Paddling to the Source

The canoe in Canadian past and present

by Oren Karp

Illustration by Mariel Solomon

published November 1, 2019

On day 19, my trip arrived at Wapekeka First Nation after weeks of sun, the most difficult leg of our journey behind us. Located on Angling Lake in Northwest Ontario at the headwaters of the Fawn River, Wapekeka is an Oji-Cree community inaccessible by land, so my six campers, two co-counselors and I paddled right up in our canoes and set up camp on the shore. As the oldest guide on the trip, I was responsible for going with one of the co-counselors to pick up our food drop, which a contact had been holding for us for a few days in the band office. When I returned to our campsite, I found our 15-year-old campers had befriended several local kids, who had walked down to the small beach to see what we were doing. While the counselors unpacked the next 19 days’ worth of food, the campers chatted with the children from Wapekeka, trading stories about the trip and life on the Indian reserve. Soon conversation turned to music and pop culture, a small dance party followed by a show and tell of the kids’ toys. The campers couldn’t stop laughing after one of the Indigenous kids rode his bike into the lake fully clothed and then left it there and waded back to shore, drenched and grinning.

Later, making dinner, our group would be caught in a downpour that swelled the river. A man in a pickup truck would come by and offer to help us move all our stuff to the community center, where we would spend the night dry and warm, hanging out more with the local kids. But as the clouds rolled in, the children asked about our boats and my campers offered to paddle with them out on the lake. But we’ve never been in a canoe before, the kids responded. Great, my campers smiled. It’s easy. We’ll show you.




But the symbol of the canoe is not so simple. Long before the Indigenous peoples living in what is now called North America came in contact with European settlers, the canoe was a ubiquitous form of travel. Boats were a natural response to land with so much water—not only does Canada have the longest coastline of any country in the world, but it is also remarkably wet, boasting the highest total surface water area of any country. Save the Plains tribes of the south central region, who had little use for boats, nearly every Native Canadian group had its own canoe design that was specific to the region in which they lived. And it was the land itself that taught how the craft should be built: For example, in the highlands south of James Bay, birch bark, spruceroot, and white cedar were plentiful and made canoes light enough to portage over land, yet simple enough to repair. There was variation, of course: The Algonquins, for example, navigated mostly lake-to-lake and could thus afford wide canoes with keels and flatter bottoms that kept straight in strong winds, while the Montagnais paddled on rivers and needed canoes that were narrow and round to steer more easily through whitewater.

Perhaps most famous among the historical watercraft of Canada are the enormous birch-bark canoes of the northeast, which were appropriated for trade and transportation in the establishment of colonial French Canada. Rather than being associated with the Algonquin people, who used them for millennia, these 36-foot boats instead conjure images of the “voyageur,” colonial Canada’s white, manly man for whom no river was too dangerous and no portage too long.

As demand for furs grew in Europe, First Nations men were employed to trap and hunt while voyageurs transported goods to and between colonial settlements. With the establishment of the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1670, however, the negative effects of the fur trade began to multiply, and settlers inflicted significant harm on Indigenous communities and lands, from overhunting and depletion of resources to overt violence, especially toward women. Time passed, and the lumber industry took off, further contributing further to destruction of land and Indigenous ways of life as canoes were seized by settlers and turned into a tool for western ‘exploration’ and colonialism. By the late 19th century, need for voyageurs plummeted with the completion of the Canadian Pacific rail line, but harm to Indigenous communities grew as they were forcibly moved onto reservations or into boarding schools in an effort of coordinated, institutional cultural genocide. As time passed, settlers erased their history of colonial atrocities, appropriating the canoe for purposes of recreation and attempting to turn it into a symbol of Canadian national pride.




The canoe has wedged its way firmly into Canadian culture—take, for example, Paddle-to-the-Sea. Those who are paddling nerds or grew up in 1940s Michigan will instantly recognize this name. Originally a children’s book written by American author Holling C. Holling in 1941, Paddle-to-the-Sea became a classic amongst paddlers after it was adapted into an Oscar-nominated film of the same title, directed by Canadian naturalist, artist, and canoeing legend Bill Mason and produced by the National Film Board of Canada. The story begins at Lake Nipigon, Ontario, where a First Nation boy carves a wooden figurine of an Indian in a canoe and inscribes on the bottom: “Please put me back in the water. I am Paddle-to-the-Sea.” The small wood carving is released, picked up and returned to the water many times throughout his adventures across the great lakes and down the St. Lawrence River to the Atlantic Ocean.

Paddle-to-the-Sea came to represent so much that a symbol of it was brought aboard the Canada C3 Expedition, a 150-day trip around Canada’s coast by boat. The C3 was one of the highest-profile projects of Canada 150, a celebration that marked the 150th anniversary of the country’s confederation. Along with Canada Day festivities in 19 major cities, smaller-scale sesquicentennial celebrations over the course of the year included sporting events, arts initiatives, and academic projects with a goal of fostering a sense of national pride and unity. The ship’s journey began in Toronto, ON, and followed the St. Lawrence waterway out of Lake Ontario to the ocean, split into 15 legs as it made its way through coastal cities, towns, and Indigenous communities, before ending in Victoria, British Columbia. More than 360 people, including youth ambassadors, scientists, Indigenous elders, artists, politicians, and participants from all across the country, joined together in creative, scientific, and community-based projects directed at Canada 150’s four main themes: “diversity and inclusion, engaging and inspiring youth, Indigenous reconciliation, and the environment.” All the while, the C3 carried aboard a small wooden model of Paddle-to-the-Sea.

In a makeshift musical studio onboard the Canada C3, four musicians and nineteen participants joined together to record a song titled “River of Nations.” With lyrics in English, French, Mohawk, and Spanish, the song is meant to represent the progress that is possible when Canadians celebrate and welcome their differences. The song opens with the line, “The sun, moon, wind, and water / Carry us; we are a canoe,” before others join in and sing the chorus together: “River of nations, nation of rivers / Flowing together on our way to the sea.” These lyrics draw a clear comparison between Paddle-to-the-Sea and the Canada C3, but the song doesn’t acknowledge the rocky history of canoes that might make a symbology of unity more complicated.




Paddle-to-the-Sea is just the beginning. Take, for example, the photo posted all over the news of Justin Trudeau paddling a canoe up to a rally in Sudbury, Ontario, while campaigning for reelection earlier this year. Or watch the startlingly beautiful documentary The Canoe, directed by photographer, first-generation Canadian, and canoe enthusiast Goh Iromoto. Tracking the experiences of five paddlers in Ontario, the film shows how canoes can bind people to each other and the earth. The film attempts to frame the canoe as a link between land and community, though on a certain level it does fail to fully interrogate the history that contextualizes that object. However, as a child growing up in an immigrant family, Iromoto developed a specific relationship to the canoe: It was a way to bring himself closer to the people, the culture, and the land of his home.

James Raffan, former executive director of the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ontario, sees the canoe as an even more explicit symbol of national harmony. Also a first-generation Canadian, Raffan helped to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary by organizing another, shorter boat journey sponsored by the museum called “Connected by Canoe.” (Incidentally, this project was captured in a short documentary also directed by Iromoto.) Together, sixteen Canadians—from Erick Mugisha, a nursing student who had moved from Kenya to Canada just months before, to Kristen Ungungai-Kownak, a Carleton University student of Inuk heritage, to Gary Running, who admitted knowing next to nothing about reconciliation but could navigate the river and drive the van—joined together in a canoe trip from Kingston, ON to Ottawa, ON. Traveling by canoe became a metaphor for coming together as a country, allowing time for floating conversation but just as importantly forcing all the participants to work together, to sweat and struggle in the same boat as they paddled and portaged until the day was done. Because of the museum’s sponsorship, Connected by Canoe made efforts to root its conversations in a broader narrative of the vessel, and it also showed that (on a small scale, at least) canoes can be used to engage with their own conflicted history.




Now that centuries have passed, fur and lumber have been replaced with other capitalist demands, such as minerals and hydro power, that have had similarly catastrophic effects on Indigenous ways of life. And though the canoe is no longer the transport of choice for settler colonists, it is hard for some to separate the object from its past, especially when the majority of those who now build and use canoes are people of settler colonial heritage. The symbology of canoes has evolved with the craft itself to remain associated with white, wealthy, able-bodied, cis men and their confederates: national parks, Patagonia puffs, and summer camps. Today, watersports are an activity largely available only to those with the money, time, and interest, not to mention proximity to outdoor recreation, camping knowledge, and comfort in white male-dominated spaces. In fact, many people no longer think of the canoe as an Indigenous object, because its history has been rewritten and glorified by generations of settlers. The positive view of canoes as a tool that aided westward expansion and modernization is common, but often without much understanding of how this perspective can perpetuate the erasure of Indigenous peoples by denying them authority over their own cultural objects. While Canada 150 often successfully manifested an ethos of “diversity and inclusion,” the C3 project struggled to acknowledge the central paradox of the canoe: The boat was idealized as a symbol of unity, but also remains a physical reminder to many of the histories of Indigenous genocide and current inequities that burden low-income people of color, especially Indigenous peoples.

There are movements towards reclamation, but they are equally tied up in the complexities of modern-day colonialism. Take, for example, the North American Indigenous Games, or NAIG, a multi-sport and cultural event held every three years alternating between the US and Canada. Conceived in the 1970s, the games were first held in 1990 and are now made up of nineteen sports, including canoeing. When asked about competing in the canoeing event in a 2017 article from the Hamilton Spectator, 18-year-old Inuvialuit athlete Kaidan McDonald said, “The canoe connects us traditionally to our ancestors…it means a lot, especially to me.” For some communities, NAIG has been a way of reinvigorating Native youth towards learning about their heritage, since the canoeing event has 19U, 16U, and 14U categories. To these kids and their parents, canoeing is an opportunity to foster pride, to pass on history and culture to a new generation, and to learn Native ways of relating to the land. But for other communities, there are significant barriers: canoes and gear are expensive, the image remains associated with colonialism, and the cultural genocide perpetrated by settlers has resulted in many disconnected Indigenous communities and loss of traditional knowledge.

The canoe holds the ability to connect settlers such as Bill Mason to the land in a more meaningful way than ownership, to connect immigrants such as Goh Iromoto to the people of a new country, to connect Indigenous people such as Kaidan McDonald to their past and inspire them towards the future. However, it is dangerous to use the canoe, even in such positive situations, without fully understanding and acknowledging the negative symbolism it carries. This contradiction is intimidating, but to avoid it would be to take the easy way out.




On day 20, my campers, co-counselors, and I began our paddle down the Fawn River, later joining the Severn River, where we rode the current to finish our thirty-seven-day trip Fort Severn, a First Nation on Hudson Bay. But this one moment, among many, sticks with me. Though the Oji-Cree kids had never been in a canoe before, their ancestors had traveled by canoe for thousands of years, and the Fawn River was one of the major waterways those ancestors traversed—especially between the 17th and 19th centuries, when the fur trade motivated travel to York Factory (now Churchill, Manitoba). My campers had ancestors from all over, but the only thing that connected them and me to those waterways was the dip of our paddles.

It was beautiful out on the water, peacefully still in the golden gray pre-storm light. I heard the laughter of the kids out on the lake, and I knew that nothing besides canoes could’ve brought them together for this moment. This fleeting, singular gathering isn’t enough: As much as Paddle-to-the-Sea, the Canada C3, Iromoto’s The Canoe, and Connected by Canoe would make me believe, the canoe won’t reconcile Canada. Canoes have their own complex and contradictory story, one that is tied to centuries of oppression and violence, one that must be told. But I’ve seen them mean something else, too. I wonder if, like the cedar trees that grow on the shore of the lake, the tool is not so far from its task: It is possible that canoes can be used to engage with their own conflicted past.


OREN KARP B’20 still smells like he’s on a 37-day canoe trip.