Preparation for the war canoe races for the fifth Seabird Island Festival, as shown in the Agassiz Advance on May 28, 1975. The caption in the paper reads “Someone sure got a good work in for the excellent weather during the 5th annual Seabird Indian Festival held last weekend. At press time Monday, we were unable to get race results, but the turnout was described as excellent and was enjoyed by all who attended. The picture above shows a couple of two-man canoes preparing to go into the water.” (Agassiz-Harrison Historical Society)

Remembering the history of Seabird Island Festival

Chief Clem Seymour and resident Siyosmot Pettis recall the early years of the 50-year-old festival

Siyosmot (Maggie) Pettis was 12-years-old and peeling potatoes when the first Seabird Island Festival came to her community.

Chief Archie Charles had started the Seabird Island Festival in 1969 to bring the war canoe races back to the First Nation. That same festival saw a soccer tournament for the men, and a salmon barbecue organized by Charles himself.

(The salmon barbecue is still run by Charles’ family.)

Pettis’ mother, working with the Elders’ Council, was in charge of preparing the food: hamburgers, hot dogs, Caesar salad and all the rest.

“ It was a lot of work,” Pettis, now 62, remembered. “We made everything from scratch, so they would have to do all the ordering, the pick up. They’d be peeling hundreds of pounds of potatoes to get everything prepared.”

Helping her mother prepare the food was Pettis’ first introduction to the Seabird Island Festival, but her own involvement would span all 50 years as she moved from food preparation to collecting payment to organizing the two-pitch tournament.

(In the early years, Pettis participated as a volunteer, but in the 1980s, the band decided to switch to having staff organize the festival instead.)

RELATED: Seabird Island to celebrate 50 years of festival

For Chief Clem Seymour, his first introduction was with the soccer tournament.

“All of us played that first year,” Seymour said. “We were all in our mid-teens to probably close to 20 years old.”

“I played goal then,” he added. “And I was only about 130 pounds soaking wet.”

The camaraderie that 15-year-old Seymour felt back then was integral.

“One thing, that’s all I understood, is I enjoyed it,” he said. “We played with men out there who were getting kind of a little rough on us, but we played.”

In Pettis’ memory, those early festivals had a big focus on competition, with the Sechelt and Musqueam First Nation teams being the most competitive in soccer. Everyone was on equal footing in the canoe races, she said.

“We used to have the whole slough full of canoes,” she remembered.

Over the years, the festival expanded from just soccer and canoe races to also include two-pitch tournaments, ball hockey and a gambling game called Slahal, which would go throughout the night.

When the St. Mary’s Residential School in Mission was still open (it closed in 1984), the drum and bugle corps would come to perform during the soccer tournament. Chief Dan George from the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation would also come with a dance group and perform at the festival.

RELATED: Seabird festival brings community together

“Back then, it was just about the participation,” Seymour said. “Having fun and just being involved.”

Pettis, who now has grandchildren participating in the 50th anniversary of the festival, agreed.

“One of the things my family taught me was helping and supporting,” she said. “We’d go and support them, whether we’d just watch and cheer them on.”

“The festival I think is all about family,” she added. “Spending time together, quality time and not on their cellphones, and getting their kids out there and being active.”

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