Algonquin 'Guardians' explore culture one spruce stitch at a time

An elder Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg Algonquin is leading a group of land stewards called "Guardians" through a cultural education workshop that involves building a birch bark canoe from the ground up.

Raw materials are collected from the land before construction begins

The art and tradition of building birch bark canoes

3 months ago
Duration 2:39
Algonquin elder Pinock Smith is passing on his knowledge of building birch bark canoes at Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg, explaining the rich history and tradition behind the design.

Members of an Indigenous land stewardship group at Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg have taken up an ancient challenge for themselves.

Guardians programs are in place in many First Nations across Canada to help monitor and care for lands and waters.

They call themselves the "moccasins and mukluks" on the ground for their communities, managing protected areas, testing water quality and working to restore animals and plants

In Kitigan Zibi, a group of three Guardians are learning how to build a birch bark canoe just as their ancestors did, and Algonquin elder Pinock Smith is guiding them along with decades of experience.

Pinock Smith shortens a piece of hand-shaped cedar that will become a gunwale, or the upper edge, on this birch bark canoe. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Smith has constructed dozens of traditional birch bark watercraft over the years and many are on display in museums and in homes around the country.

It's not just the buoyancy of the craft — Smith said building a birch bark canoe using ancient methods will lift up its builders.

And he won't take credit for the ingenuity of the way materials from the forest were turned into a lightweight, long-lasting, repairable watercraft.

"I'd be trying to walk on water if it was up to me," he joked. "But I'm very proud of it, my ancestors made it. ... It gives you pride in your ancestors and that comes down to yourself, as well."

Guardian Dolcy Meness prepares a piece of cedar for her boat. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Dolcy Meness, 21, is learning how to prepare roots to be used as "thread," and she says the class has allowed her to rediscover knowledge about the connection of Algonquins and the land, which she calls "amazing."

"Our elders won't be around forever," said fellow Guardian Blythe Commando. "We will not be the broken link [between the past and the future]."

The Guardians must harvest all the materials from the land, which includes the oil and spruce sap that seals the birch seams, the spruce root the stitches it together, and the white cedar that provides the lightweight strength.

Any reasonable amount of care will keep a well-made canoe in good shape for 100 years.

Blythe Commando uses a drawknife to thin a piece of wood for the gunwale of the canoe. (Stu Mills/CBC)