From ages 2-8, we lived in the tropics. Sometimes we were based in Panama and sometimes we were based in Costa Rica. We spent all of those years living on our sailboat. My parents did lots of odd jobs when we lived down there, including taking people for cruises on our boat. They talk about how we often did this triangle trade route system where we would take a family out, and they would pay us in goods – anything from clothes to sandals to ammunition to fish hooks. Then when we got to the islands, locals would recognize our boat and they would come out with their pongas, which are like a dugout canoe, and they would be loaded with fruits and vegetables, and we would trade.
My education during that time is what you would call… experiential. Officially we were on the books as doing long distance education, and there was definitely some education taking place, just not necessarily normal. My mom talks about us having some math workbooks, but to my recollection, we didn't do a lot of math. I do remember doing a ton of reading, and that my parents read to us all the time.
My shipwreck story began six years into our time in the tropics. My parents' dream had always been to sail around the world. The vision was to sail from Panama to Tahiti, and then on to Australia, French Polynesia, Hawaii, and then one day home to Canada. The plan was to depart and spend a month at sea before we hit the first sight of land. My parents made the decision to go quite rapidly and I remember that we headed off for 30 days at sea with no radar, no electronics like GPS, no long wave radio, and no proper life jackets.
Our last port of call was this very remote island before you hit the Pacific Ocean. When we arrived at that island, my parents decided to tie up with the buoy instead of dropping the anchor. As luck would have it, in the middle of the night a storm blew up, our line to the buoy broke, and we got moved ashore onto the rocks.
I remember being woken up by my parents in the middle of the night. They put a flashlight in my hand and said, "Shine this on the floor, and if you see water coming in, let us know. You're in charge of your sister." Looking back, I'm sure that that night was scary.
The night of the shipwreck, we slept under the stars on the beach. We got as much food as possible off the boat, because we didn't know exactly how bad it was. When the light came up that next day it was pretty obvious that things were serious. There was a hole in the boat that was big enough for my dad to walk through. It was an all wood hull, and none of us had any sort of boat building experience, so things were definitely not looking great.
I like to say that we had an extended six month holiday on this island that we were shipwrecked on. The island we ended up on was about five kilometers wide and it was really remote – it was a three to four day sail away from the mainland.
My dad worked on fixing the boat for six months or so until we got it to a point where it was ready to float. By this time, we had managed to get word to some friends about our plight and we made a plan for a boat to come to tow my parents' boat to the nearest port for further repairs. My sister, my mom and I got off the island a week before the boat was to be towed, and my dad stayed with the boat.
Tragically, a really big storm hit that week and thrashed the boat, crushing it and smashing it to bits just days before rescuers were due to arrive. It was a tragedy – all that work for nothing. My dad gets quite choked up when he describes that moment. Most sailors feel quite connected to their boats and almost think of them as people. He said he could hear the boat groaning and all of the decking splintering as the waves were smashing it to bits. At that point he knew that this adventure was over.
In my mind, I often think that because of my childhood experiences I'm this amazingly flexible, patient person – but that’s probably not true. But I think it has definitely helped me deal with tough situations. I like to make reference to the quote, “This too shall pass,” because I know from firsthand experience that eventually things will find a way of sorting themselves out – nothing bad will last forever. Really, it's perspective. When you have a brand new challenge, do you approach it with a lens of curiosity and wonder, or are you frozen in fear because of it?
My intention was never to remain at Shawnigan. It was just supposed to be a place to live and work while finishing up the remainder of my university courses. I left Shawnigan for a short time, but it's kind of like a big magnet that pulls you back in. What brought me back – and has kept me here all these years – is the community.
Between my wife Katrina and I, I've never not been involved in boarding at Shawnigan. I love boarding because of the time you spend building relationships with the students. I think it's pretty obvious that when you spend the time, you get to know the kids. Building relationships with the kids and seeing them grow and take on new challenges, and supporting them through this, is the best part of my job at Shawnigan. Whether it's teaching someone how to tie a tie for the first time or listening while they're struggling with things, the list goes on and on.
It has been special to have our children grow up at Shawnigan. Our youngest two have never lived anywhere but on campus, and our oldest, Meghan, lived here for most of her life. I don't even know how to put it into words. I think what makes it so special for me is one of the things that I never had growing up was something stable and constant. For most of my childhood, we floated around, and I never had permanent friends. We had a sailboat, but it wasn't home. I didn't grow up with the same group of friends or a sense of place. And so for my children to have that kind of stability in a community where we know the people that our kids are growing up with, who are looking out for them, and also helping raise them – it’s truly the most amazing thing. We are forever grateful to have had this opportunity.
I am grateful to work with and alongside my wife Katrina, and to help support her as she makes an incredible difference in the lives of the young people in her care – I have the utmost admiration and respect for her.
Shawnigan is still the community that I fell in love with 22 years ago. I love the community, and the community is the people. It's most obvious when the holidays hit and the School is empty. You quickly realize how true the cliche is that Shawnigan isn't the place, it's the people. It's the community, the traditions, and the knowledge that make this place so amazing.
Shawnigan feels like a big playground, with so much to explore and so many opportunities. I love that I live in such an inspirational place, and I could say that the natural beauty of the place adds to that. Being on the lake, going for walks out back, or going for mountain bike rides is a pretty amazing thing. But I would say that the inspiration is tied to the people. Because of the culture of the place, so many students and staff are empowered to become better versions of themselves, to be exploratory, or to take on new challenges.
One of the reasons why I was really attracted to the Grade 9 Beyond the Gates program was a desire to not just teach, but to try something different, and to put myself out of my comfort zone as a teacher, mentor and human. Education and learning are evolving. As you start looking at some of the challenges around climate change and some of the other social issues in our world, I think this program is something that can have a great impact on kids and how they see the world around them and how they feel. Getting outside in nature this year has been the best thing for us all.
I hope that I have helped to make the place better. I've had some pretty amazing experiences working with kids, and seeing what they have learned first hand. It's been really impactful. Working with the Beyond the Gates program, which has been hands-on and reflective and experiential, and working with a small group of kids with so much teamwork and trust built, has been one of my favorite experiences yet. It has been amazing to see people letting down their guard and being genuine and authentic, and seeing how much they care about other people, and learning to think critically and to open up.
I am incredibly proud of students and athletes that I have worked with who overcome (seemingly) insurmountable obstacles. I love seeing the expression of pride on a Grade 8’s face when they take their first few strokes in a single and they don't flip the shell, or better yet after they flip and they get back in and continue. The same can be said for working with students in the classroom. It is so rewarding when a quiet student who dreads the thought of public speaking gets up and performs, overcoming their fear. When young people persevere and overcome their fears, you can see the shift in confidence that starts to trickle into other parts of their lives. This is no better exemplified than when alumni come back to visit, or send email updates of the adventures in their lives, and the exciting career paths they've embarked on.
I am extremely grateful for the community of colleagues and friends that have supported my family and me as we've grown up on campus. I am also grateful to friends and colleagues who have supported my professional growth throughout my years of teaching. Finally, I am grateful for the inspiration that I receive on a daily basis from my interactions with students.
I have always believed that life should be an adventure, and Shawnigan has been an amazing one."
- Mr. Galen Loiselle (Grade 9 Beyond the Gates Program Co-Leader, 22 years at Shawnigan)