Keeping the craft alive

A recent project taking place at Mohawk College is helping to keep the tradition of canoe building alive.

A newly finished birch bark canoe was launched in a ceremony at Christie Lake Conservation Area on Friday, July 22. The first paddle strokes marked the completion of a special project.

Algonquin Master Canoe Builder Chuck Commanda guided five Indigenous students with Mohawk College through the process of traditional birch bark canoe building, over the last two weeks.

Photo by Dave LaForce.

“It took 10 days of work [to build this canoe] but was thousands of years in the making,” said Mohawk College Indigenous Innovation Specialist Rick Hill, Sr., speaking at the ceremony. “People have been using canoes to navigate the landscape for many, many centuries.”

The canoe was built from July 12 to 22 in the outdoor Indigenous Gathering Place at Mohawk College’s Fennell Campus, in Hamilton, Ont. Commanda was commissioned to build the canoe by Breakwater Financial of Burlington, Ont. and five Indigenous students joined the project through the Indigenous Education & Student Services Centre at the college.

“What we are trying to accomplish is to return the craft to Indigenous people,” Commanda said. “Through residential schools, we lost a lot of that. So, we are hoping to bring it back.”

Commanda arrived in Hamilton from Kitigan Zibi with harvested birch bark and all the natural materials needed for the project. The products of five different tree species were involved in the construction: birch, cedar, spruce, ash and ironwood. The students were involved all along the way.

“It was really eye-opening to see how everything was made of Mother Nature; the nails made out of ironwood,” said student Kelly Cooley. “Even the lashing I didn’t understand. I thought it was sinew or something but, no, it’s roots from a tree. I was astonished to know how everything is from nature. It has been really nice to learn the old way.”

Photo by Dave LaForce.

As the canoe took shape, the construction became a point of community interest, with dozens of people from across the college and the outside community dropping by to ask questions and see the canoe evolve. The group spent a great deal of time talking with visitors about their work and talking among themselves about their lives and traditions.

“Building the canoe was just amazing. Learning each step,” said Caroline Hill, another student who contributed to the project. “But I think we have really fostered a great relationship and team dynamic here. I loved hearing everybody’s stories because we are all from different nations.”

The canoe will be used at events, in conjunction with Theodore Too, a popular children’s tugboat attraction that is used to support the Swim Drink Fish charity. The canoe and tugboat will be used to raise awareness about water conservation and the importance of marine waterways in Canada.

“It will be a be a great way for us to tell the story of sharing the water, involving the big ship and the small canoe,” said Breakwater chief of staff Kathy McKeil. McKeil said she hopes people recognize the symbolism of the two vessels sharing the waterway and respecting each other’s way of moving forward.

When not involved in events, the student-built canoe will have a home at Mohawk College.

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