“I don’t think that’s gonna float. Nope, it’s not gonna work. Not with a hole that size in the bark.” The man shook his head in skepticism. He and his family stopped to assess the progress of a birch bark canoe being built. The hole in the bark was large, but the man didn’t know who was building the canoe. The vessel sat quietly under the pavilion waiting for morning and the return of the master builder. This man had so little faith in the process. He didn’t know the builder, and he didn’t know just how much experience and knowledge said builder possessed.
The builder in question was Chuck Commanda; he’s one of the few people building traditional birchbark canoes here in Ontario. Chuck is originally from Kitigan - Zibi in Quebec. He learned the craft from his grandparents William and Mary Commanda. William showed him the techniques, but it was Mary that had the patience to explain the process and to help him learn. He speaks quietly about their influence on his current endeavour, but it is obvious that the pair were central to teaching Chuck about the process of canoe building and about being proud of who you are.
In a quiet conversation held under the pavilion at the main beach of Murphy’s point Provincial park, Chuck told his story. He explained that there are only a handful of canoes builders in Ontario and the majority have learned from books. They’ve practiced, techniques struggled and learned from trial and error. Chuck, however, was taught traditional methods and learned to build the canoes alongside his grandparents. If it were not for Mary’s patience, the craft might well have been lost. Chuck credits his grandmother with teaching him the most. She would explain why things were done as they were. She made the process logical and clear for Chuck. Today he works on canoes and uses all that his grandparents passed down to him to create beautiful Alongquin canoes, and birch bark baskets. Chuck builds by feel, by instinct and careful assessment of the natural materials he harvests.
This most recent build occurred because of a chance meeting. Chuck was approached by Tobi Kiesewalter, the Interpretive Naturalist for Murphy’s Point. Tobi suggested that Chuck explore the trees within the park. Murphy’s Point sits on the unceded territory of the Algonquins of Ontario. The idea was to harvest all the materials locally and produce a canoe that would remain in the visitor's centre. Tobi felt the park needed to improve the programming and include more indigenous content. They searched through 12 different trees and found one that would be suitable.
As he worked with his handmade draw knife to share and prepare the cedar wood for the ribs of the canoe Chuck discussed the continuing difficulty he experiences in finding suitable birch trees. It’s getting harder and harder to find birch trees that produce the right kind of bark for harvesting. He sees environmental factors as one of the major issues in finding suitable birch bark. You need a specific thickness and quality to the bark that is getting harder and harder to find. Chuck worries for the future of our environment.
Once the pair found a suitable tree, Tobi searched for and was able to obtain funding, and the summer interpretive program was born. For 14 days Chuck and his apprentice Cole Williams would work at the main beach building a canoe using materials harvested locally. The public would have access to the build they could witness the process first hand, ask questions and be able to experience this ancient practice up close and personal.
The program seems simple at first. It’s a chance for park visitors to view an art form that many considered to be dead or dying. The build, however, goes far beyond this kind of basic value. Its a beautiful, creative process that requires an understanding of natural materials, chemistry when mixing fat with spruce gum, geometry and measurement. Beyond the physical, there’s also the cognitive value of a build like this. The program highlights the history and the traditions of the Algonquins.
It’s an opportunity for Chuck to share the culture and his knowledge of indigenous youth. Chuck’s apprentice, Cole Williams is now on his third build. He’s learned to make his draw knife, to select the right trees for harvesting raw materials, and to construct a canoe by feel rather than using measuring tapes. Cole is learning the trade with the goal of returning to Curve Lake First Nation to share the process and the knowledge of the youth in his community. Cole knows the value of keeping traditional practices relevant. “Building canoes isn’t dead. It’s alive, and it’s part of our culture. I want to share what I’ve learned with the younger kids back home.”
Chuck is also teaching some of the youth employed by the indigenous youth employment program. As a part of the program, the youth visit the build on several occasions. During my visit, the pair were lacing the thwarts with spruce root and were also harvesting spruce gum from the forest. Both youths were happily engaged in the build. Chuck was careful to give them independence but also quietly taught them the tricks of the trade.
The canoe build is also a way to speak out and defend the environment. Chuck hopes that visitors will walk away understanding the importance of sustainability. These canoes are created using local, natural elements. They come from the earth, and their impact on the planet is minimal. Chuck wants the visitors to see that so much can be done with natural items. Our dependence on plastics and synthetics takes away from one of our most important teachings. Chuck reminds visitors how indigenous peoples believed strongly in caring for the planet so that the next seven generations could enjoy the same things we can. Chuck explained how important it was to thank the tree for it’s helping in building the canoe. He leaves behind offerings of tobacco and asks for the spirit of the tree to come and live in the canoe. Visitors are exposed to both the physical process of building the canoe but also the cultural elements of the build.
For Tobi, this build was an opportunity to improve the parks cultural programming. In the 23 years he’s worked at Murphy’s Point he recognized a serious lack of indigenous content within the parks interpretive programming. Murphy’s Point sits upon land that is the traditional unceded Algonquin territory. When the opportunity came along to work with Chuck and develop this program, Tobi knew it was important. “You can’t beat this kind of thing for sparking people’s interest. It’s relevant. It’s hands on, and it’s an authentic experience.” Tobi also talked about the importance of programming that showed indigenous culture in a modern context. He felt that this was just as important as showing the tradition.
The canoe was not the only thing created by Algonquin members. The paddles were handcrafted by Robin Tinney. He decorated the paddles with the eyes of a rat snake, one of the animals the park so proudly includes in it’s programming about the area. The paddles were unveiled on the day of the launch.
On the day of the official launch of the canoe, both the public and members of the indigenous community gathered in a large circle on the beach. The canoe sat in the centre. Both indigenous peoples and non-indigenous worked to build the canoe. Both peoples awaited its launch. Larry McDermott spoke to the crowd. He thanked Cole, Chuck and the staff of Murphy’s Point for putting together such a significant experience for both the indigenous peoples involved as well as the general public.
Traditions such as the smudge were explained and all who wished could take part. As Chuck and Cole moved around the circle, Larry spoke about the past and explained the wampum belt. He visually brought to life Chuck’s final point. The canoe and building these traditional crafts can serve as vessels for reconciliation. Without the canoe, those explorers pressing to reach the west coast would have taken far longer to reach their goal. The canoe help to forge the roots of Canada. By sharing his knowledge with others, Chuck feels the canoe brings us leaps and bounds closer reconciliation. Not the big political reconciliation seen on TV and in the News but a closer personal connection that is truly authentic. Chuck sees his craft as a method for bringing forward indigenous values. “We’re no longer second class citizens.” He explained. “We are here, and this is the way forward.”
On that day, at Murphy’s Point reconciliation certainly took a step forward. The crowd of 200 people cheered as the canoe touched the water. They cheered even louder when Chuck and Cole paddled to the centre of the bay and raised their paddles in the air. Mission accomplished, skepticism vanquished, the canoe glided through the water with grace.
All Images are Copyright of Erin FitzGibbon, Orangeville, Ontario, Canada and Southampton, Ontario, Canada