“It was an experience of a lifetime, an experience money can't buy. It was an experience that I'll never forget. People invited me onto their land, which is a special enough, but they accept me under their roof and invited me to eat at the same table." — Russell Teibert, Vancouver Whitecaps
Penelakut Island isn’t the easiest place to get to. From Vancouver, it’s a 90-minute ferry ride to Nanaimo, a half-hour drive down the coast to Chemainus, then another 45-minute ferry ride across to the 8.7-square kilometre forested gem floating in the South Gulf Island chain.
And that’s only if you’re invited.
Anyone landing on Penelakut without having been cleared will be turned away at the terminal and sent back to Chemainus. The 600-plus residents of the Penelakut First Nation studiously guard their sanctity.
It’s an island still bearing the painful, raw and indelible scars left by the Catholic residential school that operated for nearly 90 years with impunity and complete cultural disregard — sometimes fatally. It’s island that only changed its name from Kuper Island in 2010 — one derived from British naval captain Augustus Leopold Kuper, part of another shameful and bloody historical moment in 1863.
Few are allowed there, and even fewer are welcomed and embraced. Vancouver Whitecaps midfielder Russell Teibert is one of them.
“I feel a sense of being at home here,” Teibert said. “This place is amazing. I love the community; it’s just a special place to me.”
The Niagara Falls-born Teibert, in his decade-plus with the Major League Soccer club, has done countless charity and community outreach events, and it was how his relationship with the band began.
In 2015, he accompanied teammates Jordan Harvey and David Ousted there as part of a schedule of events for the Hope and Health at Home initiative.
It was a program spearheaded in 2012 by Whitecaps head of operations and facilities Ed Georgica, his wife Deana, and Bill Yoachim, the executive director of Kw’umut Lelum Child and Family Services. The program used soccer as a tool to build resilience and connection with Indigenous children and youth.
It was a quick two-hour visit; a Q&A with the kids and handing out some jerseys was capped off with a tour of the elementary school, where Teibert was struck by a mural on the outside of the building. His party’s tour guide, Denny Jack, fessed up as the work’s artist, and Teibert gushed his praise.
Two years later, Teibert returned again for another Hope and Health visit, and after the successful visit he was waiting by his car for the ferry back to Chemainus when Jack made a surprise visit.
“I was like ‘hey man, how’s it going? I haven’t seen you in a few years.’ We caught up a little bit. He said, ‘I’ve got something for you,’ and he gives me this painting. He’d remembered what I had said two years prior, and done a painting of the view from Penelakut Island for me,” he said.
“That was a truly special gift that I’ve never received before. There was a bond there instantly. And I said, ‘Look Denny, I’m going to come back. I want to come visit. Words can’t even express how thankful I am for this gift.’”
The friendship, whose seeds had taken root two years earlier, blossomed. Teibert and Jack kept in touch, and he visited again — on his own time — the most recent visit in November. He did a little shopping in Chemainus — including some old books at a thrift shop and some doughnuts for Jack — then had to convince a dubious ticket seller at the ferry terminal he was actually allowed to set foot on Penelakut.
Jack met him at the terminal, and they took a walk on the nature path partially built by the elementary school students, where Teibert was once again struck by the magic of the island.
“So we go on this walk and it’s really cool, really spiritual and just talking as friends like we’ve known each other our entire lives. We’ve met like four or five times, but it was a special bond that you feel like you’ve known each other for a lot longer,” he said.
“You get this feeling walking through the kind of forest; you can just hear everything. We have such a fast-paced life downtown, with cars going by and the noises of a city … it’s constant. Over there, you can hear everything (in nature), and you just feel like you’re awake. It’s this serenity and peacefulness.”
The Penelakut First Nation also welcomed Teibert into their Longhouse for a sacred ceremony, but only on the condition he not talk about what happens. Pictures are not allowed.
“It was an experience of a lifetime, an experience money can’t buy. It was an experience that I’ll never forget,” said Teibert. “People invited me onto their land, which is special enough, but they accepted me under their roof and invited me to eat at the same table. I really felt like I was part of the community and part of that family.”
It’s why, when the novel coronavirus pandemic hit, Teibert felt compelled to act. He enlisted the help of teammates Ali Adnan and Inbeom Hwang to provide more than $4,000 in groceries and cash to the embattled community. The team also chipped in, along with providing 50 ‘Unity’ jerseys for the children there.
Like most Gulf Islands, the ferry is a crucial lifeline. The effects of its schedule being disrupted have been felt several times in the past few years, but the COVID-19 outbreak provided an entirely new challenge. There are no stores on Penelakut, and reduced sailings meant fewer chances to secure supplies — the little there was in Chemainus — and the island’s main source of income, its shellfish harvesting, also took a hit.
The band was also keenly aware of the potential for devastation the virus could have if it got a foothold on the island, with its limited health care, and the fact only essential travel was allowed to Penelakut.
“The first month was pretty nerve-wracking for everybody,” said Jack. “We had to step up security so no one would come on to the island, just trying to keep the virus away. We had to come up with a plan for if (COVID-19) got brought over. We had to open up our little school to contain whoever caught the virus, set up a couple of classrooms in the school just in case they had to be contained, but we’ve been fortunate.
“(Teibert’s donation) was super amazing. The smiles we got, the thank-yous we received from all the members,” Jack said. “The elders — we focused on them. That was a big one. The elders didn’t get to go off the island much for shopping, because they’re the most vulnerable.
“We are isolated and sometimes we do get overlooked, but I’m glad he stepped up to the plate and helped us out,” Jack added. “He is a good man — I can’t thank him enough. You don’t find enough of (his types) around, that’s for sure.
“He’s more than welcome on our island anytime now. Well, he was already, but, yeah … open arms. It’s a standing invitation. A lot of people want to thank him, so it will be a great time when he makes it back.”
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