New Brunswick

Traditional birch bark canoe built by arts students

College students have spent weeks scouring the woods for bark, roots, and special wood in order to build a traditional birch bark canoe.

New Brunswick College of Craft and Design students have gathered materials and built a birchbark canoe

College students have spent weeks scouring the woods for bark, roots, and special wood in order to build a traditional birch bark canoe. 

The students in the aboriginal arts program at the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design have gathered spruce roots, birch bark and ash and cedar wood to build the canoe.

Using instructions handed down over hundreds of years, the project has seen students dig up their own roots, as well as real ones to complete it.

"We're going through all the steps, the process, of how to build a birch bark canoe," says instructor Shane Perley-Dutcher.

"Right from getting material from the woods, to bringing it in, processing it and getting the finished product."

Perley-Dutcher has been involved in the building of a pair of birch bark canoes with other aboriginal groups. 

He's now passing down his knowledge to his students — where to find the bark, how to perfectly bend the wood and how build the boat by hand.

Perley-Dutcher said getting the signature ingredient is the hardest part. 

"Finding birch bark, it's not easy," says Perley-Dutcher.

"It's scarce and we can't just use any birch bark we find."

In addition to using birch bark for the bow, students have to dig up spruce roots by hand to use as lashings.

When the canoe body is completed, aboriginal art will be etched into its sides.

The canoe is about half the size of the larger boats the college hopes to build if this pilot project is a success. But the lack of large trees in the province may limit the ability to build longer boats.

"Part of the problem is finding a tree with bark big enough," says Elizabeth Demerson, the co-ordinating instructor of aboriginal arts.

"The trees aren't as big as they used to be. So finding one the right size is difficult."

Students say they're proud to have learned how to construct the canoe from the descendants of the craft's inventors.

"We've worked closely together," says Ralph Simpson, a student.

"Hands-on showing us how to make cuts. How to create things — working with clay, with wood, with bark." 

For those involved the experience has been more than just building a boat from bark.

"It makes me feel proud," says Perley-Dutcher.

"This is something in our recent history hasn't been promoted in the school system. So for me growing up — I was never encouraged to be proud of that identity. So through projects like this, we're able to say — that identity is coming back."   

The class intends to launch the canoe at the St. Mary's First Nation Pow-Wow that runs from June 12-14.