The Canadian Canoe Museum suggests that "in the history of watercraft, the canoe of the Aboriginal Peoples is perhaps the ultimate expression of elegance and function. All its parts come from nature, and when it is retired, it returns to nature." This sentiment is echoed by the craft's historical importance.
The canoe was critical to almost every facet of life for every living soul in Canada. Save for the tribes of the Plains, it was the principal means of transportation across the country.
Each Aboriginal group could be identified by their canoe designs and materials. Some boats were skillfully carved from the massive trees of the northern Pacific coast, transformed either into large vessels ideal for trade, war and hunting great whales or smaller crafts suited for creeks and small waterways. Outside the Pacific coast, Aboriginal builders used the rind of the White Birch tree to create the birch bark canoe. This canoe was a masterful invention. It could manage the rigours of early travel in the Canadian wilderness while carrying a great load but still be carried as the need arose.
The word "canoa" or "canoe" was adapted from the Arawak language of the Native Caribbeans and appeared in the earliest known writings about the First Peoples of the New World. But it was not until late in the 18th century that Europeans began to truly appreciate the incredible utility of the Aboriginal canoe.
These early settlers ventured deep into the vast wilderness outside of the first Canadian settlements in search of furs where they discovered the extensive Aboriginal trade networks already in place along established canoe routes. They also discovered that their bulky European boats were unsuitable for maneuvering the lakes, rivers and portages in the depths of the North American continent. River guides and canoe builders quickly became a necessary tool in the commerce of the day.
Perhaps the most celebrated figure of this early commercial activity was the voyageur: the colourful paddler who remains enshrined beside the birchbark canoe in Canadian folklore today. Large bark canoes paddled by voyageurs were used for distance transport and connected the businesses of the St. Lawrence valley with the Mississippi, as well as the western and northern reaches of the continent.
These men, the Voyageurs, provided the ongoing trade connection between Aboriginal groups and Europeans and helped reshape not only the canoe but the North American continent itself.