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Mi'kmaq teens spend summer building birchbark canoe

Master canoe builder Todd Labrador is working out of Kejimkujik National Park in Nova Scotia this summer and sharing his craft with apprentices and visitors.

Master canoe builder Todd Labrador is working out of Kejimkujik National Park in Nova Scotia

Rose Meuse, Cedar Meuse-Waterman, Todd Labrador and Karlee Peck harvest bark from a birch tree in Kejimkujik National Park. Labrador says humid weather in July is the best time to harvest bark because it peels more easily. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

Cedar Meuse-Waterman and Karlee Peck have a unique summer job. 

The 14-year-olds from Bear River First Nation in Nova Scotia are learning how to work with birchbark and spruce root, studying alongside Mi'kmaw canoe builder Todd Labrador.

Labrador has been contracted by Parks Canada to build two canoes this summer in a converted picnic shelter in Kejimkujik National Park, 165 kilometres west of Halifax.

Labrador says he's turned his focus toward passing along the skills he's picked up over the past 40 years. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

Crafting a canoe by hand is meticulous and time-consuming work, but for Labrador, it's a passion. He gets excited about working with spruce roots. 

"This is my passion," he said. "This is what I do on my days off. … When I go to sleep at night this is what I think about, I think about next summer and I think about trees that I saw."

Labrador constructs the canoe using large swaths of birchbark, gathered from mature trees in the national park. Some are felled and Labrador uses the wood to make paddles and other crafts. Others remain standing, with enough bark intact that they aren't damaged.

The seams of the canoe are sewn together with spruce root that has been peeled and split. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

He fastens the bark hull together with bands of supple spruce root, sewing it through the seams. The roots are softened beforehand by boiling them in water. When the bark on the roots begins to detach, Labrador and the apprentices use hand tools to whittle it off and then slice it into thin bands that can be used as rope.

Each canoe uses about 215 metres of spruce root. The final step involves sealing it with a synthetic material that will keep water out of the seams. Labrador said in the past, people used spruce gum but he said it's not as durable as more modern materials.

Todd Labrador, Cedar Meuse-Waterman, Karlee Peck and Rose Meuse harvest bark from a birch tree in Kejimkujik National Park. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

Though Labrador said his great grandfather — a master builder  — could build a canoe in a few days, this year's first canoe took about a month. Along the way, Labrador has been sharing his skills with the apprentices and park visitors.

"Todd is passing skills and the knowledge that our ancestors had and that's really special for us," said Peck.

"There's always someone laughing, someone always learning, it's an honour," added Meuse-Waterman. "I find that making the canoe makes you closer to each other. And it's not just a way of travel. It's a way of knowing each other."

The young apprentices aren't the only ones getting an education this summer. Park visitors can drop by the workshop five days a week from 2-4 p.m. People can also sign up to work alongside Labrador on Sunday morning. 

Cedar Meuse-Waterman uses a hand tool to coax off the outer layer of birchbark. Labrador says the piece of bark could be sewn together to form a canoe in the future. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

Exploring the landscape by canoe has long been a tradition at Kejimkujik and the canoe project is a way to teach visitors about the area's connection to Mi'kmaq culture, said Jonathan Sheppard, park superintendent.

"The birchbark canoe is such a powerful symbol, both of historic and contemporary connection to this site, that working with Mi'kmaq birchbark canoes is really the perfect fit," he said. 

"It is really, really rare to see that kind of traditional knowledge, traditional practice and traditional connection in place."

The 4.8-metre-long canoe is designed for lake paddling. Next year Labrador hopes to build a larger canoe suited for the ocean. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

Mi'kmaq guides and interpreters have been working in the park for decades and this year's canoe project is part of efforts across the country to promote Indigenous tourism, Sheppard said. 

He said staff have been working with Labrador as he harvests bark and it has helped them understand more about traditional forestry practices.

People can drop by Labrador's workshop near Merrymakedge Beach in Kejimkujik National Park five days a week. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

Labrador said he is "very pleased" to be part of the project as he has long wanted to work with Parks Canada. 

"Many years ago, this was not something that [Parks Canada] considered. I did, I wanted to do it, at that time, it wasn't something that was in their programming," he said.

"To me, this is home, and it's just everywhere I walk, I feel the ancestors with me and I feel joy because I know they're happy to see this happening."

Cedar Meuse-Waterman and Karlee Peck, both 14, are from Bear River First Nation. Labrador and the apprentices have plans to launch both canoes in mid-September. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

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About the Author

Elizabeth McMillan

Elizabeth McMillan is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia. Over the past eight years, she has reported from the edge of the Arctic Ocean to the Atlantic Coast and loves sharing people's stories. She can be found on twitter @elizmcmillan.