“I believe that once you get on the right path—your path—everything falls into place.”
Norman Hann’s life path always seemed quite clear—at least to those around him.
Growing up in and around Sudbury, Ontario, he loved sports and was particularly strong in basketball. Both his parents were teachers, and his father Jim also coached Norm’s high school basketball team.
So it came as no surprise to Norm’s family and friends when, after graduating from Lasalle Secondary School, he went to Laurentian University and excelled as the Voyageurs’ shooting guard. He was a three-time All-Canadian, held the all-time Ontario University Athletics (OUA) scoring record, scored the most 3-pointers in a career and remains one of Canada’s top all-time scorers. He went on to finish his competitive basketball career playing for the Canadian National Team in 1995.
When Norm graduated from Laurentian in 1993 with a degree in physical and health education, he attended teacher’s college in Manitoba at Brandon University, where he also coached basketball with the legendary Jerry Hemmings. Then, after teaching for a couple years in Sudbury, he took a short-term position to teach in Fort Frances, Ontario before moving back to Sudbury and accepting a full-time teaching and coaching position at Lasalle Secondary School.
Life had come full circle. Norm was back where he belonged.
Except that isn’t quite the whole story. It wasn’t until two decades later that he would feel he truly had come full circle, and that he’d found his home in British Columbia’s magical Great Bear Rainforest.
Norm was recommended as a Kickass Canadian by my friend and fellow ultimate Frisbee enthusiast Brad Rollo, owner of Ottawa, Ontario’s Bramel Developments. Brad and Norm were teammates for five years on the Voyageurs, and remain close friends today. “I can’t think of anyone who embodies being a Kickass Canadian more than Norm,” says Brad. “On top of being one of the greatest basketball players this country has produced, he is an activist, adventurist and mentor to Aboriginal youth in Hartley Bay, B.C.”
There’s a lot to Norm’s story. So let’s dive in.
The beaten path
In addition to basketball and teaching, Norm grew up with a profound appreciation for the outdoors. Summers were spent at his maternal grandfather’s camp in northern Ontario, where he spent every waking moment fishing, swimming and canoeing. “As teachers, mom and dad had the summers off,” he says. “Every summer, they’d take our family out to the camp for two months, and it was amazing. That experience connected me to the environment, and instilled in me a deep appreciation and need for the natural environment.”
His passion for the outdoors was reaffirmed during his time in Fort Frances. On weekdays, he taught at Fort Frances High School. At night and on weekends, he’d come home to his cabin on the lake, where he was free to fish and be on the water while watching the Northern Lights. The combination of teaching and being at one with the land suited him very well.
Still, when Norm was presented with full-time teaching positions at both Fort Frances High School and Lasalle Secondary School, he ignored his instincts and took the job at his alma mater. “My heart definitely wanted to stay in Fort Frances, but I was also excited to work for Lasalle principal Anna Barsanti,” he says. “Also, Sudbury was my home town, my family was there and I had a lot of close friends.”
The great outdoors
Throughout the years he taught at Lasalle, he spent as much time outdoors as he could. He got involved as a guide with the school’s Outdoor Education program, working alongside program leader Clyde Sheppard. During his summer breaks from teaching, he headed to Banff, Alberta, where he worked for his uncle Bob and discovered the Rocky Mountains. Hiking and climbing filled the gap that was left in Norm’s life after he’d stopped playing competitive basketball; in its place was a renewed passion for adventure and exploration.
Each September when he returned to teaching in Sudbury, it became harder to readjust to the lifestyle. Eventually, Anna picked up on his struggle. “She said to me, ‘You’re a great teacher, but you really have to do what you want to do and what you’re passionate about,” he says.
Her words carried a lot of weight for Norm, who has always had the utmost respect for his former principal. A seed had been planted, and he began looking more actively into opportunities for a new life out west.
After consulting with his parents, he made the decision to move to B.C. It came as a surprise to many who knew him, but for Norm, “it just felt right.” With the support of his family and friends, he redirected his path and embarked on a new journey.
Norm enrolled in the Adventure Tourism Diploma Program at Vancouver’s Canadian Tourism College. Upon graduating in 2000, he was hired by King Pacific Lodge to start up their adventure program in coastal B.C.’s Great Bear Rainforest. In researching the area, he discovered Ian and Karen McAllister’s book, The Great Bear Rainforest: Canada’s Forgotten Coast. Upon reading the book, he was instantly inspired and enamored with the region.
Once he arrived in Great Bear Rainforest, amid kindred spirits and surrounded by the region’s natural beauty, Norm knew he was in his element. “It was really amazing,” he says. “It seemed like that first year at the lodge, I was having all these epiphanies. I believe that once you get on the right path—your path—everything falls into place. It’s like (Paulo Coelho’s novel) The Alchemist; the world will conspire to make whatever you want happen, as long as you’re investing that energy in it and committed to it.”
While Norm was working at King Pacific Lodge, he also got involved with the Gitga’at people of Hartley Bay. He spearheaded a student mentorship program that connected local First Nations students with King Pacific Lodge staff, combining in-class learning with job shadowing to help prepare the youth for future employment and continuing education. He also started coaching basketball in the local village, which he discovered the youth loved “like the rest of Canadian kids love hockey.”
It occurred to Norm that, after uprooting his career and travelling across the country, he was still teaching youth and coaching basketball. He was drawing on a skill set he’d developed in Ontario that was transferable to almost any situation. But this time, the situation was of his own making, which made all the difference.
“It’s really amazing how everything comes back in a circle,” he says. “There I was, working in this small native community on the opposite end of the country, coaching basketball again. But it was coaching that was totally different from what I was used to, and in a totally different environment. I really enjoyed it.”
T’aam Laan (Steersman of the Canoe)
Norm’s heartfelt passion for the residents of Hartley Bay was mutual. In 2006, with his parents at his side, he was formally adopted by Eva Hill into the Raven Clan of the Gitga’at people, an act he calls “one of the biggest honours that I’ve ever received.”
Norm was given the name T’aam Laan, which means Steersman of the Canoe. Once again, he was struck and moved by the feeling of destiny that kept resurfacing throughout his life.
“I grew up paddling canoes in northern Ontario, and I went to Laurentian and became a Voyageur,” he says. “I was proud to be a Voyageur, proud of their tradition as the men who paddled canoes across the country to trade fur, and proud of the way they lived their lives with adventure, hard work and camaraderie. When I was given the name (T’aam Laan), the clan really didn’t know any of my background. And here they are giving me the name Steersman of the Canoe, which was connected to my whole life.”
Norm Hann Expeditions
Since discovering the Great Bear Rainforest through his work at King Pacific Lodge, Norm has spent most of his time on the coast. He guides in the summers, and works with the youth of Hartley Bay in the winters.
In 2004, he branched out on his own to run Tantalus Adventures, a Squamish-based guiding company that later morphed into Norm Hann Expeditions.
These days, the company is focused on standup paddleboarding, a sport Norm fell in love with on first sight. “I’ve always loved surfing and canoeing,” he says. “When I first saw (paddleboarding athlete) Laird Hamilton on a video, I knew right away that I was going to do it.”
That was in 2008. In three short years, he has honed his skills and now competes among the best paddleboarders in the world. Sponsored by Rogue Stand Up Paddleboards, he has been delivering exceptional performances in competitions across North America. In 2010, he finished second at the Kalamalka Classic in Vernon, B.C., third at the 22-mile Tahoe Fall Classic in California, and 65th out of more than 600 competitors at the California Battle of the Paddle, which Norm calls “the Super Bowl of stand up paddleboard racing.”
Paddleboarding has brought more than business and pleasure to Norm’s life. It’s also provided a means of standing up for the community that has welcomed him in as a family member.
In early 2010, he collaborated with respected Gitga’at elder Helen Clifton to teach the Essential Skills for Work program for Northwest Community College (NWCC) in Hartley Bay. Helen came to his class every Wednesday to speak to the youth about their culture and traditions. “She was a real inspiration and leader,” he says.
Week after week, she made heartfelt pleas to the students to get involved and help protect their traditional territory. Helen encouraged them to open their eyes to the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project, a proposed oil pipeline that would run from the tar sands of Alberta to the ocean port of Kitimat, B.C. If the project goes through, 225 very-large crude carriers per year will transport over 500,000 gallons of oil each through the treacherous waters of Douglas Channel and the Great Bear Rainforest, passing right by the front doorstep of Hartley Bay.
“Helen said, ‘If these oil tankers are allowed to go by, we will lose everything—our land, our culture our traditional foods,’” says Norm. “‘We will be no more.’”
Inspired by Helen’s words, he watched The Black Wave, a documentary about the legacy of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska. After watching the movie, he was brought to tears. He vowed to do everything he could to prevent Enbridge from moving forward and bringing harm to the Great Bear Rainforest and other coastal communities.
“I felt that I had a responsibility to help protect the community that had given me so much,” he says.
Norm founded Standup4Greatbear, a non-profit organization that promotes awareness and encourages the protection of Great Bear Rainforest through “expeditions, partnerships and action.” The organization’s inaugural expedition was a 400km stand up paddleboarding trip that Norm undertook in May 2010; he travelled the entire length of Enbridge’s proposed oil tanker route and then some, journeying from Kitimat to Bella Bella.
He was supported in his journey by younger sister Shannon Hann, who took care of media and blogging, and adventurer/photographer Brian Huntington, who shot photo and video footage of the trip. He was guided through each territory by the First Nations Guardian Watchmen.
Along the way, Norm talked with members in each of the four First Nations territories he passed through. Everyone he spoke with was emphatically opposed to the oil tanker route. As expressed on the Standup4Greatbear website, the First Nations communities stated that: “Our way of life is not for sale, not for anything. Our tradition and culture are too valuable. We are keepers of this land, for our children and for generations to come. Our answer is NO.”
Call to action
Norm is doing everything in his power to make sure that their voice is heard. He feels that the final decision regarding the proposed pipeline will speak not only to the future of Great Bear Rainforest and its surrounding region, but also to the direction Canada is taking on a larger environmental scale.
“What we need to be doing as Canadians, and on a world stage, is moving away from our dependence on oil,” he says. “If we can use our oil reserves to help develop new greener technologies, and move away from oil, that’s a direction we need to be going. It’s getting to a point where it’s critical. Our oceans are at risk, our forests are at risk. And if the health of our oceans and forests go, so does our health. Everything is connected. We’ve seen what happened in the Gulf Coast, we’ve seen what happens worldwide. This project will affect our whole coast. By taking a stand against the Northern Gateway project, we can actually be environmental leaders, instead of squandering and risking our precious natural resources.”
Norm takes every opportunity he gets to speak to students and the public about Standup4Greatbear. He’s also working on a documentary that will highlight his paddleboarding conservation expedition and shed light on Enbridge’s plan. It’s his firm belief that Great Bear Rainforest must be protected, not only for the good of the region, but for the good of the planet.
“I think it’s important to preserve the Great Bear Rainforest because I believe it’s a world class destination, and it’s an area that people can look to as a model for the future of our environment,” he says. “It’s such an incredible, magical area, and one that’s still intact. The Great Bear Rainforest can be a shining star for Canadians and the world because there are very few places left that are still like this, with functioning marine and terrestrial ecosystems.”
On the right path
Looking back at his path now, it seems clear that Norm was destined to land exactly where he is. His teaching, coaching, adventure and athletic experiences have prepared him to help guide the people in and around Great Bear Rainforest toward a positive alternative for the future.
“Once you position yourself around like-minded people, and people who support your passion and what you do, it’s just huge,” he says. “It really motivates you and inspires you to keep on that path.”
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For more on Norm’s conservation efforts, visit standup4greatbear.ca and ‘Like’ the organization’s Facebook page. To keep up with his other work, follow @normhann on Twitter, ‘Like’ the Norm Hann Expeditions Facebook page, visit normhann.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.