Wa’Xaid, a word in the language of the Xenaksiala people, means “Good River.” It is also the name of Cecil Paul, the legendary elder and activist who, for decades, helped lead the struggle to protect the Kitlope River watershed in northwestern BC. Following the Good River: The Life and Times of Wa’xaid, written by BC naturalist and writer Briony Penn with much help from Paul, is an engaging tapestry of a book published last fall by Rocky Mountain Books.
For anyone wishing to better understand a vital chapter in the history of BC environmental activism spanning the last three decades, this book is required reading. During that time the BC coast was the focus of international battles to save old growth forests, repel giant mining interests and preserve intact ecosystems. The battle to save the Kitlope watershed – recognized as the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest – from logging was primed by the actions of Paul and other members of his small but steadfast community, and these details reflect the book’s basic schematic.
But this book is much more than a chronology of events. Penn, a decades-long activist herself, started chumming with Paul many years ago, and rightfully recognized the broad strokes of his life and its connectivity to Canada’s very troubled colonial history. Paul himself was a victim of residential school abuse and suffered depression and addiction for years. In her interactions with Paul, she perceived his abilities to attract and inspire others, including settlers, to join him in his challenge to save the Kitlope.
“There is room for everyone who wants to come into it to paddle together. The currents against it are very strong, but I believe we can reach that destination, and this is the reason for our survival.” — Wa’xaid Cecil Paul
The main metaphor girding his challenge was that of a “Magic Canoe,” which came to Paul in a dream when he first began thinking about how me might begin his most important life’s work. About this canoe, Paul said, “there is room for everyone who wants to come into it to paddle together. The currents against it are very strong, but I believe we can reach that destination, and this is the reason for our survival.”
Much of this story is akin to a journey in a Magic Canoe, with Penn and Paul skillfully guiding it through time-sections up to 2018. This differentiated narrative focuses especially on the stories of others stepping into the “magic canoe” as part of the struggle that led to protection of the Kitlope in 1994, and also led to subsequent efforts to sustain broad ecosystem and community health.
A very compelling part of the story is learning about the many people who stepped into Waxaid’s canoe on this journey – everyone from Harrison Ford to heirs like Coca-Cola’s Glenn Fuller. For me, I most enjoyed sections profiling activist acquaintances of mine from bygone years like the late, renowned sustainable forester Merv Wilkinson, forest ecologist Ray Travers, and co-founder of the cultural Rediscovery program, Thom Henley, who all stepped into self-defined roles that empowered this project.
A couple of capstones to the story are worth mentioning. One, in 2020, the Royal Canadian Geographic Society named Wa’xaid Cecil Paul as a recipient of the Louie Kamookak Medal, named for an Inuit historian and educator, for “having made Canada’s geography better known to Canadians and to the world.”
The second is that Wa’xaid passed away early last December, age 90, in his home village of Kitamaat – not far from the banks of the flowing rivers he described as “arteries of mother earth.”
Wa’xaid’s legacy assuredly lives on, not only through the preservation of sacred places like the Kitlope, but also through surviving family and friends and the determined impulses of the salmon, steelhead, oolichan and grizzly bears for which he cared so passionately. His words, strength, and wisdom as conveyed in this book also resound in an earlier publication, Stories from the Magic Canoe of Wa’xaid, also co-authored with Briony Penn. Proceeds from sale of The Good River, which also includes 60+ pages of photographs, and Stories from the Magic Canoe will go to his family.
Michael Maser is a writer-researcher living in Gibsons BC. Following the Good River was recently shortlisted for the BC & Yukon Book Prizes. Read an excerpt here.
Following the Good River
The Life and Times of Wa’xaid
By (author): Briony Penn
With: Cecil Paul
Publication Date: November 17, 2020