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Creston students take to the water for counselling in canoes

C’inaxata program harnesses healing power of nature
Ki Louie points out that the mountain range in the distance, reflected in the Kootenay River, shows the traditional belief of how the shape of the canoe wasn’t just inspired by the sturgeon fish but by the shape of the mountain. (Photo by Jeff Banman)

If you ask anyone why they choose to live in the Creston Valley, they will most likely boast about the beautiful mountain views and abundance of opportunities to get outdoors.

In fact, spending time outside has many proven benefits, like stress relief.

With that in mind, teacher Ki Louie at Kootenay River Secondary School has been working towards development of a counseling program that will harness the healing powers of nature.

As a Lower Kootenay Band member, he sought guidance from his elder and uncle Robert Louie Sr. on how to do so. Traditionally, the Yaqan Nukiy people relied heavily on their relationship with the local rivers and lakes, traversing the water in handcrafted sturgeon-nosed canoes.

A replica of a sturgeon-nosed canoe. (Photo by Kelsey Yates)
A replica of a sturgeon-nosed canoe. (Photo by Kelsey Yates)

“He told me how our ancestors knew the healing powers of the water, and because of colonialism and technology, we’ve gotten away from that,” said Louie. “But he said the waters have not forgotten. The lakes, swamps, and rivers are waiting for us to return.”

With that, the canoe counselling program was born, called C’inaxata (the Ktunaxa word for “all right, let’s go”). And Robert’s words about the river waiting became the tagline, after his passing in 2022.

Counselling sessions

With hopes to launch this spring, C’inaxata will involve 40-minute sessions paddling in a canoe on the Kootenay River. School counsellors Michael Fischer and Theresa Gerritsen will facilitate discussion with the students.

“In a traditional counseling session, you’re sitting in a small room with no windows, sitting face to face to talk about tough topics,” said Louie. “But when you’re in a canoe side by side, not looking at the person, it can help the student talk about things.”

“And if they don’t want to talk, that’s why we say ‘all right, let’s go’. Let’s go to the river. Let’s sit in the canoe, let’s listen, let’s be in nature. And just being out there has numerous, promised health benefits, promised benefits.”

Through many sessions, the hope is that even if a student doesn’t talk at first, they will experience the benefits of being outdoors and might feel encouraged to open up later on.

A view from the Kootenay River. (Photos from Ki Louie)
A view from the Kootenay River. (Photos from Ki Louie)

Project development

C’inaxata took several years to get off the ground, starting with a search for a suitable location. The chosen spot is shared with the Creston Valley Rowing Club, as the club had similar goals to maintain storage space and access to the river.

Once it was agreed upon, the Lower Kootenay Band issued land use permits and helped clear trees on the banks of the Kootenay River to make space for a permanent shed.

Principal Brian Hamm shows off the canoe counselling program name on a custom-designed hoodie. (Photo by Kelsey Yates)
Principal Brian Hamm shows off the canoe counselling program name on a custom-designed hoodie. (Photo by Kelsey Yates)

“Without the Lower Kootenay Band, this wouldn’t be possible,” said school principal Brian Hamm. “This is an initiative that has been hugely supported by them. And when we talk about reconciliation and action, this is an example. We have learned from our history with residential schools, that this building is not a healing place.”

The project has also been widely supported by the school community, with over 20 educators signing up for a full day of canoe training and 25 students helping to build the shed to house the canoes.

Teacher Ki Louie, school counsellor Michael Fischer, and KRSS principal Brian Hamm pose with a sturgeon-nosed canoe. (Photo by Kelsey Yates)
Teacher Ki Louie, school counsellor Michael Fischer, and KRSS principal Brian Hamm pose with a sturgeon-nosed canoe. (Photo by Kelsey Yates)

Student consultation

For the students at Kootenay River Secondary School, they will soon be reaping the rewards of expanding their horizons out of the classroom.

In consultation with students through the pandemic, Louie learned there was a desire for connection with their teachers outside of the school walls.

“We know the damaging effects of technology,” said Louie. “And many students expressed how COVID had impacted their mental health, and they wanted to create more awareness around those issues.”

In preparation for C’inaxata, students at Kootenay River Secondary School wanted to spread a positive message through the community. They came up with the idea to create hoodies featuring inspiring quotes.

“Each hoodie is unique to each and every student, where they have all chosen a quotation that is meaningful to them to put on the back of their hoodie,” said Liberty Palmer, Grade 11. “The front of all the hoodies have our Mental Health Matters, Kootenay River logo. This logo represents our school as well as the host of our canoe program, the river.”

Each hoodie also has a QR code on the inside left wrist of the sleeve, which leads to a number of supportive mental health resources such as Valley Community Services and Kids Help Hotline.

“It is a reminder that there are always supports available,” said Palmer. “With the prevalence of mental health issues on the rise, it is essential that we become more aware of the challenges that individuals face.”

In partnership with Denice Louie, Raine Mynott, and the team at Legend Logos, the hoodies produced by the students will soon be available for purchase. Some of the quotes you may find include:

• “You don’t have to struggle in silence.” - Kadis Wall, Grade 11

• “If you are reading this, I hope you have a great day.” - Brooklyn Archambault, Grade 12

• “I’m glad you’re still here.” - Kaysha Johnson, Sydney Sheck, Grade 12

To learn more about the C’inaxata program, visit and click on “Canoe Counselling” under the Programs tab.

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Students volunteered to help build the canoe storage shed. (Photos from Ki Louie)

Kelsey Yates

About the Author: Kelsey Yates

Kelsey Yates has had a lifelong passion for newspapers and storytelling. Originally from Alberta, she graduated from SAIT Polytechnic's journalism program in 2016.
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