The wisdom of Xenaksiala elder, residential school survivor, and Kitlope activist Wa’xaid provides a valuable, timely example of the magic that can happen when we all pull together.
THIS IS A SUMMER with some things to celebrate and much to mourn. As COVID restrictions ease, people are giving their first hugs in over a year, coming back into relationship with those who matter and who’ve been missed. But there is no ease for the heartache of the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation finding 215 children buried on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, then Cowessess First Nation identifying 751 unmarked graves near Saskatchewan’s Marieval Indian Residential School, now the community of ʔaq'am, part of the Ktunaxa Nation, identifying 182 shallow, unmarked graves near the former St Eugene’s Mission School. And we know there are many more discoveries to come. It’s a somber time.
Part of honouring those lost lives—and the survivors and subsequent generations who are suffering still—is that we each do our part to do better. That includes listening and learning. In Following the Good River: The Life and Times of Wa’xaid (Rocky Mountain Books, 2020), Salt Spring Island author and educator Briony Penn brings us into relation with Wa’xaid, Cecil Paul, a Xenaksiala elder, residential school survivor, activist and leader.
Cecil Paul/Wa’xaid (photo by Callum Gunn)
Perhaps best known for his successful fight to save the Kitlope (earning the title “hero of the planet”), Penn shows that Wa’xaid’s impact goes much deeper, reaches farther than big media stories. This collaborative project of sharing his life, his teachings, and his heart provides a valuable and timely example of how people from all backgrounds are able to pull together against even the strongest currents—and what magic can happen when we do.
ON THE CENTRAL COAST OF BC, tucked within a network of fjords, channels and inlets, is a river that brings you to lake of blue, milky, glacial water surrounded by steep mountains. It is watched over by T’ismista, the Man Who Turned to Stone, now silently exemplifying the importance of listening to your elders. Through one lens, Kitlope Lake is Ka’ous, a Xenaksiala word translated loosely as “cathedral,” a spiritual place. Through another, it is part of a 322,020-hectare conservancy, the largest unlogged temperate rainforest in the world protected for future generations. Through yet another, it is central to the story of a successful stand against industry—which had its own extractive lens on the Kitlope—that brought together Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples from around the world. Scientists, environmentalists, philanthropists, celebrities, media, even industry big-wigs eventually got into what Paul called the Magic Canoe and worked for protection of the land and water, so transformative was the Kitlope on its visitors.
The Kitlope (photo by Alex Harris)
But as we see through Wa’xaid’s eyes, this place is also home: a site of family memories, cultural wisdom, and personal healing. It is along the river that he was hidden by his grandparents before being taken away to the Alberni residential school at age 10½, and the Kitlope is where he returned after decades in the grip of alcohol and was able to reconnect to his people’s knowledge, to the voice of his granny, to new peace and, eventually, a new purpose.
“When we get to the Kitlope,” he would tell folks he brought up the river, “I'm going to ask you to wash your eyes. Our story says that though you may have 20/20 vision or glasses that improve your vision, we are still blind to lots of things. We are blind to Mother Earth. When you bathe your eyes in the artery of Mother Earth that is so pure, it will improve your vision to see things. I will also ask you to wash your ears so you could hear what goes on around you.”
Many of us will never visit those waters, but thanks to the friendship that made this book possible—a friendship nurtured by the Kitlope—we have the opportunity to wash our eyes and ears in the words of Wa’xaid, the man whose name means “Good River.”
This is not a typical biography that takes you through someone’s life from the outside in a linear journey. Rather, through her recording and transcription of Wa’xaid’s stories in his own words, detailed historical research, intimate interviews and even entries from her own diary spanning their 25-year friendship, Penn creates a book in partnership with Paul that is multi-directional, following the stories as they flow into and out of one another. It means parking your preconceptions and your expectations as you, too, get into the Magic Canoe. No matter how much you might want to know what happens at a particular spot, the playful recurring refrain is: “That story comes a little later.”
“We talked about it all the time, what this book was going to be,” Penn explains as we chat Gulf Island to Gulf Island via the magic of Zoom. “This is an Elder-led book. His story always leads.” And then she goes from there, paddling up winding tributaries into pool after pool of historical, personal, scientific, and legislative information so that we get a larger picture of the whole landscape. You can’t tell the story of a river without understanding what feeds into it, what swirls within and becomes part of it.
Penn is no stranger to the intricate demands of biography. Her 2015 book The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan won the Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize and the inaugural Mack Laing Literary Prize. Of her painstaking efforts in this new endeavour, Penn says, “I wanted to convey the process of doing the research, wanted people to understand that in every one of these archives and in every one of these trips, there was this context that adds to your understanding.” And it was also part of how Paul wanted the book to unfurl. “It reflects his belief that for readers who come from a written tradition, it’s an added security and comfort to them to have the explanation and the context and the written historical references to back up what these stories are meaning—whatever it takes to get people to understand.”
And there is much to understand in a life that reaches as far back into history, through a culture whose stories touch the period of glaciation, and as far forward into our shared future and hope of survival as Cecil Paul’s. The book therefore takes us through the complexities of lineage, language, and territories, and also of wounds, wonders, obstacles and surprising alliances. To grasp his teaching, we need to look at both the chaos of cultural and personal destruction and the almost impossible, beautiful synchronicities that happen along the way.
Sometimes the flow can get a bit bogged down in the side eddy of a particular detail, but the book’s non-linear structure forces you to ask yourself: how much are you willing to be a passenger in the canoe wherever it needs to go? As you read, your continually washed eyes and ears come to notice how her style itself conveys part of Paul’s core message—about collaboration, the importance of patience and a relational versus transactional approach to the world. Penn tells me about how the twin processes of travelling with Paul and delving into records informed her experience of “becoming better educated about our colonial role, your role as a settler ally—but more as a friend. What does friendship actually mean? When you have a transactional relationship with everything, to suddenly be in a relational culture…. That was huge for me.”
One of the gentle undercurrents in the book is, therefore, the story of their friendship, rooted in their shared love for and activism to protect the natural world. Residential school did not teach Wa’xaid to read or write, so Penn had to sometimes act as his guide when reviewing things like historical census papers. She writes: “I read out the document to Cecil as he lies in his bed. When I read, he always closes his eyes and listens: ‘Nos’ta’ (I am listening).” Before his death in December 2020, Paul and his younger sister Louisa were two of the last four fluent speakers of Xenaksiala, and Louisa provided the phonetics and written forms for the book. In a diary entry from 2017, Penn details the scene: “I sit by the kitchen table listening to the two of them speak together. It is like hearing the river moving gently over the stones.” As important as the big events and activism are to Cecil Paul’s life and legacy, these moments of intimacy also shine as examples of the true exchange that becomes possible when people listen closely and openly to one another.
“The beauty of it for me was that the very first words out of his mouth were always welcoming—and watching the power of that to open up people’s hearts and be receptive to what he was about to say,” Penn explains. “I had not fundamentally understood that idea until I watched it, and I could feel it in myself.” Like the Kitlope itself, Wa’xaid had a transformative effect on those who had the privilege to know him.
Sometimes, as we fight what feels like the same battles over and over—another war in the woods over old-growth at Fairy Creek bringing echoes of the fight for the Walbran and the Kitlope—it seems like nothing gets accomplished despite the struggle. But this book shows that sometimes the pressure and passion works. The key, in Wa’xaid’s view and life, is the welcoming and the listening. We see it in the story of saving the Kitlope, as well as in the inspiring story of Cecil’s fight for the return from Sweden of the G’psgolox pole, the first totem pole voluntarily repatriated by a foreign museum to a First Nations community—though the fight for it took 15 years.
Wa’xaid with G’psgolox pole (photo by Kevin Smith)
And we see many other doors that were opened. Some are big doors, like the court settlement with Eurocan involving $30 million to clean up their contamination of the Kitimat River, the ban on trophy hunting in the Kitlope, and Alcan’s building of a breakwater that helped save the burial ground at Kemano from being washed away by industrial impacts. Others are more personal, like Wa’xaid finding his daughter who had been adopted out or the moment he overcame the hatred planted in him at residential school. As he describes it: “One day I’m working—I’m sober maybe eight years—and a guy came up to me. He said, ‘How you stop drinkin, Indian?’ I said, ‘If you wanna stop, I’ll take you to a place that helps us.’ He says, ‘I wanna try.’ ‘Okay. I’ll pick you up tomorrow.’ As Virgil walked away, every bit of my life was Virgil. He was shakin’ this way, snot almost down to his knees, staggering. Walked away, and in my mouth, he says, ‘Brother, I love you. You walk in my moccasins. I love you, my brother.’ Virgil was a white man, and he come and ask an Indian ‘How’d ya stop?’ Virgil broke my hatred of the white man. I don’t hate. It was the system, not the people. That’s what I needed to learn, how to forgive the white man. To trust how to come back.”
“That was always Cecil’s message,” Penn tells me. “That we have so much that we actually can reach back and find that we have in common. We just have to look in the right places.” Wa’xaid lost so much in his life. His father and grandfather were gone when he got out of residential school at 14. He lost connection to the teachings of his Elders and his sobriety for 30 years. He lost several of his own children. And he watched the riches of his land, like the oolican runs, disappear. But as he reconnected to his culture, regained his sobriety, even reuniting with the daughter that had been taken by the ministry, he found and built strength—for himself and others—through a relational worldview and an understanding of how much our collective survival, down to the toadlets he called “brother,” depends on it.
“Cecil was capable of going up to a level 30,000 feet flying above the Earth and understanding cycles, ecological cycles, cultural cycles, human cycles of behaviour,” Penn says, with great admiration and affection. “His desire to have the book written was he knew that humanity was going to be facing extraordinary problems. Reaching back in his culture, there’s the long view there. We don’t really have that long-term view. If you don’t understand the relational nature of humans, not only to each other but to the ecosystem, we’re just not going to get it. And the teaching from his culture is everyone’s got to get in the canoe and cooperate.” That is a message so desperately needed whether for working to protect the environment or for developing our relationships, as settlers are everyday brought into closer relation with the pain of Indigenous communities. We are the ones who need to make the effort to get into the canoe and pull hard towards understanding, humility, empathy, and reconciliation.
Briony Penn and Wa’xaid (photo by Callum Gunn)
As I write on July 1, 2021, it is not a day for noisy celebration but for quiet reflection, with eyes and ears washed in the words of the Good River. “We are so busy, we don’t have the time for all these beautiful things,” Wa’xaid explains to those willing to come along with him. “If you have the willingness and courage to do that, you will see little things that you have never seen before. You will take a better look at your children, your grandchildren, your best friend. You will say, ‘Oh, I never saw that before.’ To get that vision back—and when you get that back—you will be more kind to whoever comes in your path on this journey.”
Besides the book Following the Good River, you can read more of Cecil Paul’s stories and reflections in his own words, as told to Penn and others, in Stories from the Magic Canoe of Wa’xaid (RMB, 2019)
Amy Reiswig is a Mayne Island-based writer.