New Brunswick

Birch bark canoe from 1800s fails to excite museum community

A birch bark canoe, held together with spruce roots and tree resin, dates back to the 1820s and is a marvel of early cultural heritage, but it remains in a St. Mary's First Nation garage, snubbed by national and regional museums.

'What a history it had. What a story it could tell'

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      The canoe is around 195 years old, and it has been stored upside down in Richard Paul's garage.

      It is wrapped carefully in plastic to keep its fragile web of ribs and birch bark intact.

      And even though this piece of history dates back to the 1820s, confirmed by carbon dating, and is a marvel of early cultural heritage, likely built by Maliseet hands, it doesn't appear to able to find a home in national or regional museums.

      The birch bark canoe first surfaced when a man in Keswick Ridge found it when renovating his barn and contacted Richard Paul. Paul bought it, and brought it back to his house in the Maliseet community of St. Mary's First Nation.

      "When I first got it, for the first few days, I would just walk around and look at it, and think to myself, 'What a history it had. What a story it could tell.' The journeys down the river it must have taken. The people that it carried. Who knows who built it?" Paul says, running his hand along its form.

      Rich piece of heritage

      The canoe is four metres, or 14 feet, long. It is wide in the middle, tapering at both ends.

      The birch bark is held together with what appears to be spruce roots. Pine or spruce resin seals the seams. It is one large piece of bark formed over cedar ribs.

      Paul thinks it's a Maliseet canoe, but he's not sure.

      Paul and Pat Carr gently lift the birch bark canoe onto two sawhorses in Paul's driveway.  Peter Laroque has come to explain what he can about the canoe's heritage. Larocque is the curator for cultural history and art at the New Brunswick Museum.

      "When I first saw it I was struck by a couple of things; one is the size of the piece of birch bark that was used to construct this piece, and then you start looking at the details," Laroque says.

      Details like the shape of the bow and stern, what part of the canoe was repaired, and with what; the structure, the form, and how they it was assembled. Then it is compared with historical drawings of other canoes.

      Canoe should be displayed

      Paul decided that he would like it to go to a museum. But after two visits from an expert from the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa in 2012, they stopped. He said he was told the museum was restructuring and they would get back to him. But they didn't.

      Paul says he'd just like to see it preserved somewhere. He would give it to them for what he paid.

      "I think my hope would be that either Ottawa or the provincial museum in Ottawa would get it, and house it, display it, restore it maybe? That's my goal. That's my hope."

      Alan Elder, from the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa, recently confirmed radio carbon dating places the canoe around 1820, within 30 years either way. He also said the museum has decided not to acquire the canoe.

      So for now, it will remain tightly wrapped. A piece of history in the rafters of a garage.


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