Photo by © Gary McNutt

Picture this: A tall wooden sailing ship is anchored against a backdrop of mountains and a city skyline. People step out on the beach carrying canoes, kayaks, paddleboards and makeshift rafts. Drummers launch the flotilla with blessings and honour songs. Little groups of people slip into the sea and paddle out to the mothership: couples on stand-up paddleboards, families with picnics in canoes, teenagers packed into rowboats, intrepid solo swimmers. A curious seal pops up from the turquoise water, its head shining like a jewel. Then: the music begins, and the crowd rides the swell of sound as the setting sun drenches everyone in golden light.

That’s what it looked like at Vancouver’s Jericho Beach this August when RAVEN (Respecting Aboriginal Values and Environmental Needs) held its Festival Afloat, a paddle-powered, on-the-water celebration of Indigenous rights that raised $25,000 for Heiltsuk Nation. In addition to supporting the Nation’s strategic legal action to protect the Great Bear Sea, the event was also a joyous community awakening after a long, dark pandemic year.

With performances from the deck of the tall ship Providence, RAVEN’s Festival Afloat was part of a series of fundraising events from Victoria to Montreal, organized by people wanting to take action and use their talents to uphold Indigenous rights and environmental protection. In the midst of the hottest year on record, at the tapering end of a pandemic, and still raw from news of thousands of unmarked graves unearthed at residential schools, the festival became a way for people to gather and build community.

Putting reconciliation into action

First Nations in Canada have some of the strongest environmental rights in the world, but only if they can afford to defend them in court. Says Saul Brown, Reconciliation Negotiator with Heiltsuk Nation, “Canadians and others alike can now contribute to our means of accessing justice, by actually making Canada live up to its own laws and breathing life into our legal systems. To me, that’s a beautiful story of being on the right side of history.”

Indigenous communities have always been leaders in environmental protection. There’s a deep tradition of Indigenous people protecting land, air, and water, joined now by strong scientific testimony about what’s going on in the planet’s climate. The oldest wisdom on the earth and the newest now say the same thing: we must take bold, immediate action to push back against reckless development and preserve a safe climate for our children and grandchildren.

Paddle-powered solidarity

Paddling traditions go way back here in what is now called Canada. Indigenous Peoples have journeyed these lands by canoe and kayak since time immemorial. So when seven First Nations came together to fight a tar sands pipeline, what better symbol to gather under than that of a canoe full of warriors, pulling together?

What became known as the Pull Together campaign energized a movement of people to take action by bringing their talents and passions forward, donating, fundraising, and organizing events in support of an oil-free coast. Incredibly, Pull Together raised over a million dollars, from concerts held in community halls, to the People’s Prom in East Van, drag shows in Montreal, student bake sales, and companies donating everything from yoga classes to chocolate bars.

When people come together behind Indigenous leaders to protect what we all love, says Heiltsuk Nation’s Jess Housty, “There is no force in the country more powerful.”

Climate resilience is a team sport

The scale of the climate crisis can feel overwhelming, but when we pull together and invest in bold strategic change, we build resilience while charting a new course for our shared future. RAVEN is excited to partner with community organizers and supporters from coast to coast to coast who want to stand in solidarity with First Nations and help enshrine stewardship values into law.

The perfect ship to navigate the coming storm is not a battleship but a flotilla. The waters are rising all around us, but this movement can swim.

Sustain RAVEN’s work as a monthly donor. Join the Circle of Allies: raventrust.com/donate

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Guided by some of the most brilliant legal advisors in the country, RAVEN Trust work to enshrine environmental justice for all. The law is clearly on the side of Indigenous peoples: their victories protect us all.

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