ICON: 002 - The Canoe

The Canoe

Canadian Icon: 002

The Canoe in Canada

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.

Otanabee Valley Legacy

In 1857, two types of canoes competed at regattas. Both were Aboriginal designs: the birchbark, and the dugout "log."

At one particular race, two English woodworker friends hatched a plan to combine the Aboriginal canoe designs with their European fine carpentry techniques. Though they went their separate ways and founded Canada's first two canoe-building companies, these two men were responsible for creating the hybrid canoe models that would soon give rise to the world's most-famous canoe building centre – Ontario's Otonabee Valley.

Canada's Eighth Wonder

With Walter Walker's passing in 2009, Canada lost its last living link to Canada's Golden Age of canoe building. Walker had become the greatest canoe builder in Canada., his wide range of techniques taught throughout the world. For all his accomplishments, though, Walker is perhaps best known for the cedar strip Royal Canoe he built and presented to Prince Andrew in 1977.

Throughout his career, Walker was a central figure in exhibitions, magazines and films that document the history and art of canoe-building in Canada. The day after his 100th birthday, one Canadian newspaper stated: "Now that the canoe is officially one of the Seven Wonders of Canada - Walter Walker must surely be the eighth."

In 1994, Walter Walker became the first Builder Emeritus inducted into the Canadian Canoe Museum where his legacy – and his work – is enshrined forever.

Trudeau's Essay on Canoeing

"I would not know how to instill a taste for adventure in those who have not acquired it. (Anyway, who can ever prove the necessity for the gypsy life?) And yet there are people who suddenly tear themselves away from their comfortable existence and, using the energy of their bodies as an example to their brains, apply themselves to the discovery of unsuspected pleasures and places. I would like to point out to these people a type of labour from which they are certain to profit: an expedition by canoe.

What sets a canoeing expedition apart is that it purifies you more rapidly and inescapably than any other. Travel a thousand miles by train and you are a brute; pedal five hundred on a bicycle and you remain basically a bourgeois; paddle a hundred in a canoe and you are already a child of nature."

— Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Patriot, Paddler, Prime Minister of Canada for 15 years