New to the fleet

Art Afloat

New Salish-Class vessels pay homage to the past while sailing into the future

by Colleen Friesen

It’s not unusual to spot a whale in the Salish Sea. But when you see a stylized traditional Coast Salish orca skimming the ocean’s surface — especially one that appears to be transforming into a wolf — you know you’re seeing something special.

That sight will become reality within a year, as the first of three new BC Ferries intermediate-class vessels, the Salish Orca, begins sailing between Comox and Powell River. The ship will be a 107-metre (352-foot) canvas of First Nations images.

Artist Darlene Gait of Esquimalt was commissioned to create the dramatic artwork for the Salish Orca. Her design will wrap around the entire body of the ship. “I’m from the Wolf Clan,” says Gait. “So what I designed is more than just images of whales. It is whales caught in the moment of transforming into wolves.”

Gait’s commission, along with those of fellow artists John Marston and Thomas Cannell, whose works will grace the Salish Eagle and the Salish Raven respectively, is the result of a unique partnership between BC Ferries and the First Peoples’ Cultural Council. The two put out a call for Coast Salish artists to create original designs to be applied to the three new vessels being built to replace soon-to-be-retired ships.

Thirty-seven artists responded to the call. A jury of First Nations artist peers and BC Ferries representatives narrowed the 37 down to nine. The nine then submitted their design concepts, from which three winning artists were chosen, ensuring a diversity of art and expression for each of the three new vessels.

The artists each refined their pieces to get their appearance just right. Gait says she wanted to ensure the orcas appeared to be skimming just above the waterline.

“When I do anything now, I think about my ancestors who lived before me, of how we survived and are still alive,” she says.


All three artists’ ancestors once paddled massive canoes in the same waters that BC Ferries now navigates, a history that was recognized in 2010 when the entire area of coastal waters (which includes the Strait of Georgia, Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound) was renamed the Salish Sea.

Although the original nautical names are also still in use, the total body of water now honours and pays homage to Coast Salish First Nations people.

As the Salish Orca enters service and later in 2017, Marston’s Salish Eagle and Cannell’s Salish Raven, BC Ferries is helping to ensure that First Nations culture continues to be recognized. The ships’ names and the Coast Salish images that will adorn the exteriors of these new vessels recognize and appreciate the importance of coastal First Nations societies.


The temperate climate of the southern BC coast contributed to a number of distinct, thriving First Nations cultures, loosely linked by ethnicity and sometimes by language. Collectively, First Nations people belonging to these coastal communities are called the Coast Salish.

Rich in storytelling, art and ritual, Coast Salish cultures created longhouses, totem poles, blankets, weavings, sculpture, engravings and carvings both massive and fine, and developed intricate dances. Human-like forms and representations of animals and birds were, and still are, common subjects in Coast Salish art.

The history of the Coast Salish also has difficult periods. The Indian Act of 1876 attempted to enforce cultural assimilation on First Nations people. Between 1880 and 1951, traditional ceremonies such as the potlatch, a gift-giving feast, were outlawed. During this period, Coast Salish cultural practices were forced underground.

When Coast Salish art re-emerged in the 1960s, it retained its traditional cultural significance, along with a new spirit of resilience and hope for the future.


With the launch of the Salish Orca, Salish Eagle and Salish Raven, the storytelling and art of the Coast Salish people will find a new medium. Each vessel will bear a unique artistic design, and the commissioned artists share the pride of revealing their art in such a dramatic and highly visible way.

Marston is an artist from the Stz’uminus First Nation on Vancouver Island. His work will cover the Salish Eagle when that vessel enters service in early 2017. “It’s an honour for me to have my artwork placed upon one of the ferries. It makes me proud to be Coast Salish,” he says. “I think giving our art form such a big public presentation helps create dialogue between non-First Nations and First Nations. It’s important to realize the history of our First Nations people here in BC.

“It helps us, and the next generation, to understand what happened here.”

The three new vessels will navigate the same ocean that once held Coast Salish canoes. BC Ferries President and CEO Mike Corrigan emphasizes that important historical context. “The Coast Salish used many of the same routes that we are travelling today. They were the first mariners of the Salish Sea. And nothing can make a bigger statement than a 107-metre ferry covered with Coast Salish art.”


The Senior Chief Steward of the Queen of Burnaby, Margaret McDonagh, has been with BC Ferries for 30 years, and will oversee the catering department of the Salish Orca. She had the honour of christening the new vessel late last year.

McDonagh is excited about the Coast Salish artwork and proud to introduce these new vessels — with their improved reliability and performance — to the

BC Ferries fleet. “Like me, the rest of the crew is very excited. We’re thrilled at what it will be like for our passengers,” McDonagh says.


Creating art for the vessels presented a unique cultural challenge, as it required Coast Salish artists to produce traditional pieces that could be displayed outside the context of ceremony.

Musqueam artist Cannell, whose art will cover the Salish Raven, entering service in mid-2017, acknowledges the challenge while welcoming a public showcase for the art form. “You’re seeing things that normally would not have been seen. But now, I actually prefer the public art to private commissions. I want everyone to see it.”

Marston echoes the same thoughts: “For artists of my generation, it’s a big challenge to work with the art form and create things that are somewhat traditional but not based on traditional ceremony. The things that are held within ceremony were in the past simply not made public.”