Nova Craft Canoe is and always has been proud to be Canadian. To me, being a proud Canadian fundamentally means, at least, these two things: first, a respect for the land and natural environment of our country and, second, a dedication to the values of our nation as a cultural mosaic, namely inclusion and tolerance. In the spirit of living up to the title “proudly Canadian”, we recently organized a paddling event for new Canadians – a group of newcomers from Syria who were forced to flee from their home country to escape conflict.
Under Prime Minister Trudeau, Canada has pledged to accept 25,000 refugees from Syria. Since November of 2015, our community in London, Ontario has admitted nearly 1,000 government assisted refugees. We wanted to do our part to welcome them by sharing our favourite national pastime because, in our minds, there’s no better way to get acquainted with Canadian summers than by paddling a canoe. We partnered with the London Cross Cultural Learning Centre to organize a day of paddling and a BBQ lunch for a group of 40 Syrian newcomers. The event took place on a hot day in mid July at a conservation area south of the city. For many of the participants, this was their first time out of London and their first encounter with the local natural landscape, not to mention their first time in a canoe.
Following a brief session of paddling instruction on land, everyone was eager to get on the water, excited and a bit apprehensive. We paired younger participants with paddling volunteers and grouped families who wanted to stick together in their own boats. After some chaotic frenzy at the launch area we had everyone on the water. Our staff and volunteer team were blown away by how quickly the Syrian participants took to paddling. They started from shore slowly and cautiously, picking up speed once they got into rhythm. Standing on the shore, I could still hear their cheering and laughing as they disappeared around the bend. When they returned for lunch about an hour later many were singing as they paddled in, spurred on by our friend and brand ambassador Kevin Callan. We were pleasantly surprised to find that everyone wanted another go at it after lunch. It seemed that they were relishing the opportunity – so were we.
It was amazing for us to share the experience with them and they were incredibly grateful for it, eager to give back to us by portaging canoes back to the trailer at the end of the day. One woman even passed around homemade Middle Eastern cookies to our team of volunteers as a gesture of thanks. But it was their eagerness to participate and openness to learning new skills that impressed me most. In spite of the language barrier and cultural differences, it seemed obvious to me that the group of Syrians we spent time with were keen to learn about their new home and hopeful about integrating, becoming proud Canadians themselves in time. Hopefully they will continue to seek out opportunities to leave the city and spend time in the outdoors, developing the respect for nature that has become central to the narrative of our national identity.
Watch the videos below to get a taste of their reactions to paddling for the first time and to hear their stories.