DOZENS OF ISLANDS GLOW on the GPS screen in the Columbia III’s wheelhouse as we meander in the Broughton Archipelago off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island. As the ship putters along, we spot orcas, porpoises, bears and eagles, but we’re here to learn about the First Nations who have lived on these bountiful isles for thousands of years.

We dock at Alert Bay and our guide, Lillian Hunt of the Namgis First Nation, leads us to the U'mista Cultural Centre. The main gallery features hundreds of colourful masks representing animals, birds and supernatural creatures, treasures that were repatriated after being confiscated from a potlatch in 1921. Next door, the red-brick St. Michael’s residential school stands as a stark reminder of the children who were removed from their families.

Back on the water, we sail past a small island and Hunt points to a mortuary box peeking out of the greenery; we wonder whose remains are inside. Later, we see a cliff-side petroglyph and visit uninhabited Village Island — one requires permission to stop at all aboriginal heritage sites in the archipelago — where a fallen totem pole lies decaying in the forest.

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