Paddle Lab

Paddle Lab was an experiment to engage Indigenous and settler youth in cross-cultural conversation.

Twenty participants, mostly youth and young adults from Manitoulin Island, Sault Ste Marie and Wahnapitae First Nation, gathered on the the edge of Lake Huron at Mudge Bay, and ventured out in canoes to broach tough subjects related to the history and current state of relations between First Nations and settler communities in Canada. These conversations were generated within and between canoes as participants were challenged to work together to learn paddling skills, move from boat to boat while on the water, and change positions within the boat, steadying each other for the shifts. The awareness and care needed to undertake these actions in canoes, can translate directly into collaborative skills that can strengthen other shared work on land, in day-to-day contexts.

Before heading out on the water, Jordan Tabobondung provided some wampum teachings to frame the day, and Elder Josh Eshkawkogan offered an opening ceremony for the group on the morning of the paddle lab, sending the group off with the message: “Today you will learn about working together…Use your gifts with respect for what’s around you. Water is grounding. Be aware and be safe.”

Stephanie Recollet, an experienced canoe guide and facilitator from Wahnapitae First Nation, led all the participants in these trust-building activities, and co-facilitated with Jordan Tabobondung, a floating conversation-based activity that built knowledge about the history and impact of colonization. Participants engaged in an exchange of items between the canoes, such as stones, cloth, earth models, and birch bark. We reflected, and discussed what these items might mean in the context of colonization and reconciliation. Each person shared different ideas from their own background and experience.

It was a windy day. We had to adjust our route, adapt activities as we went, and work together to keep each boat in communication with the other, and keep together. During a shore lunch participants learned about starting fires without matches, and made bannock to cook over the fire.

Several youth participants said they would not have been interested in coming to a lecture or a discussion: being out on canoes made a difference. Paddle Lab, like other 4elements’ programs, offered a different way of engaging, in new places, encouraging new people to participate.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission made several recommendations that tie into 4elements’ interdisciplinary work. One call is to “develop culturally appropriate education.” 4e’s land-based outings and workshops intend to re-connect learning to the places about which (and where) we’re learning, and to allow space for embodying that learning physically. Working on the water, using hands-on skills to integrate multiple senses and “muscles”, physical, mental, and emotional, means that what is experienced sinks in more deeply. It’s not just heard with the ears.

Facilitating in spaces of shared dialogue also supports this TRC call. The process for the Paddle Lab was co-created between 4elements facilitators (Sophie Edwards, Patricia Mader and Heather Thoma), local youth organizer Lynzii Taibossigai, and youth and staff from Social Enterprise Evolution (SEE) in Sault Ste. Marie (Jordan Tabobondung and Katie Elliott).

Ideas continued to cross-pollinate as the process developed; and the weather and water and the different people involved, all necessitated adjusting the activities as the day itself progressed. The learning from the water and the wind was to stay fluid, keep listening, and work together.

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