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Mi’kmaq canoe built in Keji headed for national museum in Ottawa

Todd Labrador with the 18’6” ocean going canoe he built in Kejimkujik for the Canadian Museum of History.
Todd Labrador with the 18’6” ocean going canoe he built in Kejimkujik for the Canadian Museum of History.

KEJIMKUJIK, NS– A birch bark canoe from southwest Nova Scotia is headed for Ottawa and permanent display in the Canadian Museum of History.

Todd Labrador, a master Mi’kmaq canoe builder, from the Wildcat Community, near Molega Mines (near Caledonia) built the 18-foot, six-inch ocean-going canoe last summer at Kejimkujik National Park.

The Canadian Museum of History (CMH), actually in Gatineau directly across the Ottawa River from the Parliament Buildings, is opening a renovated and expanded exhibit hall next year on Canada Day.

The Canadian History Hall will be a 40,000-square-foot exhibition space tracing Canada’s history from “the dawn of human habitation to the present day.”

And Labrador’s canoe will be a part of it.

Matthew Betts is the curator for eastern archaeology at the CMH and responsible for developing content for the first three zones of the new hall.

Todd Labrador, a master Mi’kmaq canoe builder, from the Wildcat Community, near Molega Mines (near Caledonia) built the 18-foot, six-inch ocean-going canoe last summer at Kejimkujik National Park.

The Canadian Museum of History (CMH), actually in Gatineau directly across the Ottawa River from the Parliament Buildings, is opening a renovated and expanded exhibit hall next year on Canada Day.

The Canadian History Hall will be a 40,000-square-foot exhibition space tracing Canada’s history from “the dawn of human habitation to the present day.”

And Labrador’s canoe will be a part of it.

Matthew Betts is the curator for eastern archaeology at the CMH and responsible for developing content for the first three zones of the new hall.

Todd Labrador, like his great grandfather Joe Jeremy, only needs an axe, an awl and a knife to build a birch bark canoe.

“We were working out what we wanted for content,” says Betts. “We knew we wanted to include a canoe that had a special relationship to a community, that was built in a special way and of course there are no archaeological canoes that exist.

“We wanted something to show a modern perspective on indigenous people, something that showed these ancient traditions are still alive today and reinterpreted, something that showed the connections to their land, their ancestors and their community.

“And that’s when I got a call from Todd.”

Labrador had built a 16-foot lake canoe at Keji the year before in 2014 as a demonstration - allowing park visitors to watch, ask questions, and even help with the construction.

The canoe building was so popular with visitors that Labrador and Parks Canada were talking about doing it again for the summer of 2015.

“The whole thing was so serendipitous,” says Betts. “I had been in touch with Todd to ask if maybe we could get some photos of his canoes and of him building canoes for the new hall and maybe borrow a canoe for the opening. Todd called and said he had a better idea.”

Labrador proposed building a new canoe for permanent display at the Canadian History Hall.

“The hair stood up on the back of my neck,” says Betts. “Members of the community helped him build this. Elders visited to work on the canoe. Birch bark canoe building was the perfect way to show this strong modern connection to the ancient traditions.”

Even more so because Labrador is in a unique position.

His great grandfather, Joe Jeremy, built birch bark canoes.

Jeremy as in Jeremy’s Bay in Kejimkujik National Park.

“It was a pleasure to build the canoe at Keji – this is where my ancestors lived,” says Labrador.

His great great great grandfather, Louis Luxey, as in Luxey Cove, also lived in Keji.

“There is a strong energy there. I always get that feeling my ancestors are with me. If I don’t know something, I ask them and the answers will come to me – they are helping me.”

[A canoe for Bear River: Labrador builds birch bark canoe for Seven Paddles project]

Todd Labrador puts a final trim on spruce roots to be used for lacing birch bark together.

And although Labrador’s father Charlie never built any canoes, Charlie remembered watching his grandfather work. He also was able to show Labrador how to gather and prepare spruce roots and how to harvest birch bark for example.

Labrador visited other aboriginal canoe builders in Ontario and worked with and learned from them.

Labrador built his first birch bark canoe in 2004 and has been experimenting and learning ever since.

“He’s a scholar of canoe building traditions,” says Betts. “Not just from the Mi’kmaw territory but other aboriginal traditions as well. He learned from members of his family but also didn’t ignore the historical literature. He talked to many elders and he has taken all that knowledge and reinvigorated his family’s traditions in the most informed way possible and made himself in to a master canoe builder.”

Betts arranged to have the entire process of building the ocean-going canoe videotaped including interviews and explanations from Labrador.

An edited version of that video will be part of the display in Gatineau.

“So we not only have a canoe, but we have a complete record of its construction,” says Betts.

The exhibit will also include some of the tools Labrador used to build this canoe sitting next to ancient versions.

“There is a wonderful quote that Todd’s father told him if he had an awl, a knife and an axe he could build a canoe and of course those are the items you find in archaeological sites that were also used to build canoes up to 3,000 years ago,” says Betts. “That’s a great way to show that throughput from ancient times to the modern era and how these traditions are still alive and being reinvigorated by modern Mi’kmaw people.”

The new hall and new displays are the museum’s way of celebrating Canada’s 150th anniversary.

“We’re really hoping everyone will come and see it,” says Betts. “This will be the most comprehensive treatment of Canadian history ever mounted in Canada.”

Todd Labrador laces birch bark together

The Mi’kmaq canoe

“The Mi’kmaq canoe is different,” says Todd Labrador a master builder from Molega, a small Mi’kmaq community in the middle of the woods in the middle of southwest Nova Scotia.

He talks with his hands as he explains the three biggest differences between the Mi’kmaq canoe and other aboriginal designs.

When Labrador says the Mi’kmaq canoe has round ends, his left hand and then his right hard describe the arcs of the bow and stern.

Most aboriginal canoes have high, pointy upswept bows and sterns.

“The Mi’kmaw canoe is sleek and rounded and very good in the wind – the ends don’t catch the wind,” says Labrador.

To describe the most unique feature of a Mi’kmaw canoe he holds out his left hand flat like the gunwale, the long slender piece of wood that shapes the hull of the canoe.

He covers the left hand with his right to show how the bark covers the gunwale.

You can tell he wants a third hand to show where they ribs slide in between the bark and the gunwale.

“A Mi’kmaq canoe has only one gunwale on both sides,” says Labrador. “Most canoes have two gunwales. One gunwale is more challenging.”

That’s because the ribs of the canoe are bent and under stress like a bow. The second, or outside gunwale, holds the ribs in place but on a Mi’kmaq canoe there is only the bark and the spruce root stitches holding the ribs in.

“If you don’t do it right, the rib can break through,” says Labrador.

The root stitching is the third big difference with a Mi’kmaq canoe – with two gunwales, most builders stitch for about two inches and then leave a two-inch gap for a rib, stitch two inches, leave a gap, stitch two inches and so on

But on a Mi’kmaq canoe, the stitches run the whole length of the gunwale.

An 18’ 6” canoe like Labrador built for the Canadian Museum of History requires 1,000 feet of spruce root to hold it together.

The ocean going canoe differs in design also from the more usual lake canoe.

Looking at the canoe from the side, the gunwales of a Mi’kmaq lake canoe are mostly level between the bow and stern. For an ocean going canoe, the bow and stern are slightly raised but still rounded like all Mi’kmaq canoes. Just behind the bow, the gunwales drop in a smooth arc to create a low spot for hauling in porpoise that Mi’kmaw hunters chased on the ocean.

And in the middle of the canoe, still looking from the side, the gunwales rise up, again in a smooth arc, forming a hump in the middle, to offer more protection from waves and wind.

Two kinds of bark

Todd Labrador says it is a challenge to find the right size trees but also the right quality bark.

Some trees have bark that is overly brittle, some times the bark is overly thin, especially at the eyes or little vertical lines in the bark.

Rarely does he build a canoe from one piece of bark. Most often he sews panels together with spruce roots and seals the stitches with spruce gum. Some of the panels are darker than others.

This is because of the difference between summer and winter bark.

When harvested in the summer, the bark slips off the tree more easily.

In winter, the thin inner bark, known as cambium, comes off with the outer bark. The inner bark is a pale colour until it is exposed to the air when it quickly darkens.

By scraping away this thin layer of dark bark, Labrador can make designs and pictures on the sides of his canoes.

On the canoe for the Canadian Museum of History, Labrador scraped a big horned serpent on one side and his hand and a family of loons. On the other side is a pictograph of a whale hunt, plus a moose and stars.

Todd Labrador often invites interested visitors to help with the canoe building, by adding a few stitches for example.

Canadian History Hall

The largest and most ambitious exhibition project ever undertaken by the Canadian Museum of History, the Canadian History Hall is the museum’s gift to the people of Canada to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Confederation.

The Hall in Numbers:

3 galleries

18 chapters that tell the story of Canada

65 interactive elements

75 maps

100 digital productions

250 custom illustrations

1,200 images

1,800 artifacts

15,000 years of history

40,000 square feet of exhibition space

225,000 words

For more information check out http://www.historymuseum.ca/

jriley@digbycourier.ca

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