Canada

Mi’kmaq man on quest to preserve traditional birchbark canoe craft

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TORONTO —
Todd Labrador, a Mi’kmaq man from the Wildcat Reserve in Queens County, N.S., has made it his life’s work to preserve the traditional craftsmanship of birchbark canoes.

Labrador, who is a member of Acadia First Nation, was born in Bridgewater, N.S., in 1960 and grew up on the reserve with his father who was the first Chief of the Acadia First Nation. It was there that Labrador learned the traditional craft of building birchbark canoes from his great grandfather and father, according to a Facebook page dedicated to his art.

The Mi’kmaq travelled the lakes and rivers of eastern Canada for thousands of years in the canoes, and deep in Kejimkujik National Park, Labrador continues the tradition, using generational knowledge that was all but wiped out through Canada’s forced assimilation residential school system and genocidal colonial history.

“I always said, if you don’t have patience, don’t try to build birchbark canoes,” Labrador said in an interview with CTV National News.

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The process for making a traditional birchbark canoe is time consuming, from combing the forest for the summer bark that will peel properly, to stretching it over the “ribs” of the canoe with heat, to stringing and scraping spruce roots.

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The skills required to build a birchbark canoe were usually passed down from generations of master craftsman. The canoe frames were typically made of cedar, soaked with water to make them malleable to bend into the shape of the canoe.

The joints were sewn with spruce or white pine tree roots that traditionally would have been pulled up, split and boiled by Indigenous women. The seams would then be waterproofed with hot spruce or pine tree resin.

Birchbark makes an ideal construction material as it is smooth, light, hard, waterproof and its grain wraps around the tree rather than lengthwise – allowing it to be shaped easily.

Birch trees are found almost everywhere in Canada, making them an abundant resource for Indigenous people, which is why birchbark canoes were the principal means of waterway transportation for many First Nations — and later, the voyageurs.

“Learning about nature, learning about wood, bark, that was always my interest,” Labrador explained of how he pieced together stories and details from his family on the construction process. “I wanted to do what my ancestors did.”

Labrador has made more than a dozen canoes, and is the sole practitioner of the craft in his area, making his teaching skills highly in demand.

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“Canoe building is so much more than just building canoes,” he said. “It’s community building.”

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