Birchbark canoe building course aims to keep knowledge rooted in communities

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Birchbark canoe building course aims to keep knowledge rooted in communities's Profile


A trio of Mi’kmaw apprentices are learning the skills to build a birchbark canoe from two master builders.

The course is eight weeks long and the group is in their seventh week at Kouchibougac National Park in New Brunswick, 85 kilometres north of Moncton, learning how to harvest birchbark, cedar and spruce root and craft a 4.5-metre long vessel. 

The apprentices are learning from master builders Rene Martin and Hank Caplin.

“You can see why they’re so revered and why their teachings and why their knowledge has stood the test of time,” said Gabrielle Barlow, from Indian Island First Nation. 

“Their teachings have been invaluable to me.”

Gabrielle Barlow thins spruce root to make sure it’s thin enough to be woven into the birchbark canoe. Liam Watson, left, thins some roots, too. (Oscar Baker III/CBC)

The 24-year-old said she took a break from her studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax to learn these skills.

The group is beginning building the frame of the boat with cedar ribs and birchbark siding. 

Barlow spent a day helping thin out spruce roots so they could be woven into the boat. The group had to boil the roots first so they were pliable and their work shed smelled like spruce gum and cedar. 

The spruce root was boiled and rubbed with hot water to ensure it was pliable. (Oscar Baker III/CBC )

Barlow said her biggest challenge was learning to be patient because the work could be tedious. She said the Mi’kmaq believe nothing should be wasted so they had to be extra careful with their materials. 

She said once she’s done the course she wants to build a birchbark canoe in her home community. 

“I think it would give us a great sense of pride,” said Barlow. 

Caplin, who is from Ugpi’ganjig, Eel River Bar First Nation, hopes the knowledge he is sharing continues to spread. 

Hank Caplin says he jumped at the chance to pass canoe-building knowledge on. (Oscar Baker III/CBC )

“I love sharing the knowledge,” said Caplin, 59.

“If you keep the knowledge to yourself, it’s a form of greed.” 

He is a carpenter by trade and said he learned from community elders that his great-grandfather Billy Narvey also built birchbark canoes.

Caplin said birchbark canoes are a tradition threatened by clear-cutting practices. He said in order to build a birchbark canoe, they need a tree that’s at least 45 centimetres in diameter and that’s rare without old-growth forests. 

“We need our ash, we need our cedar and we need our birchbark, our birch trees,” said Caplin.

“These trees are very sacred to us so we need to protect what we have.” 

Rene Martin from Listuguj First Nation has spent over 30 years building birchbark canoes. (Oscar Baker III/CBC)

The national park and Mi’gmaw’l Tplu’taqnn Inc. (MTI) partnered to sponsor the eight-week course.

Tracy Cloud, director of trilateral negotiations for MTI, said the goal of the program is get Mi’kmaq harvesting on their traditional grounds again and to ensure this knowledge isn’t lost. 

The birchbark canoe has cedar ribs and is woven together with spruce root. (Oscar Baker III/CBC)

The other apprentices — Liam Watson from Metepenagiag Mi’kmaq Nation and John Barlow from Indian Island — say they both want to bring this knowledge to their home communities, too. 

“In a couple of years everyone in Indian Island could learn how to make a birchbark canoe and I think that would be phenomenal,” said John Barlow, 52. 



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