My friend Marlene’s husband Larry used to go to Alert, aka the North Pole, on business for 6 months at a time. Larry also loves to fish. So when we arrived at Port McNeill and decided to board the ferry to Alert Bay, I figured Larry used to go to this great fishing area and tell his wife he was actually in the great north.
Alert Bay is on Cormorant Island, about 20 minutes by ferry from Port McNeill. It is home of the ‘Namgis First Nation Culture. As you approach the bay, you can see the colourful buildings along the waterfront. There are also 3 very colourful double decker buses parked near the ferry dock. I don’t think they are used for anything except as a photo op. The island has the world’s tallest totem pole as well as 23 other totems scattered throughout.
When we arrived, there seemed to be some celebration at the municipal docks which turned out to be the closing ceremonies and prize awarding for the Alert Bay 360 kayak race. We found our campsite, a relaxed affair in the ecological park and met some of the kayakers. Dave Ursulak (a fellow Ontarian, retired teacher and avid kayaker) invited us to come to the Big House for the dinner and evening celebrations. We decided to eat some of our leftover salmon but found it too quiet in the campground so we went to watch the dancing after all.
We got to the Big House and sat in the bleachers while people finished their seafood buffet meal. And then the dancing began along with explanations of the ‘Namgis culture. I didn’t take many pictures as we were asked not to share them without permission. The basic meaning behind the dances is that a feast or potlatch was held to commemorate important events such as births, deaths, weddings, etc. The ‘Namgis people had an oral tradition and therefore didn’t write things down. Guests were invited to witness events and the host would then donate all his worldly belongings to his guests (or at least be what we would consider generous in the extreme). The more the host gave away, the richer he was considered. Unfortunately, this practice was banned in the late 1880s, so the dances, songs and all the cultural regalia (ceremonial masks and button blankets) disappeared as well. Many of these artifacts found themselves in private collections and the ‘Namgis people have been trying to reclaim them since regaining their right to hold potlaches a few decades ago. The U’mista Cultural Centre is a sort of museum that houses the artifacts they have been able to gather and tells the stories of the people. One of the sayings in the museum was that they were happily sharing their cultural artifacts as they felt it had been hidden away for long enough.
A major landmark on the island is the shell of the old St. Michael’s residential school. The school was one of the last ones to be closed in the 1970s. It is scheduled for demolition as it is crumbling and contains asbestos. However, the community cannot afford the cost of tearing it down at this time. So there sits the symbol of oppression, a system that these people did not ask to join and that almost annihilated their culture, yet they have to look at it like a dirty stain on their proud land. So sad…
We had a chance to chat with the nice young man at the Visitors’ Centre. It turned out that he was also from Ontario, having moved to the island 4 years ago when his father took over as the Anglican Minister. He told us that he did not feel too welcomed as St. Michael’s was an Anglican school. Still, he was looking forward to going to university in Halifax this September. He figured he had a good average and won several academic awards along with a scholarship. Unfortunately, the BC teachers were on strike at the end of the school year, so he has not received any of his official paperwork except a letter from the government telling him that he graduated. At least he did have a graduating ceremony, this being organized by the parents. His high school was in Port McNeill so he had to take a water taxi to school each day. He told us they have high wind days instead of snow days there when the students cannot make it over to the school.