Finding their roots

A remarkable canoe
was built by many hands
under the guidance of
one of the country's few
Mi'kmaq canoe builders

For eight generations, members
of the Labrador family
have been harvesting bark and roots
from forests around Nova Scotia.

The forest around the Mi'kmaw community of Wildcat, deep in the heart of southern Nova Scotia, has long protected Todd Labrador's family.

It was where his great-grandfather Joe Jeremy — the namesake of Jeremys Bay in nearby Kejimkujik National Park — would tell his grandchildren to hide when an agent from Shubenacadie Indian Residential School came to collect them.

"Dad and his sister and other children there, they ran into the woods," Labrador says.

"He was only little; a little boy, five years old, running for his life because somebody is going to take you away from your family. The woods, for him, were security and safety."

Joseph Jeremy. (Submitted by Melissa Labrador)

Joseph Jeremy. (Submitted by Melissa Labrador)

The forest was also a place where Todd's father, Charlie Labrador, later chief of Acadia First Nation, learned to become a master canoe builder.

Father and son never built one together, but Todd watched. He later taught himself the craft by studying old photos and speaking with Indigenous elders, becoming one of the few Mi'kmaq canoe builders in Canada.

Gathering spruce root near Tantallon, N.S.

Gathering spruce root near Tantallon, N.S.

Every spring, Todd Labrador and his daughter, Melissa, head to spots where the ground is mossy. They use a hammer to pry out strands of spruce root. Each canoe needs more than 200 metres of root, which is laced through the birchbark to secure the vessel's seams.

Labrador's father used to tell him the trees hold hands beneath the forest floor.

Todd and Melissa Labrador, May 2017.

Todd and Melissa Labrador, May 2017.

"They're supporting each other. Their hands and their roots are intertwined. He said nature is sending us the message that we as human beings need to do the same, regardless of colour of skin, regardless of religion, race," Labrador says.

"If we come together and hold hands and support each other, we'll be much stronger. He said that's the message that Mother Nature is constantly telling us, but only some of us will hear that message, a lot of us won't."

Todd Labrador

Once the spruce roots are harvested, any spare twigs must be trimmed off. The roots are then boiled so they're soft enough that the bark can be removed with a knife.

The root must be divided into two fine bands; the goal is to slice it so that the root can lie flat, like a rope.

This summer, Todd and Melissa Labrador spent six weeks at the Millbrook Cultural and Heritage Centre teaching four Mi'kmaq apprentices the craft of building a traditional birchbark canoe.

The Confederacy of Mainland Mi'kmaq organized the apprenticeship program in partnership with the Nova Scotia government.

Labrador hopes working in Mi'kmaq communities will spark more interest in what he does — perhaps even reignite the memories and teachings lost by many through the residential school system.

When he builds canoes, he says elders often drop by to watch, sharing stories of when they used to watch their own grandparents work.

"I can go in my workshop and close the door and make a canoe, but that's not what I want," he says.

"As I get older, I realize not a lot of people out there know [these] things. Then I realize, if you know something not many people know, then you have a responsibility, a huge responsibility, to make sure it continues and to share it."

"I can go in my workshop and close the door and make a canoe, but that's not what I want."

Labrador uses cedar to form the canoe's frame. Before the ribs are inserted into its birchbark hull, the bark must be secured in place using the now-pliable spruce roots. He uses a drill to make the holes and jokes that if his ancestors had power tools, they'd use them too.

Bending bark without cracking it is a challenge, so Labrador heats it with boiling water to shape the bow.

Melissa Labrador guides the other apprentices, helping them convert the raw materials with measurements and simple calculations.

Pieces of bark are secured to the canoe's frame with spruce root.

Pieces of bark are secured to the canoe's frame with spruce root.

Nearby, Maynard Marshall watches. A band councillor from Potlotek First Nation in Cape Breton, he started the program with just a little whittling experience.

He had never seen anyone build a Mi'kmaw canoe.

"It's unfortunate. I'm 54 and grew up not knowing anything about my culture."

Melissa Labrador and Maynard Marshall.

Melissa Labrador and Maynard Marshall.

But he's now learning why the thickness of the birchbark is so important, how to make sure spruce root is woven tightly to form a sturdy seam, and how to be patient during the process.

Like Labrador, he's a grandfather and hopes to bring what he's learned to young people in his own community.

"I want to see them learn all these old ways," he says. "My journey will be when it's my time to make my canoe under my direction. So that's the journey I'm looking forward to."

"I'm usually in front
of a computer all day ...
I like this a lot more
than just reading."

Kyle Gloade, the youngest person in the program, was studying economics and history at Acadia University when he decided to take a year off to figure out what he really wanted to do. Long-accustomed to learning from books, work that makes his hands and muscles ache is new to him.

The 22-year-old has been spending days sewing with the spruce root, looping the honey-coloured band in and out of the tough bark. It takes time but he doesn't find it tedious.

"It's really relaxing, once you get into the rhythm of something and get going."

As Gloade works, he says his mind drifts to what it would have been like for his ancestors. He comes from a family of basket makers, though no one has practised that craft for 40 years.

"My dad got pretty emotional ... seeing me with all the tools, doing things with the tools that a lot of our family hadn't done in a while," he says. "He's a really stoic guy. Seeing him get emotional like that is unique. ... It means a lot more when he does."

Muggy days in July are ideal for harvesting summer bark. It peels off in the humidity, leaving an inner layer that protects the tree trunk.

"Good quality linoleum; that's what you want for a canoe," Labrador tells his apprentices from his perch on a ladder as he cuts into a trunk and uses a paddle to coax off a strip of bark as thick as a loonie.

The land in Kejimkujik National Park is a traditional hunting territory — a place where Mi'kmaq people have lived for hundreds of years. It is sprinkled with lakes and rivers people used to paddle and portage, all the way to the Bay of Fundy.

Kejimkujik National Park, July 2017.

Labrador and his daughter sometimes spot the markings of those who came before them. Birch trees with sections of bark missing. Perhaps a family member from years earlier.

They usually work alone, moving through the same patterns their ancestors once did, sharing stories about their family.

Melissa Labrador, a visual artist, often posts photos online and documents the canoe's progress on social media. In the woods, however, her devices are tucked away and she instead listens to the cicadas and songbirds.

"We're doing living art and offering it to people, here in our own backyard," she says.

"Something about working with traditional materials …
it's very soothing and healing."

Todd Labrador is a quiet environmentalist. He remembers his father's warnings that extreme weather is a sign that Mother Nature needs to heal.

He says his father used to caution him that when dead whales washed ashore, it is a sign that things aren't right. News that more than a dozen North Atlantic right whales have died this year has given him pause.

Todd Labrador is always on the hunt for materials to use in his next project.

Todd Labrador is always on the hunt for materials to use in his next project.

For Labrador, going back to the woods and building handmade canoes is a way to gently remind people about that fragile connection to the environment.

Lately, the Labradors have noticed changes in the bark: too many layers coming off during the summer months and trees with inconsistent bark.

“We need to really think about what we're doing, what our governments are doing. Polluting, we know it’s wrong. We need to stand up and let our leaders know it is wrong. We want to leave something good for our great-grandchildren."

On an October day,
the four apprentices
bring their friends
and families to launch
the canoe at a pond
in Debert, N.S.

The finished product will ultimately be installed in the lobby of the Hampton Inn in Millbrook First Nation.

After an elder blesses it, Kyle Gloade joins Todd Labrador for canoe's inaugural trip. With a shallow, pointed bottom, the canoe is designed to be fast; light enough for a hunter to slip along quietly.

Apprentice Teresa Marshall's apprehension about taking her first trip fades as she settles into the canoe bed.

"You just don't feel anything except that you're floating. It's wonderful," she says. "It's nice to be someplace where there's no hydro lines, you don't hear traffic or planes, kind of sink into the land and your thoughts ... I don't do it often enough and that's part of my journey, being able to do that more."

Melissa Labrador's six-year-old twins, Nakuset and Tepkunaset, scramble for a closer look, pointing out the caribou their mother etched into the bow.

"One day I’d love to be known as the first Mi'kmaw woman birchbark canoe builder," she says. "Years ago, our women would've did that but there's none today that I know of."

Since they started walking, the twins have followed their mother and grandfather, helping collect bark and watching canoes take shape.

"This is just more on that step to bring them into being their own canoe builders one day," Melissa Labrador says.

"We don't just practise culture on the weekends; it's every day. And I think that's going to give them a lot in life. I think they're going to take what they learned and share it with the world when they're older."

"We don't just practise culture
on the weekends ...
they're going to take
what they learned and
share it with the world."
Listen to the Atlantic Voice documentary

Returning to their Roots