'Journey of learning' for Cree culture teacher who built birchbark canoe from scratch

A birchbark canoe built with just an axe and a traditional, crooked knife is now on display at a museum in northern Québec.

Traditional canoe built in Ontario now on display at museum in Oujé-Bougoumou, Que.

From left to right: William Cox, Josie Cox, Debbie House, and Tom Byers. (submitted by Josie Cox)

A birchbark canoe built with just an axe and a traditional, crooked knife is now on display at a museum in northern Québec.

Josie Cox, an artisan and Cree culture teacher from Chisasibi, Que., teamed up with his brother William and their friend Debbie House to build the traditional boat.

It's now on display at the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute in Oujé-Bougoumou, Que. 

"I took it upon myself to learn how to make one in the Cree tradition," said Cox, who adds he was always encouraged by his father — also a Cree culture teacher — to build a canoe like this one.

"I needed to know more about what materials were actually needed to build it. This was essential research to build our canoe." 

The group first connected with Tom Byers, a Métis craftsman who's spent 22 years perfecting his custom-made birchbark canoes.

After further research into the Eastern-Cree style, the group travelled from Chisasibi, on Quebec's James Bay coast, to Whitefish, Ont., to harvest the materials and put the canoe together. 
Josie Cox tests the traditional birchbark canoe. (submitted by Josie Cox)

"It was a journey of learning, and searching for the materials we would need," Cox said. "Cedar was the frame preferred, but we also found out that black spruce could do the job."

The canoe's support frames were cut and made to size, and then bent into shape using hot water.  

Pine roots were used to sew the pieces of birchbark together that make up the outside of the canoe. 

"The birchbark is harvested without destroying the tree during the summer season, and the spruce gum is mixed with some bear grease to make the glue for the patching of the sewn birchbark to the frame," Cox added.

And the group didn't use any motorized tools, preferring an axe and a muukitaakin, a traditional crooked knife. 

It took them three weeks of hard work, ending in a short paddle to test their creation. 

The three builders plan to make a second canoe using materials available from within their traditional territory just outside Chisasibi.