On Saturday, June 27th, 2015 for the first time in a century, traditional First Nations war canoe races were held in Victoria’s Inner Harbour. The theme of this historic event hosted by Greater Victoria Harbour Authority was bringing the canoes home to Ku-Sing-ay-las which was the traditional village site of the Lekwungen people in the Inner Harbour.
Five First Nations from across Vancouver Island participated in the war canoe demonstration event which began with a prayer ceremony and traditional blessings, followed by a traditional welcome, a blanketing ceremony and two First Nations dance troupes. The races started at Laurel Point with the finish line in front of the Ship Point Pier, where bleachers were set up to accommodate spectators for the race.
In the early 1900’s canoe racing in the Inner Harbour was part of the annual May 24th Queen Victoria’s birthday celebrations. First Nations canoe races were also held on the Gorge waterway, an inland extension of Victoria’s main harbour.
A traditional war canoe is hand carved from red cedar and is approximately 40 feet long. Straight blade paddles were used in the past but today several different types of paddles are used besides the straight blade style. Typically a canoe would hold eleven people but there is also a six seater (called a six man) and a two seater (called a double). In a classic race event people would paddle four races with different heats and age categories.
To become a canoe team member, individuals must wait until they are asked by either an Elder or by the owner of a war canoe. It is a serious honour to be asked to be a member of a war canoe team. To refuse the honour is deemed to be an equally serious dishonour. In accepting to be a team member, individuals commit themselves to challenges which they can later proudly claim to have faced. Canoe pulling is much more than a sport; it is a spiritual and a physical battle which involves the individual puller, the team, and the community the team represents.
War canoe pullers are accountable for all aspects of their behaviour, before, during, and after a race and there are certain rituals they must perform daily. For at least three months preceding the races, team members are required to train by jogging, swimming, and weight lifting twice a day.
All pullers practice and train together so they can function as one solid unit when they race. The reason for the extensive training in canoe racing tradition is that once a canoe race begins, the pullers cannot stop or slow down until the race is completed. A typical race course runs 20-45 minutes.
Throughout the race, it is essential team members maintain the steady, united rhythm which they developed during training. For this reason, it is also imperative a person commit to being a team member for an entire season as adding a new member to a team that has established its timing and rhythm increases chances of tipping the canoe as he or she will likely offset the crew's synchronicity.
Greater Victoria Harbour Authority is committed to supporting the cultural tradition of war canoe racing by helping to sponsor Island-based teams. The magic of war canoe racing extends far beyond the perimeters of any one canoe or crew, and reaches into the hearts of people from every walk of life. In the summer months, countless tourists are drawn to witness the races. The tradition of war canoe racing has been known to have a healing effect on communities by bringing all the people closer together while sharing in laughter, anticipation, and pride.