The Art of the Birchbark Canoe

By Morgan O’Neal

The birchbark canoe was once the principal means of transportation for both woodland Natives and the fur trading voyagers. Light and maneuverable, they were perfectly adapted to travel through the maze of streams, ponds, lakes, and rivers of the Canadian Shield. The birch tree’s bark was an ideal material because it was smooth, hard, light, resilient and (most importantly) waterproof. Dr. Daniel Paul, Mi’kmaq historian and modern chronicler of his nation’s culture, recently shared the story of a young dedicated Mi’kmaq artist. In the tradition of Mi’kmaq canoe-builders, Todd Labrador has three birchbark canoes in a large workshop behind his home on the edge of Minamkeak Lake in Nova Scotia.

In an interview with Beverley Ware of the Halifax Herald, Todd shared the importance of making these aboriginal skills real to the non-native community, even though his own first lessons came from a German man living in Halifax. According to Todd, the German was just “fascinated by the First Nations culture,” and set him on his path toward mastery of the necessary skills. “I made a lot of mistakes,” he grins, but he was a good student. According to the article, students from both native and non-native schools will soon be coming to see Todd’s finished canoes and to watch him work on a five-metre canoe that will be ready for launch this June.

Building a birchbark canoe takes a great deal of time and planning. In summer, birch bark is removed in large sheets (peeled off in one piece), and roots are collected as well. Cedar is used for ribs and sheathing, and chunks of hard gum is gathered from spruce trees. Once parts are gathered and properly bundled, they can be left to dry and be stored. After a soak in water, they are ready to use.

To construct a canoe, a frame is built from cedar bent into shape, and laid on top of the birch bark sheet. The bark is shaped around the frame, and stakes are used to support it in place so that the top edge (gunwale) and crossbeams (thwarts) of the canoe can be secured. Cedar ribs and sheathing are used to strengthen the canoe, and pieces of spruce or birch root (softened in water) are used to “sew” the edges of the canoes. “It’s hard work, it is,” Todd says. However, it is really Todd’s daughter Melissa who usually does most of this work, developing calluses on her hands as she threads nearly 15 metres of root over the course of a couple of days. When construction is complete, seams are sealed with hot spruce gum or pine resin, and the canoe is ready for the water.

Todd Labrador first learned about canoe building from his father, Charlie Labrador, late Chief of the Acadia Mi’kmaq First Nation, who learned them from his grandfather, Joe Jermey. As Barbara Ware describes the process, “[Charlie’s] father showed him how to collect birch bark, dig up tree roots, and bend wood, but Charlie had never made a canoe. So [his son] Todd began by making models that ranged from one to two metres, and as he did so, he also learned from books, and by asking other elders for their advice.”

Todd Labrador has made seven full-sized canoes so far. Examples of his work can now be found at the Bear River Cultural Centre in Queens County, Glooscap Heritage Centre in Millbrook, and a little museum in Les Ormes, France (south of Paris). He told the Halifax Herald, “I’d like to have a bunch of canoes that I can take out, show to people, get people in them and using them and learning about native culture. It’s important to me that they know and that I involve as many people as I can, especially the youth.” He hopes to take his canoes to the International Canoe Federation’s world championships at Lake Banook in August of 2009. But his immediate goal is to make an ocean-going birchbark canoe. “It’s something in me I have to do,” he says.

During the European invasion of the Americas, the navigational skills of First Nations did not go unnoticed. At the time, the Mi’kmaq on the East coast were among the greatest seamen in the world, and their skills were especially evident when warfare took to the water, where the Mi’kmaq inevitably gained an advantage. Mi’kmaq warriors, during their 130-year war with the British, are known to have boarded and seized 85 British ships during that time. According to Daniel N. Paul, Mi’kmaq seamen sometimes traveled long distances over the treacherous North Atlantic in ocean-going canoes large and heavy enough to battle the huge waves.

According to Todd, his dream-canoe would be impressive. A large ocean-going canoe would be up to 12 m long and capable of carrying up to 12 crewmembers and a load of 2300 kg over the route from Montréal to Lake Superior. Todd Labrador may be contacted at: