Mi'kmaq artist builds traditional birchbark canoe in Bear River

Todd Labrador is putting the finishing touches on a handmade birchbark canoe this week on the Bear River First Nation. He hopes that by working on the canoe in the community, he'll help the next generation discover the craft.

Todd Labrador taught himself the traditional craft and now hopes to share his skills with others

Todd Labrador, a Mi'kmaq man from Nova Scotia's Kejimkujik region, is honouring the heritage and culture of his people by practising a traditional art — birchbark canoe building. (CBC)

Todd Labrador chisels a piece of cedar, shaping it to nestle into the bow of a birchbark canoe that's he's spent the past three months shaping by hand on the Bear River First Nation.

This week, the Mi'kmaq artist is putting the finishing touches on the canoe in the same community where he built his first one more than a decade ago.

He hopes by working on it in the First Nation he'll help the next generation discover the traditional craft.

Labrador gets frequent visitors to his workspace. Some, like three-year-old Declan, offer a helping hand. (CBC)

Little helpers

People of all ages often drop into Labrador's workshop, with some lending a helping hand.

It's not uncommon to see a toddler from the nearby daycare following his movements, mimicking the way he stitches spruce root through a piece of bark.

"I'm hoping that by being here and having some of the little ones come in, walk around, maybe that will spark a little interest that one day somebody else will be building canoes here," said Labrador.

Community project

Bear River's chief approached the canoe builder, who is an Acadia First Nation band member and grew up on the Wildcat reserve in Queens County, last summer about the project. It's part of Seven Paddles, a community initiative that aims to strengthen people's connection to their history and culture.

Birchbark canoes certainly don't come with an instruction manual. Labrador has spent the past decade exploring the craft — working from photos and consulting with elders. 

Labrador works with traditional tools similar to those his great grandfather used. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

Labrador's father, who shared his traditional knowledge with his son, passed away before Labrador finished his first canoe. But he says his father and ancestor's spirits continues to guide his work. 

He uses tools similar to the ones his ancestors worked with. His own great grandfather, Joe Jeremy, was a master canoe builder. Another famed Mi'kmaq builder, Malti Pictou, did the same in Bear River.

"Some of the things I do now, with birchbark canoes, I've actually learned from looking at Malti's canoe, how he did certain things. I've incorporated some of Malti's techniques into what I do now," he said.

Long history in Bear River

Labrador, with the help of his family and some community members, began gathering materials in May. First, they collected huge swaths of birchbark from the Maitland area and harvested about 200 metres of spruce root — later boiling the individual sections of root on a propane burner.

He hopes to officially launch the canoe later this summer. It will stay in the community, a symbol of the First Nation's connection to the land.

"I hope it brings back some pride and memories of how special this community has been," Labrador said. 

The stitching of the lashing that binds the birchbark pieces together is made from spruce roots, about 250 metres for one canoe. (CBC)

About the Author

Elizabeth McMillan

Elizabeth McMillan is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia. Over the past eight years, she has reported from the edge of the Arctic Ocean to the Atlantic Coast and loves sharing people's stories. She can be found on twitter @elizmcmillan.