A Cariboo woman embarked along with dozens of police and First Nations youth and community members on the 2019 Pulling Together Canoe Journey down the Powell River from July 4 to 11.
Pulling Together is an annual canoe journey that has been taking place in B.C. since 2001 when it was founded by now-retired RCMP Staff Sergeant Ed Hill who had taken part in the Vision Quest Journey of 1997, which included RCMP officers and First Nations members working together to visit coastal communities across B.C. Recognizing the importance of the canoe to many First Nations cultures, Hill recognized that a joint canoe trip between members of police officers and First Nations communities could go a long way to reconciliation and the promotion of understanding.
Since that first trip, thousands have taken part in the 18 that have followed coming from communities and police departments from across B.C. all with the goal of creating more harmonious relations between two groups who historically have had a rocky relationship. Every night now, participants in pulling together are invited to share their stories and experiences with one another, while the group is educated on the culture of the local Indigenous nation whose territory they’re passing through.
Perhaps none understand both parties better than Alkali Lake’s Synthia Paul, a civilian member of the Vancouver Police Department and a Secwepemc woman who is in the process of becoming a uniformed police officer herself. Paul is currently working as a youth counsellor in a treatment centre run by Vancouver Coastal Health, which has kept her in touch of the needs of community members the RCMP and police most try to reach with undertakings like Pulling Together. In the past, she’s worked with VPD’s Indigenous Cadet Program which gave her first-hand experience as a police officer, which cemented her decision to take it up full time.
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“I think just being able to help people in any way, I feel like (police work) is not the same thing repetitively every day it’s something new and different every day, dealing with different people. Being able to problem-solve and be hands-on is kind of what I like, I’m allowed to experience and do different things every day while being able to help people in the community,” Paul said.
Paul first became involved with pulling together though the cadet program two years ago and while apprehensive at first, she quickly came to appreciate the way First Nation’s youth and police officers came to interact. The theme of each version of Pulling Together is very much centred around reconciliation, Paul said, with representatives from police departments coming from across the lower mainland attending alongside First Nations activist groups and youth programs to bridge the gaps between police and Indigenous communities.
“That’s a lot what it’s about and making those connections on the journey that we’re all human and that we want to be able to support each other,” Paul said.
Part of this process is having honest conversations with one another and sharing their own personal stories Paul said, with an ultimate goal of having positive interactions and connections, rather than staying stuck in the old divisions.
During the actual canoe part of the journey on the water, Paul served as a puller sitting in the bow of the canoe controlling the speed of the vessel under the instructions of the skipper. The journey, Paul said, is continuous happening on both land and water as every night they need to clean the canoes and make sure the gear is prepared for the next day.
While in the canoe Paul said there is ample opportunity for participants to share their life stories with one another while working together. Everyone who attends, officers and First Nations people alike, wants to be there, she added.
As a First Nations woman working to become a police officer, this trip is especially important as it allows her to connect with people on both sides of the canoe. Often when Paul tells members of First Nations communities she’s looking to become a cop she gets accused of being a traitor initially before she explains to them what she’s aiming to do.
“A lot of it comes down to knowledge, you only know what you know. If the police officers don’t know or don’t fully understand where we’re coming from as First Nations people it is harder for them. I’ve only been with the department for three years but a lot of people I know in the department continue to ask questions so that they can gain an understanding on why we First Nations people are the way we are,” Paul said. “Just being able to (help) build the connections to the police department and to my First Nations brothers and sisters I feel like I could play a huge part in that.”
The standout moment in Pulling Together for herself, however, is watching Indigenous youth, often for the first time, get up in front of 350 to 400 people and say they are happy to be Indigenous. Watching them find their voices is the most rewarding part of the entire journey, Paul said.
“(The trip) it’s exhausting but it’s a great feeling once you’re done, like a sense of accomplishment. Physically it’s demanding but it’s most definitely a rewarding experience,” Paul said.
In the future, Paul would like to challenge more Shuswap communities to take part in this canoe trip for the “powerful experience” and the chance to build connections with members of law enforcement and fellow First Nations communities.