Thunder Bay·Video

Youth reclaim traditional skill through Fort William First Nation canoe building program

A group of Indigenous youth in northwestern Ontario are reclaiming a traditional craft through a canoe building program that's running for its third summer on Fort William First Nation.

'Lost tradition' making a comeback as teens craft canoes from scratch

Dylan Bannon, 19, helped build these two canoes, and is working on his third this summer. (Amy Hadley/CBC)

Dylan Bannon beams with pride, standing in front of two birch bark canoes, placed side-by-side at the powwow grounds on Fort William First Nation in northwestern Ontario. 

The 19-year-old had a hand in making both canoes, as part of a program that's helping youth to learn the traditional craft, one summer at a time. 

"It was really a good experience to be able to build it all ourselves and to actually feel it float, like, that was a really awesome experience to have. It felt great," said Bannon, who is honing his skills again this year. 

Canoe making is a "lost tradition," in his community, said Bannon, but he and his fellow "mountain keepers" are taking it back.

Mountain keepers are teens hired to work on Anemki-Wajiw, also known as Mount McKay, as summer caretakers. 

Three years ago, the canoe building program was integrated into the job. 

"When we started the canoe building program I wanted to give our youth something that they could learn while they're at work that's going to mean something to them," said Gail Bannon, the culture and recreation coordinator for the community. 

"The building of the birch bark canoes was just something that I thought they needed to learn to get in touch with their ancestors and cultural activities that we used to practice out here that we've kind of lost." 

Gail Bannon, the culture and recreation coordinator for Fort William First Nation, said the plan is to build five canoes over five years, in the hope that some of the young workers will become expert enough to become teachers themselves. (Amy Hadley/CBC)

The plan is to continue the program for two more summers, she said.

Since some teens work as mountain keepers for multiple years, the hope is that over the years, some will become seasoned builders.

"Then I'm hoping that these young individuals, we could then call on them to teach the upcoming youth how to build a birch bark canoe," she added.