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Why this Métis man sees the birchbark canoe as a symbol for Canada's future

Christian Pilon, a Métis man in Ottawa, shares his culture by teaching others how to build birchbark canoes.
Christian Pilon, with a birchbark canoe he built with students from École secondaire catholique Paul-Desmarais in Ottawa. (Samantha Lui/CBC)

Christian Pilon walks around a birchbark canoe, carefully adjusting the ribs inside the boat. Piece by piece, the canoe was built without the use of drills, saws, screws or nails. In fact, it was made only from materials found in nature, such as birchbark, cedar and spruce roots.

For Pilon, it was important to build the watercraft the same way as his ancestors did. That's because the birchbark canoe is a symbol of his Métis heritage, which he's been using as a tool to teach students across Ontario about his culture for the past decade.

"Many, many years ago, the birchbark canoe was a gift that my Indigenous relatives gave to my French-European relatives," he said, in an interview with Cross Country Checkup

"We shared that gift with the understanding that we would paddle together in that canoe and share water, resources and land. And along the way, we kind of split up and caused a rift."

Watch below: Christian Pilon describes how a birchbark canoe is made

At a time when much of the country is preparing for its Canada 150 celebrations, Pilon, who lives in Ottawa, feels that this knowledge is more important than ever.

That's because as a man of mixed ancestry, he finds himself stuck in the middle — torn apart about whether he should be celebrating with most people, or not.

"I am Métis. I've got to walk a fine line between the two roads," he said. "My French-Canadian heritage side goes, 'Woohoo! I wanna party!' But my Indigenous side goes, 'Ehhhh…[it's] celebrating colonialism.' That's tough for me."

But this isn't the first time Pilon has felt like he's stuck in between. Throughout his life, he says both Indigenous and French-Canadians have often rejected him. And more specifically, people have even criticized him for building canoes. 

"I've had on the First Nations side, men and women who approach me and say, 'That's not fair that you learned how to build that canoe. That's ours. We should know that. Not you,'" Pilon recalled.

"Well, I'm happy to share it, you know? I'm learning because it's part of my history too. I've had ancestors that were voyageurs. We used these canoes as well."

Christian Pilon, on a birchbark canoe. (Courtesy of Christian Pilon)

Pilon's willingness and desire to share his culture and knowledge about birchbark canoes is something that he learned from his elder, a fellow Algonquin and Métis man named Marcel Labelle.

Labelle was the one who taught Pilon how to harvest roots and birchbark in the woods in order to build the traditional watercrafts. Along the way, Labelle would also tell stories, which Pilon has since passed on to others.

"My hope is to share not only the construction of this canoe, but all the teachings that go around it because everything is so symbolic."  

Pilon views the canoe as a sign for building relationships, and what it could mean for Canada's future.

That's why he views Canada's upcoming 150th celebrations as chance to make things better. And as a Métis man, he hopes to play a part in helping Indigenous people improve their relationship with the rest of Canada. 

"As Métis, we were the interpreters between both languages, nations and ways of living. We were always in the middle going back and forth trying to make things happen. We were the ones trying to build the bridges and relationships, and trying to keep them as healthy as possible," he said.

"We're looking at this as an opportunity to actually ask Canada to look at what we've done in the last 150 years. What can we do differently in the next 150 years? It's time for us to come together."