KEJIMKUJIK, NS - It was a powerful day that spoke as much to the future as it did to the past.
That’s how Kejimkujik National Park superintendent Jonathan Sheppard described the launch of two recently finished birch bark canoes Sept. 15 at Jake’s Landing.
A large crowd gathered to witness the launching, with many bringing their own canoes and kayaks so they could paddle with the traditional Mi’kmaq canoes as they travelled out to Kejimkujik Lake and around to Kedge Beach.
Todd Labrador pushed his own birch bark canoe into the water. The small celebration was as much about this master canoe builder as it was about the canoes. With help from apprentices Karlee Peck, Cedar Meuse-Waterman, and Rose Meuse, Labrador built the new canoes at Keji over the summer employing traditional techniques and materials.
With sweet grass smoke he smudged both vessels before they were carried down to the glassy water.
“It was my father who passed on the stories of my great-grandfather,” said Labrador in an interview. “My father Charlie Labrador was raised by my great-grandfather Joe Jeremy, and Joe Jeremy was the builder. He was born in 1874 and died in 1961, but because he raised Dad I heard all these old neat stories about when Dad grew up, and that’s where my interests came.”
When Labrador was in Grade 7 a teacher showed the class a National Film Board video of an old Algonquin man making a birch bark canoe.
“The video’s called ‘Cesar’s Bark Canoe,’ and that really stuck with me as well,” said Labrador. “I always loved the forest and loved learning about my ancestors. That’s where my interest came.”
In His Blood
“A lot of what I learned, I learned by myself but my father taught me how to harvest roots and bark and how to bend wood and things like that,” said Labrador. “And then I asked questions and went to museums.”
In a high-tech age, Todd Labrador was busy relearning and bringing back the skills and knowledge of his ancestors.
“For me I eat, drink, and breathe this. This is who I am. It’s always who I’ve been,” he said. “And when I sleep at night I think about this. When I go in the woods and see a tree I think about this. I’m remembering there’s a good spruce tree, or that’s a good birch tree.”
While few people alive today have ever attempted to make a birch bark canoe, Labrador firmly believes in generational memory as a way to bring back those skills.
“We call it blood memory. Some of our skills and some of our knowledge is passed down through the blood,” he said. “Here in Kejimkujik where my ancestors were, the same blood that ran through their veins runs through my veins and it’s an honour for me. Jeremy’s Bay – my great-grandfather was Joe Jeremy.”
And there’s Luxie Cove. His great-great-grandfather was Louie Luxie.
“Stephen Labrador down by Grafton Lake in the 1840s was another relation. We’re really connected to Keji,” he said.
Something that used to be his hobby is now his way of life.
“Today we use modern tools, but we have a crooked knife, draw knife, an awl for poking the holes in the canoe,” said Labrador. “That’s really all you need, and an axe, to make a canoe. My great-grandfather never had electricity, but if he had electricity he’d have used it. I have a band saw too.”
The materials are basically the same as his ancestors used at Keji going back thousands of years.
“It’s cedar, spruce, and then there’s various hardwoods for the thwarts – they may be maple, birch, or ash,” he said. “Instead of spruce ribs, which was traditionally used here in Nova Scotia, I use cedar from New Brunswick.”
Sheppard canoed over to Kedge Beach with the flotilla of several dozen vessels and talked about Labrador’s canoes.
“Todd’s been building canoes for a number of years now. We’re lucky to have had these two this summer built here in Kejimkujik,” Sheppard said. “In 2015 he actually built a longer canoe. I think it was 18-and-a-half feet, sort of a larger style traditional Mi’kmaq canoe, and that’s the one that actually sits now as sort of a centerpiece in the indigenous gallery in the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa/Gatineau. So that’s a huge thing.”
He said it shows the preeminence Labrador has as a canoe builder not only across Canada, but around the world.
In 2014 he built the canoe that usually sits in the visitor centre at Kejimkujik. On launch day it was paddled around to Kedge Beach with the rest of the flotilla by Parks Canada employees Leanne Hudson and Ashley Moffat.
Before the launch, Sheppard said the canoe is a powerful symbol, not only of this land and this landscape, but of Mi’kmaq culture past and present.
“And it is so powerful for all of us to see that building of these canoes in Kejimkujik,” he said. “We at Kejimkujik are just so honoured to have had the participation, not only of Todd and all of the wisdom and craft that he has, but the engagement of the community, which was Bear River (First Nations) and Annapolis Valley (First Nations) and others that have come from far and wide as well. It has been a truly humbling experience for all of us to see this project come together.”
He said it was incredible to see people from all over the world, and from close to home, come regularly to see the progression of the canoes, and the progression and the confidence of the apprentices.
He said Labrador has taught him that the canoe is also a really powerful symbol of relationship and of friendship.
“It’s a powerful symbol of relationship between people, but also between communities and between nations,” Sheppard said. “When you get in the canoe with someone else you need to agree on where you’re going. You may hit rocks. You may sometimes be unbalanced. You may argue about a certain stroke here and there, but in the end we’re going to a new place together and a canoe is a wonderful symbol of all of that.”
“It was a great experience, just to be outdoors like my ancestors were,” said Cedar Meuse-Waterman. “Making something that they made before, it’s exciting. And working with my friends and family. I feel I’ve grown up more. I was really shy before and this canoe project and talking to the public really helped me come out of my shell.”
Karlee Peck agreed. The girls had just landed on Kedge Beach with Bear River First Nations Chief Carol Dee Potter as their passenger.
“It was a wonderful experience. It was probably the best summer I’ve ever had, just being able to do this,” Peck said. “I feel a lot more connected to my culture and I feel like I took it for granted before. I feel I appreciate it more. A lot of this is thanks to the chief and council of Bear River First Nations – where our community is. They helped this happen.”