Nova Scotia

Mi'kmaq apprentices begin unique program to build a birchbark canoe

Four people from First Nations across Nova Scotia are spending the next five weeks in Millbrook learning how to building a traditional birchbark canoe.

Todd Labrador is leading a special program at the Millbrook Cultural and Hertitage Centre

Kyle Gloade, 22, says he wants to gain some hands-on experience with traditional crafts and skills. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

Kyle Gloade chisels away at a piece of spruce root, gently slicing off small shoots and cutting the narrow band into into even halves.

The work is the first step in a six-week course in which he and three other apprentices from First Nations across Nova Scotia will learn how to build a traditional birchbark Mik'maq canoe.

The 22-year-old from Millbrook works at the Glooscap Heritage Centre and said fielding questions about how traditional crafts are made motivated him to learn more about the process.

"It really made me feel like I was lacking the hands-on aspect," he said. "This is the first stepping stone on me broadening my knowledge." 

Spruce roots are boiled for about an hour to soften the bark so it comes off easily. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

The Confederacy of Mainland Mi'kmaq organized the program in partnership with Nova Scotia's Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage.

The group of apprentices is working under the guidance of Todd Labrador, a seventh generation canoe builder, learning how to transform spruce roots and birch bark into an elegant 16-foot vessel. 

Labrador hopes the program will spark new interest in his craft.

"It's a part of our culture, canoe building and basket making. That's so important, but not enough people are doing it. There's always the fear of losing it," he said. 

Todd Labrador says he's started making notes about the canoe-marking process so it would be easier to replicate a 16-foot vessel. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

To prepare for the course, Labrador started writing down specifications and recording notes to aid in the building of a specific-sized canoe.

He hopes by the end of the course, the apprentices are successful.

"They're going to take a skill home that very few people have," he said.

Though he's built a dozen canoes, Labrador is reluctant to claim the title of master. Originally from Wildcat First Nation in Queens County, N.S., he comes from a long line of canoe builders. His father, Charlie, learned the craft from his great-grandfather Joe Jeremy. 

One of Labrador's apprentices this summer is his daughter, Melissa, who was been working alongside him for years. 

Todd Labrador and his daughter, Melissa Labrador, harvesting spruce root. Approximately 215 metres, or 700 feet, of spruce root is required for every birchbark canoe. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

Another apprentice, Maynard Marshall, who is an elder and band councillor from Potlotek First Nation in Cape Breton, hopes to return home with new skills to share with his community.

He has worked to preserve the Mik'maq language and introduce young people to canoeing and drum making.

"I want to let them know how important it is to volunteer if you get an opportunity like this, this doesn't come by that often. You can't pay to do this," he said. 

Maynard Marshall and Melissa Labrador work on removing the bark from boiled spruce roots. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

Members of the public can drop by Millbrook's cultural centre to see the group's progress. Labrador and his team will be working Monday to Friday until mid-July.

One of the benefits of building a canoe in the middle of the community, Labrador said, is that elders often drop by and share teachings from their own elders, things that may have been forgotten.

"They went out with their grandparents to harvest bark or roots," he said.  "A lot of the old stories that are almost forgotten start to come back again."

Todd Labrador, a Mi'kmaw man from Nova Scotia's Kejimkujik region, says he honours the heritage and culture of his people by practising traditional birchbark canoe building. (CBC)


Elizabeth McMillan is a journalist with CBC in Halifax. Over the past 13 years, she has reported from the edge of the Arctic Ocean to the Atlantic Coast and loves sharing people's stories. Please send tips and feedback to