By Larry Pynn, Vancouver Sun
Published on October 21, 2017
ABOARD THE MV POLAR PRINCE — At $10 million and five months at sea across close to 25,000 kilometres of coastline, Canada C3 is one of the country’s grandest voyages of all time.
“I would challenge historians: What ship has ever made such a long trip from one coast to another coast, visiting and connecting with so many communities and places?” asserted Stephan Guy, a mariner of 36 years who captains the 67-metre icebreaker.
“This kind of trip … with so much mileage in a single season, I would assume it’s never been done.”
For those lucky few — chefs, musicians, journalists, youths, politicians, Indigenous people, explorers, scientists — chosen to explore Canada’s Atlantic, Arctic, and Pacific coastlines to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Canadian confederation, the experience has been worth every penny.
“I read up on it … but I honestly didn’t really get what it was about,” says B.C. country music performer Aaron Pritchett. “It was unbelievable, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
One might ask why the artist, who wrote, “Hold my beer while I kiss your girlfriend ’cause she needs a real man,” warrants inclusion on such an expedition?
But that is exactly the point: gathering together a diversity of people to experience Canada’s vast coastlines, nature, and inhabitants — passengers who will return home as lifelong ambassadors for a remarkable maritime nation.
There are 15 legs to the 150-day expedition, and Postmedia News is along for the final 10-day journey from Campbell River to Victoria, with planned stops at Desolation Sound, Powell River, Nanaimo, Howe Sound, Vancouver, Saturna and Salt Spring islands, and Tod Inlet.
The four themes of the expedition are diversity and inclusion, reconciliation, youth engagement and the environment.
Juno-nominated Pritchett, a resident of Gabriola Island, was along for the first leg, which started in Toronto on June 1 and travelled up Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.
He grew up in Kitimat on B.C.’s north coast, where he had close contact with Indigenous people, but never really delved into their troubled post-colonial history.
Called upon to sing at various times during the expedition, Pritchett said he chose songs with multiple meanings, especially for Indigenous people, including How Do I Get There, and Done You Wrong. “It struck a chord. It was cool for me to be able to do that.”
He visited First Nations communities along the way, sat in healing circles, and got a deeper appreciation of their history
“Man, it was just an incredible life-changing and thought-changing experience,” he reflects. “I wish all Canadians could go on that ship.”
The Canada C3 expedition accepted a total of about 350 participants out of 5,000 applications. At any given time, the ship carries about 60 people, including crew, expedition staff and participants.
Geoff Green, leader of the Canada C3 expedition, sailing Canada’s three oceans to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday. (c) Martin Lipman / SOI Foundation
Geoff Green, founder of Students on Ice Foundation, is the man behind the expedition — funded about 65 per cent by the Canadian government and 35 per cent by more than 100 other donors. Since 2000, his foundation has guided more than 2,500 youths from 52 countries on educational expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic.
“I was looking at the map of Canada one day and trying to think of what we could do for Canada’s 150th,” Green explained. “I thought, wouldn’t that be amazing to connect the country together by going coast to coast to coast?”
The 67-metre, red-and-white Polar Prince is a former Canadian Coast Guard research icebreaker, leased through a private Calgary company and captained by Stephan Guy. The ship is outfitted with inflatable boats, research labs, a top deck observation area, and is purpose-built for passenger experiences in remote environments.
“It’s a platform for storytelling more than anything. Learning about our country is what it’s been about,” Green said.
How does one measure the success of such a far-flung, taxpayer-supported expedition?
“One is if we make it to Victoria,” Green says with a laugh. “We’re looking good on that front. It’s a daunting logistical endeavour, as you can imagine. But mostly it’s measured by the impact.”
Participants often gather in the Hangar, a U-shaped meeting area composed of steel at the stern that once housed a helicopter. The walls are adorned with the jerseys of Canadian hockey teams and the scrawled poems and musings of participants. A birch-bark canoe hanging from the ceiling symbolizes the need for Canadians to paddle in unison towards a common goal.
The expedition’s objective is to reach 20 million Canadians through direct community events along the way, but also through the Canada C3 website and social media. So far, the count exceeds 15 million.
“The Canadians on board the ship for every leg are ambassadors,” he continued. “They are there to share the journey with the rest of the country. All the people who have been inspired by the journey, that’s going to have spinoffs in so many ways. It’s an opportunity to build a better country.”
Guy, a former Coast Guard captain who lives in Lac Beauport, Quebec, says the journey allowed him to connect with some of the first Arctic mariners, since much of that region remains uncharted.
On occasion, he would send an inflatable boat ahead of the icebreaker to conduct depth soundings for safety. He also relied on the physical landscape to guide him, a steep-sided fjord being a good indication of deep water.
“That fulfills the adventurous spirit of a captain, being in a place few people have been,” he said. “I like to follow in these footsteps.”
Science work conducted along the way involves: cataloguing marine and terrestrial life; water sampling to measure salinity, oxygen and Ph levels, and microplastics; measuring chlorophyll levels to reveal the extent of microscopic plants; analyzing the chemistry of rivers where they enter the ocean; recording underwater sounds, be they human or natural; examining overall biodiversity, including collecting plants and insects, microscopic algae, and DNA samples in water.
Research results should trickle out over the next couple of years.
And, yes, during an era in which polar bears and the Inuit lifestyle are threatened by shrinking ice, the expedition did encounter some icebergs.
“Along the Labrador coast, we saw plenty of icebergs,” said Mark Graham, head scientist on the expedition and vice-president of research and collections at the Canadian Museum of Nature.
“Along the coast of Baffin Island, we almost had to go all the way to Greenland to get around the ice. And we crashed through plenty of ice, too. It’s an awesome thing to watch an icebreaker working like that.”
Bill Wilson, a veteran native leader from B.C., talks with participants on the Canada C3 expedition of Canada’s coast about the history of residential schools. (c) Martin Lipman / SOI Foundation
Long-time B.C. Indigenous leader Bill Wilson — better known these days as father to federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould — joined the voyage on Leg 12, from Tuktoyaktuk to Prince Rupert, with his wife, Bev Sellars. They led discussions on board related to Indigenous relations, residential schools, and land-title issues.
The Polar Prince visited the Nass Valley, home to the Nisga’a, who secured B.C.’s first modern land claim in 2000. The extensive day tour, which Wilson organized over marine radio from the Bering Sea, included a seafood banquet and tour of lava beds.
The ship also visited Point Hope, an Indigenous Alaskan whaling community whose reputation for winning state basketball tournaments defies its small, remote location.
“Guess what their basketball team’s name is…” said Comox-born Wilson. “The Harpooners.”
“Guess what the women’s team is… The Harpoonerettes.”
Shanna Baker, a writer, editor and photographer with Victoria-based online Hakai Magazine, experienced Leg 5 from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Nain, Labrador.
“I learned more about the strong tradition of storytelling in Atlantic Canada, recognized how acutely the cod moratorium still affects Newfoundland fishing communities, was inspired by the way people on Fogo Island overcame differences to bolster their collective future, and expanded my understanding of Innu and Inuit culture tenfold,” Baker wrote.
“And I never got tired of the icebergs — they were mind-bogglingly beautiful.”
A humpback whale off Haida Gwaii. (c) Martin Lipman / SOI Foundation
Participants on the final leg include national Green party leader Elizabeth May, the MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands. She felt she would be too busy to come along, but that changed when she learned that the route would go right past her constituency.
She expects to see her home through fresh eyes, from the unique perspective of the Polar Prince. “I love the concept, and when I realized it’s ending in my riding, in the southern Gulf Islands, I got so excited. I really don’t like to miss days in Parliament, but for this, I thought, for Canada’s 150 … it struck me this was a time I couldn’t say no.”
In Powell River Friday afternoon members of the Tla’amin First Nation in traditional dress sang to greet expedition members as they arrived ashore for a feast of elk, salmon and bannock. Drummer Drew Blaney said he appreciated the expedition’s objective of raising awareness of Indigenous issues.
The First Nation sent a drone out to document the arrival of the ship. Blaney said the aerial technology is being used to map out village sites in their traditional territory.
Look for Larry Pynn’s stories from the C3 expedition every day next week.
For more information on Canada C3 visit: canadac3.ca/en/homepage.