On September 10 and 11, 2022, the Four Fires Festival canoe races were held at Concord Community Park along False Creek in downtown Vancouver. This marks the first time in more than a century that the canoe race has taken place.
The event was hosted by Canoe Cultures, an Indigenous non-profit organization that focuses on preserving the traditional art of canoe building. The organization played a significant role in bringing together clubs from over twelve countries to race in the festival. Mike Billy Sr., co-organizer of the festival and Canoe Cultures member, proudly stated during a press release: “We’re glad to be back.”
Canoe races are traditionally held during summer weekends. In an interview with the Vancouver Sun, Mike Billy Jr. stated that it is a tradition to splash water onto the heads of the canoes as summer begins to “wake [the canoes] up and let them know it’s time to go. It’s awesome that we are going to be doing this right in the middle of downtown. It shows people that we are still here, we are still practicing our culture.”
During the festival, teams from various age and skill categories competed in a variety of activities ranging from water sports, to visual and performing arts, to culinary disciplines. An average of twenty-five races took place per day.
Performances by George Leach, Alex Wells, the Wild Moccasin Dancers, DJ Kookum, and Pat Calihou Band, among many others, provided entertainment for the crowd.
The canoe races included various prizes for its victors, such as a $20,000 cedar strip canoe. Traditional artwork, jewelry, and fashion were also displayed at the event, showcasing the creativity of Indigenous Peoples.
In many Indigenous cultures, canoes are considered to be members of the families that construct them. The success and spirit of the canoe depend on its carver’s skills. Canoe-building itself is a competitive art, and while people building the canoes may not necessarily be racers themselves, they still hold a strong degree of investment in the results of the competition.
Canoe racing and building are just one of many Indigenous traditions that have survived to this day. It is crucial for the non-Indigenous community to recognize and preserve such culturally significant events, allowing Indigenous Peoples to be acknowledged and celebrated.