Canada’s Canoe Archive

Colour oil painting of a birchbark canoe, navigated by a dozen men with paddles, rushing over rapids between rock formations, with white foam breaking against its sides.

For many Canadians, paddling in a canoe serves as a refuge from our hectic day-to-day lives, and as a means of reconnecting with nature, family and friends. But thousands of years before European settlers arrived in what we now call Canada, the lakes and rivers served as vital trade routes for the Indigenous peoples here, with the canoe at the heart of that experience. In this episode, we pay a visit to the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ontario, and get a behind-the-scenes tour of its incredible canoe collection with curator Jeremy Ward.

Duration: 44:41

File size: 43 MB Download MP3

Publish Date: August 15, 2018

  • Transcript of podcast episode 48


    Geneviève Morin (GM): Welcome to "Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage." I'm your host, Geneviève Morin. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada's documentary heritage.

    For many Canadians paddling in a canoe serves as a refuge from our hectic day-to-day lives, and as a means of reconnecting with nature, family and friends. But thousands of years before European settlers arrived in what we now call Canada, the lakes and rivers served as vital trade routes for the Indigenous peoples of Canada, with the canoe at the heart of it. In this episode, we explore a different kind of archive. We pay a visit to the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ontario, and get a behind-the-scenes tour of its incredible canoe collection—the largest in the world. Curator Jeremy Ward takes us through this storied collection of iconic watercraft from the earliest examples of dugout canoes, to those paddled by renowned Canadians such as Farley Mowat and Robert Bateman.


    Jeremy Ward (JW): This used to be a factory making Johnson and Evinrude outboard motors, an industry that came to town—well, Peterborough was a very significant manufacturing centre in Canada.


    Jeremy started off the tour by taking us to the "Canoe Cathedral" as it is affectionately known—the enormous warehouse that houses all the canoes and canoe-related material that isn't currently on display in the museum.


    GM: It's really big in here.

    JW: It's really big. This is an enormous collection, in part because it's a watercraft collection. Many of these have been on exhibit, will be on exhibit in a future exhibition. Some of them are here for important research processes. It's a collection that has about a 60-year history now and continues to grow, continues to be sculpted and nurtured and so on.

    GM: Can you tell us a bit about the museum's mandate?

    JW: The mandate, yes. Really in simplest—I suppose to pursue the story of the canoe where it leads us. There are three strong elements in the vision for this museum, which is to connect to each other, to our past and to the landscape where we find ourselves. The collection mission of the museum has soft boundaries; for instance, there is a canoe right behind you that looks like, perhaps, almost a lobster boat from the Maritimes.

    In its genetics, in the development that created this particular boat—her name is "Chichu"—she's a 24-foot James Bay Freighter canoe made by the Cree in Waskaganish, once called Rupert House. There's a marvelous story that led to its design—of the canoe builders in that community adapting to new materials and new shifts in the culture, the way they're accessing their own landscape, traditional hunting grounds and so on.

    What we love to do with a collection like this, is look at the object that might be a canoe and deconstruct how it arrived at its current shape and what are the influences, what were the choices that went into its making. Recognizing that if you start with any of these dugout canoes on the wall, that many of these come from around the world. For the most part, they're pointed at both ends, paddled facing forward—this is sort of humankind's watercraft.

    If you keep tinkering with that basic idea, this freighter canoe ended up at this point; it's fiberglass over a wooden hull that's been modified to carry a motor on the back. This was for getting families back out to their hunting grounds and for taking southern hunters out sport hunting. They have just, step after step, been tweaking with the hull design and so on to suit the needs. Eventually, you're going to end up with something you can land airplanes on.

    There are no hard boundaries to what makes a canoe. If we can keep deconstructing it down to where we recognize its origins, then it's an interesting conversation that resonates with all of the other watercraft in this collection.

    GM: It's kind of like what we do at the archives where we're asked, "Why do you keep acquiring soldier's diaries?" or like, "How many more of these do you need?" and it's, "Well, we need them all because it evolves; it evolves in different ways, in different directions and there's always something new to learn with every specimen we get in."

    JW: That's absolutely right. This collection I'm grateful for. The vision that began in the 19—well indeed in the 1950s when it had its humble beginnings. It began with one dugout canoe given to a camp director in Haliburton area, he hung it in the dining hall. It was a historic boat; it's on display in one of our exhibits, and that canoe attracted two more and that attracted four more and so on.

    Then there was the vision that this was a really important story to pursue and to tell. They were collecting at a time when you could jokingly say, "We'll trade for fiberglass," all of these wonderful wooden canoes that were part of a traditional working livelihood were being discarded for modern lifestyle, modern iterations of the same idea. These boats were being caught at a time when they would have otherwise just been left to rot. The same goes for archives, you know how these collections disappear and once they're gone, they don't come back.

    Really, in a room like this, when you look across and you see the sea of tradition in cultural art form and technology and materials and landscape and all of these influences that are in this collection, something really special happens when you can take it all in and you can start tying a piece of string to this boat and connect it over to that one and say, "You know what, this boat over here comes into play" and this is how exhibits begin—is back here in a conversation, looking at these pieces and it might be all about innovations in technology, or it could be about evolving roles of women in society, or it could be about migration, trade and influence, or it could be about all of this stuff.

    This is my happy space, for sure, and amazingly so much time with museums is spent on developing exhibits and digesting an interpretive narrative for the public and how they're going to interact with your artifacts and the text panels and the research and all that goes into the education. The design, without exception, people walk into a room full of artifacts that it's almost unshaped how they will interact with it. We all respond much more strongly to this than I find to exhibits. Now that might be a reflection on my exhibits and I'll take that critique, but really it's the pick your own adventure. It's the discovery, the sense of discovery you have when you look at this. This is a sight you will never see anywhere else; you couldn't assemble a collection like this today.

    There are some threads that we can explore just from where we stand on the north wall here, racking in pallets with canoes on individual mounts. These are, for the most part, dugout canoes that explore Canada's waterways and also international canoeing culture. On the far left, you'll see a stack of six canoes and a seventh on the upper to the right of that. Those are all wooden dugout canoes that have been recovered from lake beds, river bottoms, mostly in the Ontario area but these do turn up all the time.

    Almost every year we'll have a guest come in to the museum with the pictures on their cellphones saying, "I was on a canoe trip, we were paddling in about two and a half feet of water and I looked over the side and I thought it was a log but it's a dugout canoe in the water, what can you do about it?" These do turn up. They're ancient waterways that are—maybe if the water level's changing, more people are out in the bush discovering these. There's a lake in Florida called Newnans where they've now located over 100 dugout canoes all in one place, and these are dating from 2,300 to 5,000 years old—astonishing.

    GM: Still preserved in warmer waters.

    JW: That's right. Well Florida, the conditions are ideal for preserving these—dugout canoes certainly last much longer than the skin on frame kayaks or the skin on frame boats and also the birchbark canoes. They just dismantle themselves left in the natural environment. We're really only likely ever to find ancient canoes that are dugout tradition. I'm also seeing—that long black one there—that's from Sepik River in Papua New Guinea.

    Two below it, the grey and orange, that's a Khlong boat from the floating markets in Thailand. You see these coming in full of produce, ladies paddling in to get to the tourists, they're J-stroking, jockeying for position to sell produce. Sometimes there'll be a barbecue onboard, and there is oil and skillets making fry bread. The one below that, that's Solomon Islands, that's a miniature. Those are usually 40 to 50 feet long.

    This little one with two wheelbarrow handles out of the back end, that's a Zutigil from Guatemala. Indonesia there—green and yellow; Cameroon, Africa and so on—it just takes us right around the globe. This is a tradition and a heritage that's shared by most cultures around the world if you explore that history. I find that's a really important context for us to look at the Canadian experience for Indigenous cultures in Canada and how, in so many parts of our geography, the canoe was a connector with landscape to each other for trade and all of that that was alive and well long before Europeans arrived.

    We think of that canoe as one of these icons of Canadian heritage. When you see that or you learn that the Kuna people in Panama on the islands, on birth were traditionally presented to their community in a small dugout canoe, livelihood bringing produce to market in a dugout. And then on death, of course, laid out as well. That's a pretty deep and rich tradition as well. Then these connections we can make, what is special about Canada, positions it on a much larger family tree, which I find very exciting.

    GM: Brings us together, it's sort of a common design. I keep thinking about a spoon, no matter where you go in the world everybody's got something to shove food in their mouths. It's always something on a stick with a around bit at the end to scoop. This is pretty much the same design; something pointy to slice through the water.

    JW: That's there, but at the same time if you look—well, this one also from Papua New Guinea, Gogodala canoe—

    GM: That one's not pointy.

    JW: It is paddled facing forward and yet look at all of the carving on the forward end, there's a whole narrative here of struggle and power and I understand birth as well. All of these figures, one tangled into the next. It's an amazing canoe, amazing artifact.

    So much of that is passed that functionality, that core functionality. To our eye that a carver would probably say all of that is essential to the function of the boat, but what's wonderful also about humankind is we don't leave—we don't just stop at the functionality of that spoon. You look at the Asian spoons, the ceramic ones you get and the shape of those, it's quite different than these stainless steels ones you'll get at a cafeteria. There will always be fins on the back of a car in the 1950s—we tweak with these.

    This canoe to my right, it's a wonderful brown hull that's cedar planked, big wide planks and ribs. It has these really long arched decks at either end that really shorten the opening that makes the canoe. This was of a style that was very popular in the United States. This is a Canadian interpretation of what's called a courting canoe, and these were rented at canoe clubs. Young couples would be allowed to rent a canoe and drift out on the water, by the dozens, by the hundreds, and have their own privacy in plain view in the 19-teens, turn of the century.

    Interestingly enough, the canoes that were most popular were the ones with the long decks on them because it reduced the number of people that could fit in it. So a young couple were forced to leave grandma onshore and have the canoe just to themselves. Here's another thing where you take the basic idea—it's a lot like 60 other canoes in this collection except that it has all this architecture built on it just to make it more attractive to young couples looking for that privacy in a time when they didn't have the freedom that kids have today and so on.

    So this is what's really fun then is you look at this and you pick it apart and you see the functionality is very clearly there, these things have to work, but then what are the other things that you're going for? What else is being expressed?

    GM: You could tuck a bottle of wine back there.

    JW: You could tuck a little bottle of wine.


    Yes, that's right.

    GM: I find the backrest really nice as well. I was wondering, you were talking about the canoeing, it is the—there's a backrest on each side so that you can lean back and have a nice conversation.

    JW: That's right. Everybody's sitting facing each other, maybe your feet are tangled up. There might even be a record player—phonograph onboard. On the Charles River near Boston, you would see 500 to 1,000 of these drifting.

    GM: Whoah.

    JW: You can imagine the racket of all those record players. The other thing about these boats is all of the other functionality has been bred out of that poor canoe. [Geneviève laughs.]

    You cannot portage it, there's no cross bar because that would be in the way of a young couple. You can't even pick it up. It's like hugging a barrel or, I don't know, a couch. It's this big rounded, moulded shape and so on. There's no grab handles for it. So it's really meant for just sitting and drifting, and that's lovely. It's a glimpse into an age, 100 years ago when this is how young couples were given a little bit more freedom than they had been in previous generations.


    GM: Courting canoes became such a phenomenon with frisky teens in the early 1900s, that before long police had to patrol the waters for misbehaving youth and a fine of $20 could be given to couples involved in the scandalous act of—you guessed it—kissing!


    GM: How does all this material come to you? I'm just saying, I'm picturing someone trying to pick it up on the Charles River and bringing it over [crosstalk].

    JW: This one was actually made in Toronto by Octavius Hicks. He was a prominent canoe builder in the late 19th century, early 20th. And this has been in the Hicks family now for 100 years.

    GM: Oh wow.

    JW: We have a photograph of a canoe just like this. I don't think it's exactly this canoe, but from Hicks, of a young couple drifting, holding an umbrella—she's holding an umbrella, they're drifting as one would. One hundred years later, the family—just before we acquired this—their family went out and recreated this with grandma and grandpa floating out with an umbrella, drifting in the very same canoe. Then, of course, it comes to us and we're with white gloves and treated it like an artifact, but the family tradition is just there.

    There's a few other boats—we could have a peak, we could move along.

    GM: So all of these are just—do people contact you or you go hunting for them?

    JW: A little bit of hunting, but as a not-for-profit museum we have very limited means to purchase artifacts and so, for the most part, these are turning up and people are reaching out to us. There's one of the oldest birchbark canoes in the world, just over there under the sheet plastic—that emerged in a shed in Cornwall, England. It was acquired during the American revolution. A museum over there reached out to us saying, "We're going to look into a bark canoe over here. It's 240 years old, it's not really our thing over here. What should we be looking for?"

    And that certainly caught our attention because birchbark canoes from the 18th century are almost unheard of, as I was saying they just dismantle when left alone. You can see it's not had an easy life, it's in—the mid section has been quite taken apart, broken. There will be a lot of work just to stabilize and conserve that hull to preserve it in its condition, as it is. So this just comes up. These emerge and they reach out to us. And on a few occasions things—we'll be aware of an object and we'll sometimes find a champion to help us acquire that.

    Sometimes, things no longer exist but there's an opportunity to learn from them. If they could—for instance, this 36-foot birchbark canoe just in front of us here, this is the longest format that birchbark canoes were being made during the fur trade period.

    GM: It's huge.

    JW: Thirty-six feet long, it's almost six feet wide, 30 inches deep. We were diving into records to see where they existed. The obvious challenge here is the longer a birchbark canoe, the shorter the lifespan. There's too much torsion and strain and it's hard to keep them under—out of the weather. This large 36-foot birchbark canoe as a working boat, becomes fairly redundant to the Canadian fur trade by the 1830s–40s. Most the furs are shipping out by Hudson Bay, and so this was no longer this essential connector to bring Western furs out through Montréal. They also stopped producing them in the early 20th—early 19th century.

    There are some smaller fur trade canoes that have survived from that age, none of the large ones. So this was one we built in-house, over 10 years ago, in order to explore the archival record, to explore all of the folklore and the incredible feats that these large birchbark canoes—how much did they weigh? They were paddled, pulled, sailed, lined, portaged on route. One of the resources that we drew from, is actually in Library and Archives Canada—Frances Hopkins paintings, you would know these…

    GM: I was going to ask you if this is one of the ones she paints.

    JW: Absolutely right, yes. We were relying on Hudson Bay records. We were relying on some surveys and some research done 100 years ago by Edwin Tappan Adney, who was a researcher on birchbark canoes, and of course, Frances's paintings. There is no better pictorial record from that age of the canoes. Her paintings are like blueprints for the birchbark canoes.

    GM: That's so fun to know.

    JW: So many other artists in the field at the time, they fumbled the construction of the birchbark canoe. They get the faces right, they get the landscape right, they get things really right on, but the construction of a birchbark canoe is explained in the seams on the hull. They have to be a certain way and not—otherwise, and often at times, the artist would do a fictional representation of how the canoe was assembled and I would look at that and you recognize, they're just making it up.

    Her paintings, the spacing of the ribs and the planks, the number of ribs between each thwart, the depth of the hull, the fact—even toggles on the sailing gear that was—you can see hanging over the back end of the boat, she was an outstanding artist and that's a really important reference material for those of us. When we built this canoe actually, and even the artwork I painted on the ends, of course, draws from her paintings as well.

    GM: I've always wondered that because when we have one of her paintings, "The Portage at Kakabeka Falls," they're portaging because you can't lift this over your shoulders clearly, or can you?

    JW: Yes, you can.

    GM: In her painting, they've cut down trees and they're using them as rollers and they're rolling them up the hill to get to the top.

    JW: If I'm not mistaken, there were also some "bateaux," some flat-bottomed work boats in that painting as well.

    GM: Would that be? Then that's not the same thing.

    JW: This canoe, we didn't know what a 36-foot, full volume "canot du maître" would weigh. You could scale up, but this one, when finished, weighs about 340 pounds. Historically, we understood you—typically, four voyagers might be carrying one of these. Sometimes more on a tough portage—350 pounds, that's 75 pounds per voyager. That's actually quite a light load compared to what they were carrying typically. If they were not carrying the canoe, they had to carry "les pieces" (the heavy pieces), each was 90 pounds. They would carry, at minimum, two of those. They were carrying 180 pounds per carry, doing six carries across each portage to get all the cargo over.

    If you're on the canoe for one of these carries, you have 75 pounds but it's all on one shoulder, and the moment you and I are at one end of the canoe carrying, if I step onto a rock, I have our whole end of the canoe on my one shoulder. I'm higher than you. It had its hazards, but in fact, what still blows my mind about this technology—and explains how it outclassed all of the European boats that were being used in the interior in its day for a certain period—it's so lightweight for its capacity.

    This canoe carries 8,000 pounds of payload plus about another ton of crew and food. If you look on the highway, those huge cube vans they have called the five-ton, that's supposedly designed to carry five tons (10,000 pounds of payload) and in this case our 350 pound canoe carries four ton of cargo plus about a ton of paddlers and dinner. It's about the same volume capacity or weight mass capacity in a 350 pound canoe. This is like carbon fiber of its day. The genius of this technology too is that they could be broken and they were constantly—and they were easily repaired in the field. It was that repairability that was the genius really behind this whole technology.

    GM: I'm noticing that there is a lot of black on the canoes, you're basically sealing the seams?

    JW: That's right. Those are spruce gum pitch worked on to the hull seams. So these are birchbark panels. As you form the bark over the curved form of the hull, or you make it into this birchbark envelope that you put a framework in—it has to be cut, slashed and tailored, just like a fitted garment, and those tailoring cuts need to be waterproofed.

    GM: Is that—would be part of the repair kit as well?

    JW: It would be, what they would call the "agrès." You see it on the bills of lading for these canoes that they traveled with repair bark, a fathom (about six foot roll) of birchbark. They traveled with 20 pounds of spruce gum resin mixed with an animal fat, typically bear fat; that's the black stuff, and then all of the lashing along the gunnels. That's all tree root called "watap"; there's about a kilometre of tree root that we had to harvest for this.

    GM: You have a fun job.

    JW: Well, that was a great project. I'm really excited that until two weeks ago, we had a birchbark canoe builder here named Chuck Commanda. Chuck is building birchbark canoes today and very active in this. His grandparents, William and Mary Commanda, were well known and very important to the revival of this tradition in the 1970s, '80s—made over 100 canoes, feted by our museum and others for their role in that.


    GM: William and Mary Commanda were much more than accomplished canoe builders. They also served as influential spiritual leaders and environmental advocates within Indigenous communities and beyond. William Commanda dedicated his life to building bridges between peoples of all ages and backgrounds. He strongly believed in the power of forgiveness on the path to reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.


    JW: And we have four canoes by Chuck's grandparents in our collection.

    And so to have Chuck, the grandson, here for a number of weeks working with a number of Indigenous youth from the area building a birchbark canoe in our gallery, and that continuity, the legacy of that, is really exciting today. We see that happening in other parts of Canada and, in fact, around the world where canoe building, with an Indigenous community certainly, becomes a very, very important expression of cultural determination, really.

    We're here, things have changed, the canoe is maybe no longer the essential vehicle that it was, but the very act of making it brings a community together. The very act of making it is a time for storytelling and values and technique and slowing down. To see this happening here, to see it happening, the Hōkūleʻa project that's happening in Hawaii where they've just circumnavigated the globe, is an affirmation of Polynesian ocean-going canoes tradition.

    Back in Papua New Guinea, the canoe building that's happening there for these annual canoe festivals—it's all a really important expression of something much bigger than the canoe itself. The canoe is almost just a device to affirm this process.

    GM: It's such a beautiful symbol to be working on together. You built this canoe, do you build other canoes as well?

    JW: This was a project, a one-off project certainly for me. Occasionally at the museum, I am involved in canoe making, we also have some fabulous volunteers who are quite skilled reproducing our collection for future use on the water. As you know, the canoe museum is hoping to move to the waterfront over on the Trent-Severn waterway by the Peterborough Lift Lock.


    GM: The Canadian Canoe Museum will soon be undergoing an ambitious relocation project in collaboration with Parks Canada. The aim is to create a major cultural and recreational destination that will draw people from all over, and allow more of this incredible collection to be shared with the public. It will also facilitate the expansion of the museum's educational programming and hands-on workshops.


    JW: One of a thousand goals of that move is to have an on-water fleet so you can explore some of these traditions, these hull designs remade; not an ancient artifact, but remade today to know what can we learn from them. There's a number of us who are making canoes here from time to time. Sometimes we make an interactive one for an exhibit or something else like that.

    GM: We'll have to come back for that one and take the canoes [crosstalk].

    JW: We'll have to go for a paddle, that's right—not today it's about four degrees, raining.

    GM: It's really cold. We were heading out that way.

    JW: Yes. So if we just poked around, this place is so full of story as much as artifact. Up ahead, the canoe with the orange sail—her name is "Vagabond." It was a lifelong companion of Farley Mowat, that was his first canoe and with him for his life.

    His father—well, his parents bought it in the 1920s and went out to Saskatoon with the family. Farley had a lot of adventures and a few near death experiences with "Vagabond" on Lake Ontario. Behind you is another canoe from—another storied canoe that has a Canadian background. This was made in Winnipeg and paddled by Don Starkell from Winnipeg to Belem, Brazil—longest canoe trip on record, down the Mississippi along Central America.

    GM: That explains all the stickers on it.

    JW: Yes.

    GM: The stickers tell a story.

    JW: They do. They're precious to this boat. This is actually one of probably a dozen canoes that we regularly get asked to see, there's almost a pilgrimage.

    GM: Really?

    JW: It's known that these boats are in our collection. Same with Farley's boat, Bill Mason's Prospector, two canoes from the Trudeau family, and that ancient birchbark canoe that we were talking about earlier. There's a whole suite of these boats that—something about seeing the original, and the same as with archives, you can give a digital expression of a piece in the archive and it's not the same.

    To stand next to the actual—in this case, this crazy story [about a] 22,000 kilometer canoe trip—near death, rammed, shot at, almost starved, successfully completed the trip. All of the scars on that boat carry that story and you just can't get that from a post card that you bought in the gift shop.


    GM: To learn more about this death-defying journey, be sure to check out Don Starkell's book, "Paddle to the Amazon."


    JW: This one, this dugout canoe here, this is new to us; this comes from Western Samoa.

    GM: It's beautiful.

    JW: Isn't that gorgeous? In the 1970s, the HMCS Qu'appelle, which was a destroyer class warship, was doing maneuvers in the South Pacific near Samoa, and she was invited into port because 10 years earlier the same ship had sent its medic team to shore, and they saved the life of a mother dying in childbirth. Ten years later, the town hears that the HMCS Qu'appelle is in the neighborhood on maneuver and they say, "Come in, we're going to have a feast, we want to race our boats against yours and we'd like you to meet the young the Samoan kid named after your ship."

    So there's young Qu'appelle sitting on a couch, and the navigator purchased this fishing canoe. It's a stunning dugout canoe from Western Samoa called a "pau pau." It has an outrigger as most of these boats do. They're coastal paddling—you have the two arms that come out and the float hanging over one side—gives you a very lean hull for fast paddling but the stability that you need for ocean-going. This canoe comes back to Canada lashed to the ventilation downtakes on the destroyer on deck and then he later paddled it around travelling with this canoe on the roof of his Datsun [laughs]. Actually I don't think it was a Datsun, I know more about the canoes than the cars. [laughs]

    Right behind you there, that wonderful—look at this wreck, this is—the poor thing—this red kayak was made by German prisoners of war sent to Northern Ontario to work in a lumber camp at Longlac. They were given permission to build what they would call a "kanu" from the garbage pile. The ribs are made from barrel hoops, the wood is cobbled together—scavenged from here and there, the canvas they were given by the warden and red paint to keep an eye on the boat. This was just for pleasure.

    At the end of the day, all of these prisoners of war brought out of Europe were probably grateful to have been removed and were allowed to go for pleasure paddling in their "kanu" every night on the water at the end of a hard day cutting timber. Compared to other prisoners of war experiences, this is quite idyllic and I think that it's all caught up in that poor kayak.

    GM: It never ceases to amaze me how when you learn the story behind an artifact or a document or anything else, it gains so much more value. You're right, you look at it, it looks like a wreck; the canvas is torn on the side and it's faded, but to know that it was so loved.

    JW: And they would take turns, each of them, take turns to go out for a little paddle and then hand it off to the next.

    These books here we're really bucking a trend. This is a private collection of books, 14,000 titles recently gifted to our museum by George Luste who is a collector of books. He was also at the center of the Wilderness Canoe Association which brings people in from around the world who do northern trips for the most part.

    George was building a bookstore and then other things took his attention, and his house had 14,000 books dedicated to canoeing in the Canadian north, including a clutch of very rare books all first edition—John Franklin, McClintock all of those—one signed by Lady Jane Franklin, fur trade writers Alexander Mackenzie, David Thompson, and then earlier than that, Samuel Hearne—first editions. These are books that certainly resonate with the collection that we have here and for research purposes, right into the French period. These are first descriptions of canoeing culture as encountered in Canada, rather I should say.

    Once you just start realizing that this is all about us and our stories and how we connect to each other, and as I was saying, the landscape. This is a three-part trinity of our mission. This little green one, this 12-foot canoe made by a woman named May Minto who was really an important canoe maker in the mid-20th century. Her husband passed away. They had a canoe making business and she carried on for decades. May was very well known for making canoes and this is a beautiful boat; this is the smallest she made.

    GM: The interior—it's this rich, red-brown.

    JW: Gorgeous. She supplied a lot of camps around Carnarvon/Haliburton area in Ontario. This particular canoe was commissioned by Robert Bateman.


    GM: Robert Bateman is one of Canada's foremost painters, who marries his deep commitment to environmental advocacy with his art.


    JW: He said to May, "Don't paint it please, I'll paint it myself." Here, this is his green. He would go out and do sketching with the canoe and occasionally—like this oil, actually made the canoe the muse of his painting, the inspiration for—and it's a beautiful painting.

    GM: It is.

    JW: This is at the family camp up on Boshkung Lake. When we went up to pick this canoe from Bob Bateman, I wanted to film him paddling this one last time before it moves into collection. Instead, he had the canoe flipped upside down on his picnic table and he'd mixed up a batch of the right mixture of greens and other colors to do a match and he was touching up the paint. He said the grandkids were up on the weekend saying goodbye to the lodge that he was selling, and to the Minto and they all wanted to take the canoe for a spin.

    "I had to touch up." They scraped the heck out of the canvas in spots and he was just dabbing paint on it. He painted it and we plopped it in the water. He paddled it—some of the paint touch-ups did wear away, but it was more important to witness him saying goodbye to his beloved 12-foot Minto, and here it is.

    GM: And now you have a story.

    JW: Now we have a story, and we also did not have a good example by May Minto. There are so few professional female canoe builders in the 20th century, and she was so notable and beloved.


    GM: After our tour of the collection storage facility Jeremy took us over to the museum to have a quick look at some of the curated exhibits.


    JW: I heard it was going to be very mild and rainy.

    GM: It feels milder out here than it did in there.

    JW: That's actually a good thing for the boats—

    GM: I was going to say.

    JW: Just to buffer. It's the rapid humidity changes that hurt organic material most of all. Just that the building is about a day and a half behind the times in terms of the weather, is better than not at all.

    Just quickly—as we go by the first panel that guests at the museum see, is this 20-foot wide portrait of Canada without any political boundaries on it. It's just this landscape and all of its waterways. If anything in this museum best explains why the Canoe Museum, and in fact, why the canoe, the kayak—it's that panel right there. It's all about networks and connecting across and travel. And the canoe, like Forest Gump, it just keeps poking up behind all of these encounters.

    We are just getting started with exhibit development for the new museum because it will take a number of years. I've just engaged—in the process of engaging the firm that we'll be working with to work with this collection. What we see that process being, is a renewal of a process we did 20 years ago which was meeting Indigenous communities around the country and, in fact, other groups as well that are profoundly connected to canoeing heritage and cultivating direct involvement in that storytelling process.

    Right here is a canoe by William and Mary Commanda, I was mentioning them earlier. It's another important boat in this collection; it's beautifully made. One of the most stunning boats that they produced as well, it's a beloved one here.

    This is the couple whose grandson just finished making a canoe, we're going to see that in a moment. The culture at the Canoe Museum and around this collection is also very much hands-on and DIY. We've always found a lot of appetite for workshops and classes and hands-on learning. We have a number of workshops that are just adjacent to our exhibits.

    So you can see, there's actually a course going on right now. They're teaching a lot of winter expedition equipment—how to make your own. They're doing snowshoe moccasins, they're making expedition anoraks, snowshoes. They're teaching a freight toboggan workshop and so on. We also teach canoe paddle-making in here. Downstairs, we do canoe restoration with all kinds of hands-on skills.

    GM: What is your usual clientele who comes? Are they people, just regular [crosstalk], school children?

    JW: For the workshops, they're coming here a—no, the school children is a different offering. We see about 5,000 kids onsite every year. We're also reaching classrooms now, internationally through Educator Skype Network. We're delivering classes to kids in Ohio and on different time zones too. Sometimes at 2:30 in the morning in order to do that. For the adult workshops, their participants come from across Ontario and Canada to take these. So there are quite a unique run of workshop offerings and to learn these skills in a setting like this, we found has been a pretty successful mixture too.

    GM: You've got a lot of inspiration.

    JW: Yes.

    GM: I'm sorry, I'm noticing behind you you've got some artwork that seems to come from Library and Archives Canada's collection.

    JW: It's all throughout this floor that we're on here and, in fact, downstairs as well. Yes, these exhibits, some of these are quite old, some are new. The artwork, yes, of course, it comes from Library and Archives Canada.

    GM: You've got one of the—I think you have a George Back, that's one of my favourites.

    JW: [laughs]

    GM: We never know how useful these works are when we catalog them, acquire them. We never know which use—which way they'll go in terms of helping researchers, and to see them here, and their importance to document canoes is so rewarding for me because I'm at the other end saying, "Okay, we'll bring this in and what can it do for people?" and there it is. And it's next to examples of canoes.

    JW: The gallery we are in is exploring all of the tradition of trade and exchange and alliance in a pre-contact period, and then the late arrivals of Europeans being basically introduced to trade networks that existed already as they were engaging in trade in North America.

    GM: Thank you so much, Jeremy. You have a beautiful museum. It was really a privilege to see that collection. I wish you all the best in this big move, and we'll come back and visit when you're done.

    JW: I hope you do. In the meantime, we'll keep leaning on Library and Archives Canada for its collection. Thank you so much for all the ways you've helped.

    GM: Thanks.

    JW: I appreciate it.


    GM: If you'd like to learn more about canoe-related material at Library and Archives Canada, why not start with our Flickr album? You can access a direct link to the album on the episode page for this podcast. To find out more about the Canadian Canoe Museum visit

    If you liked this episode, please subscribe to the podcast. You can subscribe through iTunes, Google Play or the RSS feed located on our website.

    Thank you for joining us. I'm your host Geneviève Morin. You've been listening to Discover Library and Archives Canada—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you. A special thanks to our guest, Jeremy Ward. And thanks to Théo Martin for his contribution to this episode.

    This episode was produced and engineered by Tom Thompson with assistance from Paula Kielstra and Ashley Dunk.

    If you're interested in listening to the French equivalent of our podcast, you can find French versions of all our episodes on our website, iTunes and Google Play. Simply search for Découvrez Bibliothèque et Archives Canada.

    For more information about our podcasts, or if you have questions, comments or suggestions, please visit us at


Subscribe to automatically receive new episodes.

Related links

Contact the podcast team

Send your feedback to: