When Marcel Labelle decided to chart a new career course building birch bark canoes 13 years ago, it was a journey that would help him reconnect with his Indigenous heritage while taking his craft to universities across Ontario, which has brought him to the University of Ottawa this winter to lead a hands-on canoe-building project.

Growing up in Mattawa, Ont. with Métis and Algonquin roots, he learned from a young age how to make a living from the forest. Labelle was a trapper until his fur products stopped selling in the early 1990s. 

"When you lose trapping, you lose who you are. You lose your culture," he said.

birch bark canoe

A birch bark canoe crafted by Marcel Labelle has more than 200 metres of spruce tree roots wound throughout the wood to hold everything together. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

"I did what society told me — I fully assimilated. I forgot about the forest, I forgot about my background, I moved to southern Ontario, I cut my hair and I got an office job. But I was not an office guy."

Labelle left his office job and discovered a newfound passion for building. He built wigwams — domed shelters made of wood used for ceremonies — and harvested enough wood one fall to make a 1.5 m canoe in time for spring.

He has been recognized as a senior artist by the Ontario Arts Council since 2008. When he isn't teaching how to build canoes at Laurentian University's School of Architecture in Sudbury, Labelle holds workshops on campuses across Ontario.

canoe building workshop

Award-winning Métis artist and builder Marcel Labelle teaches a group of students about canoe-building at the University of Ottawa. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

'We're building a community here'

For the past three weeks, students and faculty at the University of Ottawa have been learning how to build a birch bark canoe from start to finish under Labelle's guidance. 

Keen learners have been cutting and cleaning the wood, building its "ribs" and wrapping more than 200 metres of spruce roots through the wood to hold everything together.

yurissa varela canoe building

Yurissa Varela, a student at the University of Ottawa, diligently works on the frame of a birch bark canoe. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

"We're building a community here, not just a canoe," Labelle said. 

Student Yurissa Varela said the canoe sitting in the University Centre lounge caught her eye one day, and she has been coming back to the workshop almost every day since. 

"My family came here as refugees from Honduras, and my great-grandfather was Mayan, but I was never raised in the culture," she said. 

"In some way, this is kind of reconnecting me to my own roots."

The canoe-building project at the University of Ottawa will run every weekday until March 24.