In 2008, novice paddleboarder Norm Hann hatched a plan to travel by stand-up paddleboard (SUP), with boat support, along the proposed Northern Gateway tanker route from Kitimat, British Columbia, south to the open ocean near Bella Bella.
The expedition and the film that came from it, Standup4Greatbear, would highlight the traditional food harvesting areas of coastal First Nations and the important ecosystem at risk from a potential oil spill.
He pulled off the 400-kilometre paddle and visited three First Nation villages along the way, but as he sits across from me today—his basketball player physique overflowing from his chair and hands accenting his feelings—he shakes his head at how lucky he got with the weather and his inexperience. At the time, few adventurers had used a SUP on a multi-day expedition and Hann’s skills were still raw.
“When you’re doing the right thing, everything lines up to support you,” he says.
Hann never set out to be a renowned Canadian stand-up paddler. But then, he never set out to be an adopted member of a Central Coast First Nation, an environmental activist, or a tourism business owner either. He never even planned to leave his hometown (Sudbury, Ontario).
But this recent immigrant to the Comox Valley is a believer in transcendence and that greater powers are at work: “If you follow the path that feels right, everything will fall into place.”
Looking back on the last two decades, that’s exactly what’s happened.
In 1999, lured by the West and a desire to be outside, Hann traded Sudbury and his job as a high school teacher for a one-year guiding certification course in Vancouver. He loved teaching, but wanted to spend more time outside, he remembers, as a conflicted smile creases his sun-kissed face.
The outdoor guiding skills he gained dovetailed with his teaching background to land him a position at King Pacific Lodge, a fishing lodge in remote Milbanke Sound on BC’s central coast. His job was to expand the operation beyond sport fishing to include wildlife viewing, sea kayaking, and heli-hiking.
Located in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest and within the traditional territories of the Gitga’at First Nation, the lodge was one of the first tourism businesses to sign a partnership protocol with the First Nation in whose territory they operated. From day one, Hann was working with and learning from the Gitga’at people.
A few months later, on National Aboriginal Day, he found himself in the nearby village of Hartley Bay listening to the three chiefs of the Gitga’at Nation, Johnny Clifton, Ernie Hill, and Billy Clifton, along with well-known environmentalist David Suzuki and environmental lawyer Robert Kennedy Jr., discussing the importance of protecting the land and water of the Great Bear Rainforest. With powerful speakers, drumming, and tables full of Dungeness crab, the event was a sensory overload, but also a defining moment for Hann. “I can still remember where I was sitting,” he says. “That day set the course for what I wanted to do.”
Over the next few years, he started spending more time in Hartley Bay. He coached the basketball teams—Hann had been on the Canadian national team—and taught a career skills course in the community where every week Helen Clifton, a Gitga’at elder, would come to talk to the students about their culture and history, and the importance of protecting their territory.
She told them about the Northern Gateway Project, the proposed oil pipeline that would bring crude from Alberta to Kitimat. From there, tankers would ferry it through the Central Coast’s convoluted inlets and channels. The potential for an oil spill threatened the Gitga’at way of life, Clifton said.
Hann took it all in and grew close to the community. In 2006, the Raven clan of the Gitga’at adopted him, giving him the name T’aam Laan, which means “steersman of the canoe.” This was before he had even stepped onto a SUP. “Being given a name carries a high level of responsibility,” Hann says. He started to think about how he could give back to the Gitga’at and their territory.
Hann came to stand-up paddleboarding after a childhood spent canoeing in Ontario, followed by learning to surf in BC. “SUP is a great combo of the two sports,” he says. “There is a real feeling of freedom when you’re standing and looking out.”
At about the same time as Hann was learning SUP skills, the Northern Gateway proposal started to gain more notice. Hann saw an opportunity to “acknowledge my responsibility to the coast and its people,” as he puts it, and pulled off his 400-kilometre paddle from Kitimat along the proposed oil tanker route. The expedition and film were a springboard. Later that year, he founded Norm Hann Expeditions and ran his first stand-up paddleboard tours in the Great Bear Rainforest.
Next came another expedition and film, STAND, which focused on Haida Gwaii and the risk of oil tankers on the North Coast. In 2016 the federal government rejected the Northern Gateway project. It’s hard to say what impact Hann’s presentations and films played in the decision, but his was one of the more prominent opposition voices in the recreation sphere.
Hann now guides SUP tours all over the province (and in Belize during the winter) and teaches instructor courses and paddling-skills classes. In 2021 he moved, with his partner and their son, from Squamish to the Comox Valley to be closer to his partner’s family.
Hann continues to invest in his responsibility to BC’s coast. After the film STAND, he and the filmmakers, Anthony Bonello and Nicolas Teichrob, partnered with Simon Fraser University professor Allison Kermode to turn the messages of the movie into a school curriculum, Take a Stand: Youth for Conservation. In four years, they taught more than 15,000 kids about the Great Bear Rainforest, oil tankers, and the Gitga’at culture. In some ways, it’s like he’s come full circle from his teaching days in Sudbury.
Hann sees it as a trajectory. With every stroke, his route ahead has appeared out of the mist. Where he’ll end up, he doesn’t know. And he’s not worried. Hann knows he’s exactly where he’s meant to be.