Mi'kmaq elders share tradition of building a birchbark canoe

A celebrated Mi'kmaq canoe builder from Nova Scotia has just wrapped up a project here on Prince Edward Island, building a traditional birchbark canoe.

Canoe project included visits to Lennox Island and Scotchfort communities

Junior Peter-Paul, left, and Todd Labrador explain how they built the canoe to a group of students from Gulf Shore Consolidated School. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

A celebrated Mi'kmaq canoe builder from Nova Scotia has just wrapped up a project here on Prince Edward Island.

With the help of a Mi'kmaq elder, Todd Labrador has built a traditional birchbark canoe, part of a summer of canoe building across the Maritimes.

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

"Birchbark canoes were really important with our Mi'kmaq ancestors and it's been a very long time since a birchbark canoe was built here," said Labrador, a master canoe builder.

"It's almost a lost tradition so it's great to bring it back."

'Bringing history back'

Labrador harvested the bark for the project last summer in Nova Scotia, about six weeks of work, including splitting hundreds of metres of spruce roots.

In September, Labrador and Mi'kmaq elder Junior Peter-Paul spent six weeks putting the canoe together. The two had worked together last summer, building a wigwam from birchbark.

"It was quite an experience, feeling the presence of our ancestors that used to do this," said Peter-Paul.

"It's something that our Mi'kmaq people used to do years and years ago so I feel great about it, bringing that history back to our people here."

Todd Labrador, left, and Junior Peter-Paul work on the birchbark canoe. (Submitted by Jesse Francis)

Visits to communities

Peter-Paul was especially pleased that the partnership between Parks Canada and the Mi'kmaq Confederacy allowed them to take the canoe to Mi'kmaq communities on P.E.I., with week-long visits to Lennox Island and Scotchfort.

"A lot of our people in the communities, they were so impressed with it, knowing that the actual Mi'kmaq canoe building is going on in both communities," said Peter-Paul. 

"I felt good about that to be able to share the stories about it. It was great for me to see all the faces come over and visit us while we were building the canoe."

As part of the project, the canoe builders travelled to Lennox Island and Scotchfort so community members could watch them in action. (Submitted by Jesse Francis)

Sharing with schools

Now that the canoe is complete, school groups are visiting it at the Parks Canada interpretive centre at Skmaqn—Port-la-Joye—Fort Amherst, a new addition to the Mi'kmaq programming already on site.

"This is a very great honour for me to share the history of our Mi'kmaq people about the birchbark canoes and share it with the kids and the schools," said Peter-Paul.

"This is something that I never experienced in my childhood, we never had that."

Students from Gulf Shore Consolidated School get a close look at the birchbark canoe after a presentation at the Parks Canada Interpretive Centre at Rocky Point, P.E.I. (Rick Gibbs/CBC)

Peter-Paul would like to take the canoe to schools across P.E.I., to give other young Islanders a chance to learn about the Mi'kmaq culture. 

"I never thought I'd be doing this today and I'm really proud of it and I really want to continue on with it," Peter-Paul said.

'A work of art'

The students and teachers from Gulf Shore Consolidated School were impressed by the birchbark canoe.

"I loved it," said Grade 9 student Patience Smith.

"It's so awesome to learn about different cultures that aren't your own and different customs and how that was made." 

This is another birchbark canoe that Todd Labrador helped to build this summer. (Submitted by Janice Ring)

"I learned that it takes a really long time to build something like this," said Blake Larkin, Grade 5.

"Because they have to gather all the materials and put it together."

Teacher Robert Holmes calls the canoe a "work of art".

"This is a phenomenal piece of work," said Holmes.

"If you look at the craftsmanship behind it and it's something that's useable and it shows their heritage. It truly is a masterpiece."

Students from Gulf Shore admire the birchbark canoe. (Rick Gibbs/CBC)

Holmes says he'd like to bring his students back to see the Mi'kmaq programming at Skmaqn.

"I think for all educators around P.E.I. it's a worthwhile event to come and witness and hear the stories behind the construction of this canoe," Holmes said.

"It's something that's involving our social studies curriculum so it's a well worthwhile project."

Next project

The canoe has been in the water briefly, but will spend more time on the water next summer.

And there is already talk about another future project, celebrating another part of Mi'kmaq history on P.E.I.

The canoe builders put the boat in the water briefly to see if there were any leaks. (Submitted by Junior Peter-Paul)

"I'm hoping that the interest has grown enough that we'll be doing more projects and I'm willing to come back," Labrador said.

"A sea-going canoe is something that would be pretty awesome, a larger canoe with a sail."

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Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water or in the gym rowing, or walking her dog.