On stories which change the world

People_canoeing_in_wild_natureIn Darwin, Australia in May of this year the World Indigenous Network held a conference. It brought together 1400 indigenous leaders from around the world to explore ways of standing up to the ongoing industrialisation of indigenous lands around the planet. One of the delegates and speakers was a Canadian called Eric Young, who gave a keynote speech about a story entitled The Magic Canoe (see below for the story) as a metaphor for social transformation. Eric Young is a kind of social change pioneer; he was one of a small circle of people who were associated in the 1990s with efforts by the Haisla First Nation and Ecotrust to protect the Kitlope, a large area of old-growth forest in northern British Columbia. He initiated one of the world’s first social innovation think-tanks a number of years ago and was recently appointed a distinguished visiting professor at Ryerson University and is currently developing a new vehicle for social change known as The Boldness Project.

Here, in a recent article about The Magic Canoe, is what Young says about the need for stories like this: ‘”The 21st Century is a battle for narrative,” Young says. “In the developed world, we are not only running out of resources, we are running out of narrative. We’ve come to believe that we live in an economy and that our entire well-being depends on that.” On the contrary, Young believes – and he says this was amply on view in Australia and in the reaction that The Magic Canoe got at the conference there – “story matters profoundly. People (in Darwin) were captivated by the sense of possibility in The Magic Canoe. My hunch that there is something universal and archetypal in this story was borne out.”‘

You can find a PDF of one of Young’s speeches about The Magic Canoe from 2007 online here. Here’s what he says about it:

“Let me tell you a story. It is set in a place called the Kitlope River – which is located up on the BC coast, not far from the border with Alaska. It is a place of wild and extraordinary beauty, remote and accessible only by water. The Kitlope and the lands that surround it constitute the largest intact coastal temperate rainforest on the planet. This is the ancestral and spiritual homeland of the Haisla people. The story involves a man I’ve come to call my friend. His name is Cecil Paul. He is 75 years old and Chief of the Whale Clan. He was born on the Kitlope when there were only a handful of families still living there. The rest had been wiped out by epidemics of flu and smallpox, or had relocated to the village of Kitimat. When he was a young boy, Cecil was plucked from the Kitlope by the residential school program. As if being taken from his family, his culture and the only world he knew wasn’t cruel enough, he was also subjected to prolonged and terrible abuse (all under the guise of that strategy whose proclaimed purpose was to “Canadianize the savages”). Broken by this experience, Cecil eventually made his way to Vancouver where, for the next thirty years, he became a drunk, living on the streets. The kind of person we see – with shaming regularity – in cities across Canada. It is not just their shame. But ours. We may turn a blind eye. We may feel pity. We may even feel a desire to help. But what we don’t do is to imagine the potential for power there. The power to transform their own lives, let alone the lives of their communities. But that’s exactly what Cecil did. At some point – and with considerable difficulty – he made his way from the streets of Vancouver back up to the Kitlope. He said he felt a calling (from his ancestors) that broke through the alcoholic haze. There were no people living on the Kitlope now. Cecil sat there alone for days – maybe weeks. And finally resolved to give up alcohol to assume his role and responsibilities in the community. But, understandably, the community was pretty dysfunctional, many of its members suffering from a legacy similar to Cecil’s. In 1990, Cecil discovered surveyors’ markings, indicating that a logging road was about to be cut into the territory. The logging company held the license for this part of BC, and they were operating within their rights. But this was a nightmare come true. Even though logging would mean jobs and money for the community, Cecil realized that it would do irreparable ecological harm and destroy the spiritual foundation of the Haisla. The story of what happened over the next four years is long and complex and involves many players. There isn’t the time to relate it here. But this is key:

At first there was just Cecil. As he describes it, “I was alone in a canoe. But it was a magical canoe. It was a magical canoe because there was room for everyone who wanted to come into it, to paddle together. The currents against us were very strong. But I believed we could reach our destination. And that we had to for our survival.” Not everyone agreed. The community was divided. The appeal of jobs and money was strong. For many, the chance to address immediate and pressing needs took precedence over the vaguer argument for existential needs. Short-term interests seemed more compelling than long-term dreams. But even where there wasn’t disagreement, there was a pervasive sense of defeatism. A sense that the community had no capacity – and no authority – to stand up to more powerful forces. To change the inevitable. But Cecil held to his ambitious dream. He won over the elected chief who joined him in his canoe. Then another member of the community. Then another. Though there were still divisions, more and more people began to align. To paddle together – with as Cecil says, “new hope in their hearts, as though they were waking from a long slumber”. Eventually they attracted the attention – and then the support – of an environmental organization called Ecotrust. They got to Mike Harcourt, who was premier of BC at the time. There was no simple political solution to saving the Kitlope, but he joined the canoe. Then, astonishingly, so did a man named Hank Ketchum. He was the CEO of the logging company. Swayed by an understanding of his company’s potential impact on the future of the place and the people, he announced that the company would voluntarily relinquish their logging rights to the territory (which comprised almost 800 000 acres) without condition and without compensation. In 1994, the territory was designated the Kitlope Heritage Conservancy, assuring protection in perpetuity for the largest coastal temperate rainforest remaining on earth. Saving the Kitlope was a big thing. A big, improbable victory for the place the Haisla call home, and for the future. I had the opportunity to visit the Kitlope once in the presence of Cecil and was waxing on with great enthusiasm about what had been accomplished there. Cecil looked at me with this wise, patient smile of his – he possesses the greatest moral authority of just about anyone I’ve ever met – and said, “You know, you guys call it ‘the Kitlope’. But in our language we call it ‘Huchsduwachsdu Nuyem Jees’. That means ‘land of the milky blue waters and the sacred stories contained in this place’. You think it’s a victory because we saved the land. But what we really saved is our heritage – our stories which are embedded in this place and couldn’t survive without it and contain all our wisdom for living.”

Young says of the magic canoe that it is “A vessel that can accommodate everyone who wants to come on board. That somehow becomes an attractor that draws people in. That aligns energy and thereby gains power. So that it can be paddled successfully against the current.”

We’re going to need more stories like this as we stand together in these difficult times and try to carve out new ways of approaching the future. It’s about building what Young calls ‘a culture of creativity’, rather than a culture of despair and defeat. It’s about preserving the heritage and the culture and the languages and the places. It’s about digging inside ourselves to find the strength and the resources to move forward with hope and with love and never, ever to give up.


2 thoughts on “On stories which change the world

  1. Wonderful article and story, Sharon. I love the idea of the Magic Canoe. I’m going to try to think in terms of Magic Canoes in future. Thank you.


  2. This is an incredibly moving and hope filled piece, and very instructive. I have sometimes guarded my canoe, and welcomed only those I knew shared my vision. That’s not the way to make the canoe magic…I understand that now. Thank you for this reminder of the power of community and the power of listening to an internal call…amazing stuff. I also dropped by Sharon, because I wanted to invite you to check out a poem I posted on my blog today…if you feel drawn, pop by:-) Blessings, Harula xxxx


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