A large, hollowed out piece of black cottonwood is sitting in the foyer at École de l’Anse-au-sable, waiting to be transformed into a canoe.
As the tree is carved into a narrow boat using traditional methods, students are learning what the canoe represents for First Nations people, and why it’s an important part of their history.
The francophone school has partnered with Le Centre cultural francophone de l’Okanagan and Westbank First Nation as part of an aboriginal awareness project, which has received $10,000 in funding from the Central Okanagan Foundation.
“It’s opening the door of (French) culture to meet the aboriginal culture, and possibly to learn from each other,” said Jean Savoie, a teacher at École de l’Anse-au-sable.
“We’re hoping the aboriginal elders will continue to come to our school and tell us their story: It’s an incredible story.”
Elder Richard Louis, a former cowboy and saddle maker, is leading the carving project.
He learned the craft of building canoes from his grandfather and some of his uncles, and began building them himself in the early 1990s.
He said the purpose of the school project goes further than simply showing the students how a canoe is built.
“It’s getting the two cultures together and getting them to understand what our culture is and what it used to be,” said Louis.
That lesson begins by teaching the students to respect the canoe as well as the water it will eventually travel on.
“The water is very, very important to us: It’s part of our life.
“The canoe was used to go from one community to the other; that was everybody’s way of travelling back then. They used it for fishing, travelling and going back and forth.”
Louis said building a canoe typically takes two-and-a-half to three months. The students will get to participate in some of the hands-on building, such as sanding the boat.
“We’ll try to get them to where they can do some of the work inside so they can feel that they’re part of it.”
Very little of the black cottonwood log will go to waste. The piece that was removed when the log was hollowed out will eventually be made into paddles, seats and backrests.
The canoe that’s created will be fully functional.
Although no plans are firm just yet, Savoie said he could imagine field trips potentially taking place in the future where students are given the opportunity to explore the water in the canoe they helped build.
Louis agreed getting out on the water is an important part of the educational experience.
“They can learn about what it feels like…because once you get on the water, the water is a great healer,” said Louis.
“When you get out there with the canoe…there’s no greater feeling.”