Nfld. & Labrador·Video

How Conne River's Miawpukek First Nation brought back birchbark canoe building

More than 20 years ago, the Miawpukek First Nation sought the advice of a Quebec Mi'kmaq elder to restore that birchbark canoe-building tradition.

From a long-forgotten tradition to a thriving cultural practice in a single generation

Billy Joe hammers a piece of lumber into the ground during construction of a birchbark canoe. The bark was gathered in Millertown. Sylvester Joe says July is the best time of year to peel off the material. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

This canoe is destined for water, so the builders must be thorough. The spruce resin needs to be meticulously applied, and the birchbark — harvested from trees in Millertown — must be tied tight. The water boiled outside has to be steaming hot, so the wood can properly bend.

It will take more than three months, from start to finish, for the canoe to take shape — and Mi'kmaq master builder Billy Joe will be there every step of the way, just as he's been for years.

Conne River embracing birchbark canoe building

4 years ago
Duration 2:36
From a long-forgotten tradition to a thriving cultural practice in a single generation

"We do talk about what it must have been like to see the very first canoe built," Joe said. "Or even what she looked like."

"To me, it's relaxing. It's like meditation," added apprentice Derek Stride, over the cracking of the fire.

Derek Stride positions a piece of wood that will be used to push one end of the birchbark exterior into another at the end of the canoe. Lumber is used in the construction but is typically removed when the bark is set. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

The two, along with Joe's son Sylvester, spent much of their summer at Miawpukek's Canoe Shop, in the trails behind the powwow grounds, building a traditional birchbark canoe.

It's a job with their First Nation, but according to Stride, it's something more than that.

"This is, to me, personally, this is the best job in the world," he said. "I make a living and I'm doing what my ancestors done, hundreds of years ago."

Canoe makers boil spruce roots over a fire to soften them at the Canoe Shop in Miawpukek First Nation. The spruce roots are used to sew pieces of birch bark together to make the shell of the canoe. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

The trio use boiling water to shape bark around their wooden mould, and spruce roots to stitch the pieces together. Eventually, the bottom frame will be removed, leaving only the birch and the gunwales.

We do talk about what it must have been like to see the very first canoe built.- Billy Joe

It's all natural material, explains Sylvester Joe, even if they do have the benefit of using much newer drills, axes and hammers.

"It takes us that long to build one with modern tools," said Billy Joe. "So it's amazing that they had this technology without those tools."

The traditional Mi'kmaq method of building canoes had petered out in Miawpukek, and went dormant for decades. According to Billy Joe, "No one knew how to build birchbark canoes."

The Canoe Shop in the Miawpukek First Nation is built in the community trails, near the powwow grounds. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

So, in 1996, the First Nation brought Rene Martin, a Mi'kmaq elder from Restigouche, Que., to the community to lead the construction of a boat. Billy Joe was one of those that watched as Martin worked.

"We just followed his lead, as he built this canoe. He explained to us along the way, more or less, how it was done. And of course, we couldn't wait to build our own canoes after that," he said.

More than 20 years later, Billy Joe is now on the other end of the equation, teaching younger men in his community about canoe building.

"It was gone for hundreds of years, and now it's back. So it's going to take hundreds of years to get rid of it again."

Sylvester Joe, right, and Stride pour steaming water onto the birch that will make up the exterior of their canoe. When it is dry, birch bark is easy to break. By pouring steaming hot water onto the bark, the builders make it easier to bend. It will dry and set around the guides, which will later be removed. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

Mi'sel Joe, chief of the Miawpukek First Nation, plans to use this canoe to row from Conne River to Placentia. He hopes it will leave next August, and stop at points along the south coast of Newfoundland that were important to the Mi'kmaq people.

"The ones that we know are going to be used on a trip, and for actual practical uses, we do make sure everything's all water tight," explained Sylvester Joe.

This birchbark canoe is being built in the Miawpukek Canoe Shop, in the community trails near the school and powwow grounds in the Miawpukek First Nation. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

For Sylvester, there's a deep sense of connection involved in spreading the spruce resin on the birchbark, and pouring the steaming water.

"Hundreds of years ago, your great-great-grandfather, great-great-great-grandfather, whoever, they were making these canoes right? They were doing all this."

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Garrett Barry


Garrett Barry is a CBC reporter, working primarily with The St. John's Morning Show.