Most Canadian-born adults have memories of childhood tobogganing adventures down the nearest snow-covered hill—even if it’s a little one made by a snow plough on a street corner. This tradition goes back to the very roots of how both Aboriginal peoples and early settlers survived in this vast and difficult country.
Long before the Europeans arrived and turned various forms of sledding into Olympic sports, Canada’s First Peoples used handcrafted toboggans to transport people and goods across the snowy tundra of Canada’s Far North. The Canadian Encyclopedia states that these devices “were constructed of two or more thin boards of larch or birch wood, secured to one another by crossbars, with the boards turned up at the front. The wood was bent while still green or wet, then held in position by lashing until the wood dried...”
Toboggans were often long—7 to 10 feet—but narrow, perhaps only 1 foot wide, pulled by a man or woman wearing a chest harness or, if available, sled dogs. The significance of the width was that a narrow sleigh could fit easily inside a snowshoe trail. Symbolic designs meant to attract helpful spirits during hunting and travelling were sometimes painted on the wood planks.
The word “toboggan” likely originates from the word for sled by the Mi’kmaq (tobâkun) and/or Abenaki (udãbãgan). French Canadians adopted the word in the early 1800s, but spelled it “tabaganne.”
Along with the name, the early European settlers were quick to adopt the use of toboggans for transport, hunting and fur trading ventures, but they soon realized it could be used for recreation as well. It became a popular sport in the late 1800s. Clubs, such as the Montreal Tobogganing Club, founded in 1881, sponsored meets and competitions.
In 1860, Quebec City's wealthier residents often went tobogganing on the slopes of the Plains of Abraham. In 1872, the Governor General, Lord Dufferin, added a toboggan slide at Rideau Hall for the public to enjoy. In Quebec City, a quarter mile long, triple-chute toboggan run adjacent to The Fairmont Chateau Frontenac was built in 1935. This run is still operating today, popular with tourists and locals alike.
This recreational past-time has also evolved into serious competitive sports. Three modern Olympic sports were born out of downhill tobogganing: bobsledding, luging and skeleton racing. Bobsleds have teams of two or four racers who steer a sled down a track. They have two axles on runners that are steered by a wheel or pull rope. In the luge, one or two racers recline in a seated position while racing down a luge run, steered by flexing the sled's runners with the calf of each leg or exerting opposite shoulder pressure to the seat. In the skeleton competition, a racer rides a small sled on an iced track face-first and head down, steered using torque provided by the head and shoulders.
Today, toboggans are still used in Canada’s north to transport people and goods. Sometimes they are powered by people or dogs, but are usually pulled by gas-powered snow machines.