Ahousaht First Longboard Nation
Ahousaht First Nation is found on a verdant slab of lush rain forest brushed by the hard charging waves of the Pacific Ocean. The isolated village on Flores Island has a population of 900 and is only accessible by float plane or boat and is a forty minute boat ride from Tofino, on the West Coast of Vancouver Island.
We have gathered here on the First Street Wharf in Tofino on an unusually sunny October morning to deliver longboards and love to the village and hopefully strike up a friendship. Often First Nation communities in Canada live in isolation from the non-aboriginal populations in Canada. This is not just a function of physical distance but also also a distance based on pre-conceptions and history. This is one small attempt to bridge that distance.
Landyachtz crew members Liam Mckenzie and Kyle Martin along with Beth Luchies, Nuu-chah-nulth worker, my son Levon,11 and myself are up early for the adventure and getting our sea legs on.
Our skipper for the trip will be Eddie an Ahousaht resident.
We load up the boards in to the stern of the boat where they look like oversized fishing lures. Liam and Kyle sit in amongst the boards and we release the stern and bow lines from the dock and head out into Clayoquot Sound. In immediate view is the volcanic shaped Lone Cone Mountain iconically sharpening the view to the village of Opitsaht ancestral home of the Tla-o-qui-aht people of the Nuu-chah-nulth nation. The village of about two hundred, lines a beautiful south-facing sand beach on Meares Island. Opitshat means ‘where the sun meets the horizon.’ The simplicity of the translation of the original place names of Vancouver Island are a constant reminder of the relationship between the aboriginal peoples and nature.
Staring out from Opitsaht is a totem pole. On the totem is the personification of D’sonaqua, the wild woman of the bush who came from the moon to the ocean and up the rivers into the forest. She holds beneath her breasts a platter of serpents that contain the power, the force of the sea. A force with which the surfer, cousin to the longboarder tries to live in harmony. Balance is all here.
The sleepy crew all stare out from the boat enchanted by our surroundings. The wake of the boat inscribes our ephemeral presence in these waters as Eddie points to a group of porpoises off our bow.
Grey Whales annually migrate through these waters, bears and wolves dot its’ shores and salmon and cedar form the material foundation for a culture. Out here we are reminded in a most graceful manner as shaped by nature and the storytelling myths of the original peoples of these surroundings that we are the visitors here.
Ahousaht can be translated to mean ‘people living with their backs to the land and mountains on a beach along the open sea.’ As the boat pulls into view of a group of houses Eddie points and says: “This was the whole village.. . this was it.. then they closed the residential schools and our people came back and the village grew. ” Much of that growth takes place in a suburb up on a hill linked to the village by the only two kilometres of asphalt on the entire island.
Most prominent from this view from the boat is the characteristic shape of reserve housing and lurking above it a cross.
The church cross is a reminder of the residential school presence here. The schools were church operated, government funded boarding schools for First Nations children. Children were often forcefully removed from their homes and families and joined other children in isolation from their families. The first schools opened in Ontario in the 1840 and extended across Canada in the 1880s. Residential Schools were a forceful and shocking attempt to suppress traditional aboriginal language and culture in the absence of parental influence in order to assimilate First Nations children into the new colonial society. The effects were devastating including brutal discipline, sexual and psychological abuse. Numerous reports have blamed the schools for contributing to the high rates of substance abuse, suicide and family dysfunction amongst First Nations people. Ahousaht sadly has suffered this history.
Here in Clayoquot Sound two residential schools were in operation one in Ahousaht and another on Meares Island. They finally closed in the early ‘6os. Many adults of Eddie’s generation were the last to experience the horror of the residential schools.
Greeting us on our arrival at the Ahousaht wharf is an SUV with an open gate, numerous dogs and some smiling faces. The gravel road is dotted with huge pot holes and the SUV is filled to the gills with us and the boards as we slowly bounce along to Maaqutisis High School. The school is a year old facility wrapped in First Nations carvings and artwork and designed with a west coast modernism reflecting an outlook of looking forward.
Greeting us are the school principal Scott Maschek and Margaret Dick.
Margaret will be our guide in Ahousaht. Margaret ,40 left the village as a teenager went to the ‘Big Smoke’ of Vancouver only to get lost and in trouble there and came back home to the village of Ahousaht to grow her roots. Margaret is a mother of four, her official title is School Support Worker but unofficially she acts as a den mother of the village.
Absenteeism and attitude explains Margaret are two of the challenges facing educators in the school system in Ahousaht. She discreetly points out one boy to me: “He is the ringleader. If he decides that he is bored with a class he just gets up and leaves the class and a large group of students will follow him. There is nothing the teacher can do. ”
The first group we are to work with are 15 students for their Physical Education Class. The students walk along the gravel roads of Ahousaht till they reach asphalt. Most of the vehicles don’t have licences on them as the unpaved roads fall outside the Department of Motor Vehicles Act. The growth of longboarding here might make for a convincing argument for more asphalt!
We gather in a circle to open up some of the gorgeous boards Landyachtz has graciously supplied. The initially shy students begin to loosen up and a few start slipping on Sector 9 helmets.
We ask for a show of hands of kids who have longboarded before. One hand goes up. The kids break into groups of two and tentatively, curiously get on board. Giggles follow the board riders and laughter will define our entire day.
The ringleader that Margaret had pointed out earlier is now interacting with students “he would never talk to. ” The cruel and often painful aspects of high school hierarchy break down as the wheels on the boards go round and round.
Unexpectedly the English class shows up. Word is out and all the kids want in. “I’m not sure this has much to do with English,” mentions the English teacher.
“You kidding! How about five paragraphs on their experience here,” suggests one wise guy.
During a break we join a group of elders in the lunch room. Pancakes and juice are offered and stories shared. What is clear from our discussion is that Ahousaht’s future will be shaped by honouring their culture and yet moving forward. This longboarding project is one small step in that direction.
Outside the lunch room Margaret’s pick up truck has been loaded up with longboards and sits in the parking lot outside the high school. The elementary school kids who haven’t joined us to this point want to give them a try. On a driveway size slab on concrete in front of the high school, the kids let loose. We let them know if they meet up with us after they get out of school they are free to ride with us.
The day is spent riding the asphalt south toward the new development and north to the old village. The ride acts like a longboard telegraph which measure the arc of the past to the future: the original village of Ahousaht and the future suburb.
The suburb accommodates the growing population that Eddie earlier referred to and creates local employment. As we longboard through the subdivision many of the workers are amused by our presence. The few cars and trucks pass us at a snails pace -everybody knows everybody here and these are their children -they go slow.
Here are a few of those kids:
A young girl in a bright pink outfit passes her surprised Dad who frames a house.
“What cha doing?,” asks her Dad.
“Longboarding! It awesome!”
Her dad giggles.
A big teddy bear boy steps on a board. A broad smile opens under a Sector 9 helmet. The boys suffers from Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder a disease caused by maternal consumption of alcohol during pregnancy and results in a variety of cognitive and behavioural challenges. Liam guides the unsteady boy on his board until. . . until.. . until he is finally able to let go of Liam’s grasp and coast on his own. Both teacher and student sport broad smiles.
Another girl who suffers Usher Syndrome a rare incurable genetic disorder characterized by deaf and blindness is helped by Hailey, her gym teacher onto the board. Hailey and the girl just beam with the rush of the ride and the small victory of getting on board.
Braden has quickly picked up the nuances of riding and is now learning how to slide on a longboard under the tutelage of Kyle Martin.
The sunny day is punctuated with the pungent smell of cedar, salt air and the steady sound of the Cah! Cah! of crows now pierced by the school bell marking the end of the school day. The bell acts like a starters pistol and the elementary school kids literally sprint from school to get to the promised session with the longboards.
And here comes a squadron of kids toward us.
“My sides hurt,” complains one girl running hard.
“Keep running,” urges her friend.
And she does.
Thanks to Margaret and the Ahousaht First Nation for their warm welcome. Thanks you to the fine folks at Landyachtz, Sector 9 and Honey Skateboards. Thanks to Eddie for the boat rides. Thanks to Michael Brooke for his help.
Grant Shilling, a writer, artist and street outreach worker is the author of the Cedar Surf: An Informal History of Surfing In British Columbia (www. cedarsurf. com) and Surfing With the Devil: In Search of Waves and Peace in the Middle East (www. surfingwiththedevil. com).