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Nahanee family takes The Road Forward

North Van clan add their voices to film documenting the rise of First Nations activism

“The warships used to anchor off Jericho Beach and shoot across to West Vancouver. Old fashioned men-o-war; we called them men-o-war. Sails, and steam, painted black; big ship; big white smoke when gun go off. They shoot up in the trees in West Vancouver; I don’t know where the shells land. Then, sometimes, they shoot out towards Texada Island, away out into the gulf, and the shells would strike the water with a big splash, and then the shells would keep on going, splash, splash, splash, until finally they went down.”
– August Jack (Khatsahlano, Xats’alanexw), Conversations with Khahtsahlano, 1932-1954, transcribed by Vancouver city archivist J.S.Matthews

William Nahanee stands front and centre among a group of stevedores posing for photographer Charles S. Bailey on the dock at Moodyville Sawmill in 1889.

Business was booming at the port on the north shore of Burrard Inlet with a non-stop string of ships loading lumber for delivery to overseas markets.

The year before the photograph was taken the mill at Moodyville shipped out 30-million board feet to customers worldwide, including the Imperial Palace in Beijing where massive cedar beams from B.C. were used to support the ceilings.

Another dock worker, Joe Mathias/Sa7plek, fifth man from the left in the same photograph, would become Chief Joe Capilano in 1895 after the drowning of Chief Lahwa off Brockton Point.  

Sa7plek was born at Yekw’ts on the right bank of the Squamish River, opposite the mouth of the Cheakamus, but by the time the photograph was taken lived at Eslhá7an, Mission IR No. 1. He moved to Xwemelch’stn (Capilano IR No. 5) when he became chief.

The 17-year-old Nahanee, son of a Hawaiian father, Joe Nahanee, and a First Nations mother, Mary See-em-ia, was living across the inlet near what we now call Stanley Park. He would eventually move to the North Shore as well at about the same time North Vancouver was incorporated as a city.

“He was a longshoremen for over 50 years,” says his grandson, Latash-Maurice Nahanee, a lifelong learner and practitioner of Squamish culture as both an educator and performing artist.

William started out working very early as a teenager, says Latash. “He operated a winch for loading the logs on to ships. He worked with this older man for a few years but the older man suddenly died and the company asked William if he could operate the machine. William said, ‘Yes,’ and the foreman said, ‘You can have the job,’ and  William said, ‘Great. Do I get paid the same as the man who worked here before?’ The foreman said, ‘No, you get paid the same as you do right now.’ So William said, ‘No deal, I’m leaving,’ and he walked off the job.

They couldn’t find a replacement for him so two weeks later they came and offered the job again at the same rate as the previous operator.”

Hawaiian labourers have had a long history along the West Coast. “The Hawaiians started coming to the mainland of North America around 1828,” says Latash. “They were hired by the Hudson’s Bay Company. At first they worked at Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River and when the border changed they moved up to Canada. After they finished working for the fur trading company they got jobs as longshoremen or in the sawmill. A lot of them settled at Kanaka Ranch near the entrance to Stanley Park in Lost Lagoon and Coal Harbour. Generally they were supposed to go back after a three-year contract but a lot of them found native wives and chose to remain in North America.”

William Nahanee resided near what is now the Westin Bayshore and not far from the 9 O’Clock gun. The muzzle-loaded naval cannon was placed there by the Department of Marine and Fisheries in the last decade of the 19th century as European settlement began to spread out. The big gun was fired for the first time at high noon on Saturday, Oct. 15, 1898, next door to where Mary See-em-ia and her extended clan were still living at Kanaka Ranch.

“There were many Squamish families along the coastline,” says Latash. “Grandfather William had a house there and so did other Hawaiian/Squamish families. First Nations people were not allowed to buy land in Vancouver at that time. As an Hawaiian he had the right to buy land and he did that but he lost it by misfortune. He was forcibly removed from that spot and ended up on Bewicke Avenue about a block from where I live today.”



Latash, the youngest of 10 children, was born in 1956 to Lorne and Eva Nahanee and attended a Day Scholar school at Eslhá7an, Mission IR No. 1.

“My parents were very strong on education,” he says. “That was really pushed on us – we had study parties at the house and played a lot of educational games.”

Summers were spent in a cabin on the Squamish River. “It was always something to look forward to,” he says. “Some of us would go up to fish and hunt and play games. There was plenty of food to go around. I don’t think there was ever actually a mealtime unless there was some real work to do but there was always food on the stove any time we wanted to eat. We would pack a snack and eat berries out of the forest. We had a lot of fun together growing up. Camping out and hearing our parents and relatives tell stories and legends. That was just an ideal time.”

Latash graduated from Carson Graham Secondary and got a bachelor of arts degree from Simon Fraser University as well as an associate degree in arts and science from Capilano College.

He worked for a decade as a journalist at Kahtou, a First Nations newspaper, before becoming a First Nations support worker with the North Vancouver and Coquitlam school districts.

For more than two decades Latash has also been a member of the Chinook Songcatchers, a family performance group he started with his wife Delhia and daughters Amanda and Marissa. Delhia adds a Nisga’a First Nations component to the group and many of the songs she presents come from her father, Chief Chester Moore, an elder of the Nisga’a Eagle clan.

The Chinook Songcatchers, functioning culturally for both educational and entertainment purposes, grew out of another project started in the early ’90s.

“In 1991, when I was six years old, my dad started to learn even more about his culture,” says Marissa. “Early on he learned from his aunties and his uncles through various ways and it came into full play in 1991 when the Squamish Nation was getting ready to take part in the Qatuwas Festival in 1993 in Bella Bella.”

For two years Latash went through a rigorous canoe team training program, learning songs, dances, and other traditional protocols leading up to the festival.

The training was multi-faceted, says Marissa. “How do you talk to an elder? How do you ask them permission to use a song? How do you ask them to use a dance? Learning how to make regalia and bringing more of our culture back spiritually.”

The Qatuwas festival inspired a modern day canoe resurgence of tribal journeys. Latash and his family began going on canoe journeys themselves and joined a dance group which performed at places like the PNE and Capilano Mall.

“I was 10 years old so I thought I was performing for a Playland ride but I loved it,” says Marissa. “We weren’t a fake Hollywood performing group, we were actually a traditional people. I was able to witness indigenous and non-indigenous people really starting to understand who we are. We performed for lots of different people and we always showed up for work in our best clothes. We wanted to make sure they saw us on the same level.”

Latash has always brought his family along with him to take part in the same experiences he does. When he started working for the Coquitlam school district on cultural initiatives, the Squamish educator brought along his daughters to assist him.

“That’s where I started to learn about public speaking,” says Marissa. “There are some families who are soccer families, my family is a performing family.”

After graduating from Carson Graham Secondary, Marissa established a career in different aspects of media while continuing to perform in the family group. She worked at the National Film Board of Canada on the Our City, Our Voices project, hosted TV shows on APTN, modelled, and acted as a Squamish cultural ambassador. She also helped plan the opening of the 2010 Olympics as an intern with the Four Host First Nations. Her sister, Amanda, was actually chosen as the opening speaker at the Winter Games.

“I’ve been very fortunate in my lifetime to jump on projects,” says Marissa. “My dad always got us involved – I’m not sure if he invited us or dragged us to all these conferences (but either way) I’m quite comfortable jumping into different situations and I’m very grateful for that – my father is a superman in my eyes.”



All four members of the Nahanee family are featured performers in Marie Clements’ new musical documentary, The Road Forward. The NFB film, which receives its theatrical premiere this week at Vancity Theatre, pays tribute to the fight for First Nations rights and looks back at the formation of the Native Brotherhood of B.C. and Native Sisterhood of B.C. organizations in the 1930s as well as the importance of the Native Voice newspaper in spreading the word in the post-Second World War era.

As a child, Latash visited offices of the Native Voice with his uncle Edward Nahanee who was a business agent for the Native Brotherhood of B.C.

“When the Native Voice started, it was actually illegal for native people to gather and talk about native rights,” says Latash. “And so when the leadership gathered (and outsiders were present) they would start preaching and singing gospel songs until the (outsiders) got bored and went home and then they would start their real meeting. They did a lot of things in secret. They won a lot of rights for us.”

Latash has been involved with Clements’ The Road Forward in all of its different iterations since it was first performed as a live piece in the Aboriginal Pavilion at the 2010 Cultural Olympiad.

“They asked me to do an opening song and after we did some rehearsals they offered me a role in the play,” he says.

Delhia visited a rehearsal, as she knew many of the performers personally, and she was offered a role as well. “The director said, ‘Hey Delhia, you know how to sing; get up here,’ and she became part of the show, too,” says Latash.

“Just before the show on opening night they said, ‘Oh Delhia, we’ve made a change, you’re doing a solo tonight. We’re changing the name of the song to ‘Delhia’s Song.’”

The Nahanees’ daughters also joined the cast when The Road Forward was recreated on stage in a longer version at the York Theatre on Commercial Drive in February 2015.

“I was able to see a little bit of the first showing of The Road Forward at the Aboriginal Pavilion in 2010 because I was working there,” says Marissa.

 “A couple of years later Marie Clements approached my dad again and my dad being the way he is invited me to the meeting, and the brilliant Marie Clements looked at me and said, ‘You ought to be a part of the show too.’ I thought we were just doing an opening song and then we ended up doing the whole show.”

 Marissa found learning modern material more of a challenge than she thought it would be.

“I have been singing my whole life, since I was six years old, learning our traditional songs. Our Coast Salish songs are more of a soft chant. As long as you know your ho’s and your he’s and your lo’s, you’ve got it pretty down pat. I guess our Nisga’a songs are quite complicated because they have languages in there but it’s just something we grew up with. Singing our songs is like breathing.

“Learning all the modern songs was a real introduction to music – it was like singing boot camp. We got to learn even more proper vocal training like warming up our vocal chords. I’d never heard the term ‘vocal boat’ before but that’s how you describe the chanting in our music. It was amazing that my whole family was included. It was intense training to learn new songs and a new way of singing.”

From that 2015 production, the NFB invited Clements and her team to rework the project into a documentary film.

They shot the film in various locations around B.C., including West Vancouver’s Whytecliff Park. The cast first viewed the finished work at a screening in November 2016.

“It was so impactful,” says Marissa. “I felt like a rock star. It was intimidating working with Juno Award winners like Murray Porter and Jennifer Kreisberg. Every one of the artists I could go on and on about. We were so honoured to be a part of the production.”



“The arbitrators gave $44,988.58 and the lawyers got $28,854.40 of it (for land near Burrard Bridge) ... . The Indian agent said that if we did not sell it they would take it anyhow, by expropriation. So our Council voted to sell it.”

– August Jack (Khatsahlano, Xats’alanexw), Conversations with Khahtsahlano, 1932-1954, transcribed by Vancouver city archivist J.S.Matthews

At the tail end of the 19th century the Nahanee clan were still holding on to their parcels of land in Coal Harbour. Mary See-em-ia and her children, William Nahanee and Maggie Eihu, all maintained households on Kanaka Ranch despite the growing pressure from private interests and the overwhelming presence of the Canadian Pacific Railway which had a huge hand in shaping “Vancouver.” The newly incorporated city even had its name chosen by CPR president William Van Horne.

On Oct. 1, 1899, Mary wrote a letter to the mayor and city council protesting their treatment by land developers. The letter, reprinted in Jean Barman’s Stanley Park’s Secrets, states “Notwithstanding our title to said land said real estate dealer has broken down our fences, destroyed portions of our orchard, and taken possession of five-sixths of our land, and on September the 23rd last Monday, they destroyed and burned three of our dwelling houses, and consequently left some of the family in destitute circumstances.”

When all was said and done, Mary and William, despite the courts’ assurances they had legal rights to the land, both relocated to the north shore of Burrard Inlet while Maggie continued to live and operate “grandmother’s store” at 1789 Georgia St. West for some years into the new century.

 “I’ve seen pictures of Grandpa, probably when he was about 25 years old,” says Latash. “The first three children were in the photograph and they are still (at what is now Coal Harbour).”

William moved to North Vancouver with his family and initially purchased property in the Lower Lonsdale area but soon moved into Mission IR No. 1 to be part of the Squamish community and closer to the St. Paul’s Church where he and his children were baptized in 1910.

“Cecilia, his wife, was a very devout Catholic and he wanted to support her,” says Latash. “Grandpa sold his house, took two years off work and built the two steeples at his own expense.”

During this transitional period, William also became active in the fight for First Nations and workers’ rights. In 1906, the same year the B.C. Coast and Interior Salish sent representatives to England to meet King Edward VII, he helped form Local 526 of the Industrial Workers of the World movement with Chief Joe Capilano. Nahanee served as the chapter’s president with the meetings of the “Bows and Arrows” held on the Mission reserve.



“Driving  from North Vancouver to Squamish, there are all these landmarks,” says Latash. “I like to tell the stories behind certain places. A lot of the legends are from different areas within the Squamish Valley, like the mountain where the Thunderbird perched. There’s the tale of the killer whale who was terrifying our people by coming up on the beach and eating all the Squamish people. Thunderbird got mad at him and flew down and captured that whale and started shaking the whale, and all these bones came out of the whale. The people saw their relatives and started putting all these bones together and they did some magic and all those bones became people again.”

“They have been able to give me positive experiences and make me proud of who I am and where I come from,” says Marissa Nahanee, of her parents. “It’s been an amazing journey having a father who started learning his culture at a later time in his life. When my father was growing up it was still in the era of not teaching culture and not teaching the language anymore, so it was my father’s generation who really had the renaissance era of learning about who we are and where we come from and instilling that pride in being able to sing and dance.”

The Road Forward screens this Wednesday, July 19 at 6 p.m. and Thursday, July 20 at 6:30 p.m. at Vancity Theatre. Click here to buy tickets online (