventure Tourism to come to Kuujjuarapik and train its youth in running adventure challenges. “I have the boats, the life jackets; I’m set up and ready to go, and so are the kids.”

Brown intends to take CKC’s CanoeKids facilitator course in order to train local people to implement the CanoeKids program. He sees the Initiative as a new beginning in an isolated, traditional society and adds that, although it is a long way off, there may come a time when his paddlers compete at a provincial championship, and even beyond.

And the future for the Aboriginal Paddling Initiative?

As a leadership tool, the Initiative is a unique model for “positive youth development, fitness, skills development, and safety across the country,” says Niedre.

Edwards agrees, and adds that it is worth the effort to help Aboriginal People attain a higher degree of wellness. To do that, “it’s important to build on the sports that are already part of their communities. It’s not about importing sports; it’s about going into a community, listening, watching, engaging and then working with a community to develop appropriate strategies with the sports culture that already exists. Like any community in Canada, aboriginal communities must have a sense of ownership before they become fully engaged.”

Certainly Edwards would like to see the aboriginal population integrated more efficiently and consistently with the Canadian sport system. “We were certainly blessed by the faith and support that Sport Canada formally put into the program,” he says. “In addition, support from the provincial sport agencies has been very gratifying.” However, he asks, how can we integrate in a way that celebrates and builds their own heritage? “There are lots of aboriginal traditions around boats that CKC is absolutely open to. In fact, that’s how to do it. Respect and integrate the traditions while introducing concepts of training and consistency.

“When I talk to an Aboriginal person, I talk about my own experience of canoeing, about being out in nature, and the pervasive feeling of being one with the natural elements of winds and waves. When you canoe, you’re touching many generations who have felt the same about the fresh air and the invigoration. The colour of your skin doesn’t matter; that’s the innate virtue of paddling; you become much more aware and appreciative of your natural surroundings.”


Maskwachees Declaration, Federal-Provincial/Territorial Advisory Committee on Fitness and Recreation, June 2000.

Adapted from Canada’s Sporting Heroes by S.F. Wise and Douglas Fisher for Canada’s Sport Hall of Fame, General Publishing Company Limited, Don Mills, Ontario, 1974

“Our Canoeing Heritage”, Canadian Canoe Museum, www.canoemuseum.ca/

Retrieved from “All About Canoes”, September 20, 2010, The History of the Canoe

100 Years of champions: The Canadian Canoe Association, 1900-2000, by C. Fred Johnson, the Canadian Canoe Association, Ottawa, Second Edition, 2003.