Many journeys – the Ravensong canoe and its master carver

October 3, 2023 | updated Oct 4 – Ravensong is a familiar name in our community owing to the fact that our stunning aquatic centre bears this name. Many people, however, do not know how or why the Ravensong Aquatic Centre in Qualicum Beach was bestowed with this lilting, emblematic name, or the story behind the man who made it happen. It’s a story of many journeys.

The journeys include an invitation to greet Queen Elizabeth, a trip to the International Space Station, and a two-week engagement, centre-stage, at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.

The inaugural journey

The Commonwealth Games were hosted in Victoria in 1994. The Queen and Prince Phillip would be in attendance, and the organizers wanted a spectacular welcome to the world to reflect the unique nature of Victoria and British Columbia. They got one.

Ravensong canoe installed in her home at the North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre in Errington, BC.

A gasp rose from the assembled spectators when sixteen First Nations canoes suddenly appeared around the bend and swiftly entered the Inner Harbour en masse, paddles high and drums pounding, acknowledging the Queen and the thousands of cheering spectators jammed into the promenade above the harbour and on the legislature grounds.

In the bow of one of the canoes was Bill Helin.

“I was on quite a big ego trip at the time. We came into the [Inner] Harbour, and I was wearing a Southwest headdress given to me by a chief friend of mine down in Santa Fe,” Bill chuckles.

Bill Helin – WeLaaxumYout – is of Tlingit/Tsimshian and Norwegian descent and a member of the Tsimshian Nation, born and raised in the Northwest Coastal community of Prince Rupert, BC.

“I was dressed in this big, beautiful plumage of a headdress not anywhere connected to my own tribal roots,” says Bill, “and drumming a drum that was painted by a friend of mine and [wearing] a leather vest I got from a friend, a Cree from the Blood Reserve in Alberta.”

But Bill had something else of his very own. In 1993, he had begun creating the canoe they were paddling in that day.

Carved from a 540 year old red cedar tree from the Stikine Valley in the BC interior, the 40-foot dugout canoe was designed in the traditional Tsimshian style of war canoes that Bill’s ancestors had travelled the west coast in for millenia.

Bill named her Ravensong.

“I built it to be part of that first indigenous Tribal Journey in 1994, to go down to the Commonwealth Games in Victoria,” he says.

First, he built a 40-inch scale model of the vessel. The Ravensong canoe is decorated with Raven and Spirit Bear images, designs that represent Bill’s family and tribal life crest stories. To create the vessel, the cedar log was steamed open by about ten inches to angle the sides for better flow of water in rough weather. The canoe took four months to complete, aided by friends from six different First Nations.

A versatile artist, Bill attended the ‘Ksan Carving School and the Gitan’maax School of Northwest Coast Indian Art in Hazelton, BC in the 1980s. Later, he attended the renowned Gemological Institute of America in California, completing advanced courses in goldsmithing and gem setting.

“Everything I’ve done since I started my career in 1980 has been a journey for me,” says Bill. “None of our [Tlingit/Tsimshian] culture practised carving for over one hundred years until I got into it.”

Pulling into the Inner Harbour for the Commonwealth Games celebration after a six-day paddle to Victoria was a seminal moment.

“I was there drumming in the bow of my canoe with the chief of the Nanoose Band and others, because nobody else had a canoe at the time, so they all adopted me. Here I was,” laughs Bill, “a ‘token Indian’ getting connected with the local people based on the fact that I had what they needed.”

Bill says he feels truly blessed for all the people who rallied together to help make Ravensong’s many journeys possible.

Creating art in all its forms, some of it orbiting the earth

Bill Helin pictured with the button blanket created by his mother, Carole Helin. This blanket was the inspiration for a uniform patch that Bill designed in 2011 for Canadian astronaut Dr. Robert Thirsk to wear during his journey into space.

Bill lives and breathes art in all its forms. He is described by one of the galleries that sells his work as an artist, illustrator, jewelry designer, engraver, writer, tourism and branding expert, drumming specialist and storyteller.

For artistic inspiration, Bill credits his grandmother for transferring her knowledge of Tsimshian legends to him when he was a young child. His father was Arthur Helin (pronounced Hel-een) (Haymaas), a commercial fisherman and basketball star and of chief lineage in the Gitlan tribe of the Tsimshian Nation.

Creating traditional Tsimshian wood carvings and jewellery are a mainstay of Bill’s art, but passing the stories and traditions of his forbears on to the next generation is also a passion.

WATCH VIDEO – “refurbishing, repainting and re-spiriting” Ravensong canoe.

Bill, along with his daughter Candice Helin and his granddaughter Trinity, present traditional stories through drum circles and drum dance presentations. Bill teaches drumming lifestyles and wellness programs in schools and corporate venues throughout BC. He has been contracted to illustrate over 110 books since 2014. These books and other learning toys and products are used in many schools and homes across Canada.

Bill was honoured to be selected by NASA in 1996 to design three patches to be worn by astronauts on the U.S. space shuttle, and again in 2011 to design two patches to be worn by Canadian astronaut Dr. Robert Thirsk during his six-month stay on the International Space Station. Later, Bill and his mother, blanket maker Carole Helin, created a traditional hand-made button blanket for the Canadian Space Agency, in the style of the patch designed for Thirsk.

Ravensong’s last journey

Bill says one of his primary objectives throughout his career has been to focus on historical connectivity. In 2010, the Olympics in Vancouver provided a stellar opportunity for Bill and the Ravensong canoe.

“That was the last journey it took,” says Bill. It took 16 people, “portaging it up [two] escalators to the third floor [of the atrium] in the Pan Pacific Hotel!” Anyone who has visited the Pan Pacific Hotel will know that these atrium escalators are two or three times the length of typical escalators!

With the help from his friends and family, including his mother, he says they “refurbished, repainted and re-spirited” the beautiful Ravensong canoe.

An aboriginal education tourism village had been created on the Olympic site to showcase BC’s indigenous art and culture. Ravensong was the centrepiece for the Aboriginal Tourism Cultural Village. “Setting it all up was quite challenging. I spent two weeks there.” Bill says it was “great fun talking to people from around the world as they watched me work on a paddle.”

His experience during those two weeks at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver was “extraordinary.”

Ravensong canoe finds a home

The Regional District of Nanaimo built an aquatic centre in Qualicum Beach in 1995, a very attractive facility with ceiling-high glass soaring on two sides and the third side a pool-length mural of the QB waterfront.

Bill says he decided to donate the Ravensong canoe to be used for cultural education purposes by the schools in the district. It was arranged that the canoe would be displayed on the grounds of the aquatic centre, and the building would be named the Ravensong Aquatic Centre.

“I built and paid for the cover and the base” he says, to protect the canoe from the elements. “The municipalities were supposed to kick in another 10 grand from their budget to build a protective shield around the display, but they never did.”

As time went by, Bill became increasingly concerned about protecting the canoe from damage.

“When Robin and Sylvia Campbell [of the North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre in nearby Errington] asked me if I’d like to set up a cultural exhibit respecting our First Nations history, “I said, why don’t I just bring the canoe here?”

“So, the next day we rented a truck, got the canoe and brought it over [to the North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre (NIWRC)].

Bill recalls that it was about seven months later before anyone in the Town administration noticed. “The mayor approached me about it and asked where the canoe was. I told him it’s over at the Wildlife Centre now. He said, well how long is it going to be there? I said I don’t know. Children, families from around the world get to enjoy it in a very beautiful setting. There’ll be no rush to move it anywhere else.”

Bill Helin delights in holding drumming and storytelling sessions, especially with children, and the feeling seems mutual. Seen here at the Arrowsmith Naturalists’ Mushroom and Nature Festival in October 2022.

Bill says, “From the moment that we installed [Ravensong at the NIWRC] and removed the rope barrier, children came running over to the canoe.” A fitting acknowledgement of its new home.

Photo: Bill Helin Creative

“My dream became a reality mainly because so many people unselfishly pulled together and joined in,” says Bill.

“When I was thinking about building the Ravensong Canoe, my vision was to be able to share the journey with as many people from as many cultures and walks of life as possible.”

Mission accomplished.

CONTACT Bill Helin – WeLaaxumYout at:

250.240.1007 and billhelin@gmail.com

Many galleries carry Bill’s work, including: