Remembering Cecil Paul

It is with extreme sadness that we acknowledge the passing of Wa’Xaid, Cecil Paul Sr., a hero lost to this world. It is hard to find the words to accurately describe how his wisdom, integrity, counsel, clear vision, and his quiet powerful stories had such a deep and lasting impact on all of us at Raincoast. Wa’Xaid’s approach to major conservation challenges, such as protecting the magnificent Kitlope Valley (the place of his birth) from logging, served as a guidepost for Raincoast moving forward. 

In his book, Stories from the Magic Canoe, he explained how his canoe could make room for anyone who would paddle on the journey together. The respectful and collaborative relationships that we are privileged to have with First Nations communities on the coast are rooted in his counsel.

The Power of Stories

“And this is where I will rest when my time comes to go to sleep.” The words, spoken quietly and with a huge smile, I heard for the first time. It seemed unlikely that time  would ever come. He was a big man, strong and agile and healthy.His face, ruggedly handsome, could have been chiseled from the granite monoliths towering above our small group. 

The words came from Wa’xaid, Cecil Paul Sr. who I had just met the previous night. It was a gorgeous spring day, (greenup time, he called it) and we were in Kemano, a major village site of the Xenaksiala people. As we walked among the headstones, some standing, some lying on the forest floor, he had just introduced us to each of his ancestors, including his great uncle who gave him his name and title as chief of the killer whale clan of the Xenaksiala people.

I heard him speak those words many times, only half believing them, but almost three decades later, that time has come. Wa’xaid, my brother, will rest in that spot. 

I had no idea of scale or significance of the journey I was embarking on or the impact it would have on my life when I accepted an invitation from the Haisla council  to bring Maple Leaf and some guests including some media, into the Kitlope Valley to help support them in their fight to protect it from imminent logging. They felt we could show the world it’s beauty and it’s potential for eco-tourism as an alternative to industrial forestry. Two hereditary chiefs would be our guides.

That morning Wa’xaid introduced us to his “little granny,” who raised him and was his great teacher. Upturned on her grave was a small traditional carved cedar canoe with a fine green shadow of moss. 

“That canoe fed our families well didn’t it John?” Johnny Wilson, chief Sona’xaid smiled and nodded.” We paddled that canoe up here from Kitamaat so many times, hunting and trapping and fishing.” They had recently placed it on the grave.

One end was cut off and a small piece of wood formed a flat transom.“We cut that off to put a 3 hp outboard motor on it,” he said. ”Remember when we’d run up and down in front of the village showing off and hollering that there would be no more paddling for us!” “We felt like kings!” John added with a smile ”The old folks would holler back that we were going to get fat!” 

In the years to come, from countless stories I would hear, I came to understand the massive changes that had occurred in his lifetime. 

“In my lifetime,” he said one day, “I have seen my father take down a deer with a bow he made, and I witnessed a man put his footprints on the moon. I could believe this, but I never imagined that in my lifetime, I would witness the death of a great river.” He was referring to the destruction of the Kitimat River from industrial pollution and the effects of massive logging.

“This is my mountain,” he said, his sweeping arm including the whole of the monolithic landscape. It was a reference, not to his ownership of the place, but to his sacred responsibility as a Xenaksiala chief to protect it. Over the years, I would come to know some of the Xenaksiala names of mountains, bays, rivers, village sites and waterfalls and the stories embedded in them. It was literally a landscape of stories. Stories like the one of T’ismista, the stone hunter, who sits brooding above Kitlope Lake, the “cathedral” of their people, a reminder through millenia, to not ignore the experience of your elders.

He explained that the Huschdsduwaschdu (Gardner Canal on the nautical chart) was the “bank of their people” and that for millenia, they made “withdrawals” from their accounts; they would only withdraw the interest, never touching the principal.

The warm cottonwood scented breeze blew across the estuary that morning, as we sat on a big log on the beach, Maple Leaf lying at anchor in front of us, seeming small in the majestic beauty. 

We had just returned from a visit upriver to the oolichan camp, where Haisla and Xenaksiala families gather to harvest the small fish and process it into the “best grease on the coast.”

Wa’xaid explained not just how the fish was caught and processed, but how important it was to his people and about grease trails, trade routes that took the highly prized food from Kemano and Kitlope out to much of western North America. He talked about the joy that it brings to the families and how it draws them together in their identity. He told us of their concerns that the fish would be wiped out by the completion of the Kemano 2 dam.

To every question posed by me or one of the guests, he replied with a story. Some were short, others longer. Some from his personal experiences, others passed down for generations.

It was a pattern I was to see repeated over and over again for the next 27.5 years.

When I look back on that first day, I understand it was the beginning of my education.

I had had some great experiences with fine anthropologists, like Kevin Neary who travelled with me on Maple Leaf in Haida Gwaii, and some exposure to wonderful Haida elders. While I had gained some academic and intellectual understanding of indigenous cultures on the coast, it is  so clear to me now that I didn’t know what I didn’t know. In the course of many trips into the Kitlope, and many visits to his home in Kitamaat Village, I was privileged to walk with Wa’xaid and learn from him for more than two and a half decades. Like so many, I was recruited to help paddle his Magic Canoe which is described so beautifully in his book.

As we sat on that log at Kemano that first day, I felt that must be the most beautiful place on earth. Anchoring at the mouth of the Kitlope River later that same day, surrounded by it’s breathtaking beauty, and looking into the lush green valley that is the world’s largest intact coastal temperate rainforest, I realized I was wrong.

The Kitlope River was where Wa’Xaid introduced us to the custom of “washing your face”.

“Pay particular attention to your eyes and ears”, he said. “And let the pure waters of the artery of mother earth, wash away the things from your journey that don’t allow you to hear or to see the things that are in front of us.”

For the next few days and then years, I was privileged to hear so many stories. I came to understand, as Thomas King wrote: “Such is the power of stories.”

The Haisla and Xenaksiala people were successful in their fight to protect the Kitlope. One of the great honours of my life was to stand with them in that fight. Wa’xaid told us of all the times his people had been displaced and their bank had been robbed. He said “we will not take one more step back. I will shed my blood here in the sand of the Kitlope if necessary to protect the place of my birth.” I vowed to shed mine beside his if it became necessary. Fortunately, without so much as a cut finger, the area was protected from logging; a beautiful gift to the world and future generations. This great victory was achieved, not by blockades and protests, but by the power of stories.

This was not the only battle I was privileged to share with him as he fulfilled his sacred duty to protect his mountain. I was proud to join their fight to protect their oolichan run from the impacts of the Kemano 2 Completion Project and later, along with my Raincoast family, to oppose the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline. His quiet, powerful eloquence was instrumental in halting both.

“Did you go to school?” Someone asked one day as we sat by the fire in Kitlope. There was a long pause before he spoke.“ It was a beautiful day, much like this one,” he said, ”I was exploring the bay, paddling in the little canoe that my uncle had carved for me. My little granny came down to the beach and called me over. I could tell by her walk that her heart was heavy. “You need to pack. You’re going on a journey,” she told me.

“Where am I going?” I asked her. “To school,” she told me. “Later that day, a boat came into the bay. A bit smaller than your beautiful big canoe,” he said, referring to Maple Leaf. “I got on the boat and it was full of kids from all over the coast. I never got to see too many kids so it was really exciting and lots of fun. We travelled for two or three days on the boat. I didn’t know where we were going. Later on I found out it was the Indian residential school in Port Alberni. When we got there there were lots of kids. We were really excited. I was talking with my brother Russel in our native tongue; none of us spoke English. This man came down to meet us. The headmaster.  He gathered the rest of the kids around in a big circle. He picked out Russel and I as an example and he abused  us in front of all the other kids. You will speak English from now on, this man told us.”

A bit at a time, over the years, he revealed to me some of the horrors of that place and the devastating impact it had on his life. He shared openly the destruction that alcohol had wreaked in his life as he drank “to hide the shame and hurt.” As he moved further and further from those dark days, he gave much of his time to helping others fight that battle.

On a BC ferry one day, I was sitting by a stranger. He was wearing a large, beautifully carved gold amulet. I asked who the carver was and we talked a while. I told him I was returning from Kitamaat. When I mentioned that I was visiting Cecil Paul, he looked at me intently and said, ”That man saved my life.” 

He told me that he had owned several seine boats, and thought he was a big man. He told me that through drink, he lost it all. He told me that Cecil spoke at a meeting of AA in Port Hardy one night and that his story helped him realize that even when he had so much “stuff” he was empty inside. He told me he hadn’t had a drink since that night.

I met several people through the years who credited him with saving their life from the ravages of alcohol. Whenever he was in another town or city, he made it a habit to go to a local AA meeting. His decision to do that one night in Port Hardy saved a man’s life.

Stories from the Magic Canoe, a book Briony Penn helped Cecil put together is an excellent description of Cecil’s life and the impact he had on his community, and his efforts to protect his mother – the earth. It contains many of the stories that define the arc of the amazing life of this man.

Through the years, I had a million questions and every question led to a story. While my brother has blessed me to tell some of these stories, I can never forget that I didn’t  live them. They are his stories, from a time in his life that we shared, a time where he was healthy and significantly healed. I also try to never forget that my life has been a life of immense privilege.

There are other stories. The stories of his wife and children that are equally profoundly important. Their memories, their experiences with him, and their loss are different than mine. I, and many of the people who signed on to paddle in his Magic Canoe, shared the good times with him and witnessed the grace, resolve and quiet strength he exhibited in his journey to protect his homeland; “the beautiful battle,” he called it. His family lived through the other times as well.

I mistakenly thought I understood the concept of the intergenerational trauma of the residential schools. It is the stories of the survivors of the survivors that will help us to really understand it. 

To all of them I want to say what my brother often said to me. “Nosta!” I am listening, I am trying to understand.

It’s not possible in this small space to describe how his wisdom, integrity, clear vision, and his quiet powerful stories had such a deep and lasting impact on all of us at Raincoast.

The battle to protect the Kitlope Valley in the early 1990s brought us together as our “chosen family” and his counsel really served to guide and define Raincoast through the years.

“Don’t go into these communities blowing hard like the cold north wind,” he told us.“The people will go inside and you will be alone. Build bridges instead, so that you can walk together.”

In his book, the Magic Canoe, he explained how his canoe could make room for anyone who would paddle on the journey together. The respectful, close and collaborative relationships that we are privileged to have with First Nations communities on the coast are rooted in this counsel.

As we sat around the fire in Kitlope one evening, someone asked him “Don’t you ever get depressed and tired of the constant need to fight to protect your homeland from so many 

destructive forces?” The question weighed heavily on him and he thought for a moment. He lifted his head and his huge smile lit the entire space. “Yes,” he said quietly, “but it is a beautiful battle.”

Roughly 27.5 years have passed since that first day. The little canoe has melted into the ground and is covered with a thick layer of moss. Kitlope was protected from the destruction of logging, Kemano 2 was stopped, and likewise the Northern Gateway Pipeline was halted. The graves of your ancestors are protected from erosion, the pole, stolen from the place of your birth, has returned, and recently, you helped us to purchase the trophy hunting rights in the Kitlope, ending a practise you and the Haisla community abhorred. Rest well Minay. You have earned it.

I am not the only one Wa’xaid called Minay, “Brother” or “Sister.” There were many who learned from him and fought beside him. He had many brothers and sisters. His love was big enough for all of us.I am forever proud to be among them .Wa’xaid, our canoe is full of strong paddlers and we aren’t weary.

You will always be our tla’lahila… our steersman.

In the words you spoke so many times as we parted, “May the warm breath of the creator blow softly upon your face.”

Such is the power of stories.