• Helen Kohl

Indigenous youth share learnings traditional birch bark canoe construction

To help us all celebrate National Indigenous History Month, Georgian Bay Anishinaabek Youth co-founders Dawson Bloor and Taylor Judge recently shared what they learned when their group, in partnership with the Georgian Bay Mnidoo Gamii Biosphere, led a four-day trip with their community in their traditionally built wiigwaas jiimaan (birch bark canoe).


“Building our own wiigwaas jiimaan was one of our first projects,” recalls Dawson. “It’s named Oshkinigig, which loosely translates as ‘the New Ones’. And just like the trees of our ancestors, it’s made of sustainably harvested white birch bark, cedar, white ash, and the white spruce tree — plus 150 years of knowledge, teachings and lived experiences of Anishinabek communities throughout the Great Lakes.


“Canoes outlast us and provide the generations ahead of us with what they need to survive as well,” he added. “Like our ancestors, the foundation was always to look seven generations back and seven generations forward.”


Oshkinigig is the culmination of years of study and 19 days of hard work by local high school students and other members of the community, all led by Georgian Bay Anishinaabek Youth and an expert team of canoe builders.


First came the cedar framing, lovingly lacerated with tiny cuts so the wood could be bent into the right shape. Then the stitching: sewing the boat together with meters and meters of spruce root “threads,” each with one round and one flat edge. Next up: carving the ribs from long cedar planks and bending them to fit inside the canoe. Then, lining the inside in paper-thin cedar, and applying an outside hull of winter bark — brown-coloured birch bark harvested after winter. After that, sealing it all together with spruce pitch, and pouring boiling water over the whole boat to expand the bark and give it its final shape.


To finish off construction, the group spent hours sharing stories while etching drawings onto the hull. “It was all hands on deck,” recalls Dawson. “At the final stage of building a canoe, everyone in the community can participate. Many chose to commemorate special events such as etching the leaves around the sailing school.”


Now that Oshkinigig has been built, she’s ready for action. Last year, Dawson and Taylor took an extended four-day trip on her with members of their community.


Travelling in the Oshkinigig in the Georgian Bay region with young Indigenous people “deeply impacted my world views and my connections to my community,” recalls Taylor. “It was so cool to hear young people saying among themselves, ‘this is the route our ancestors travelled,’ and ‘I wonder how long this route would have taken my great-grandfather.’”


Adds Dawson, “telling our stories to one another really connected our communities and our families. We all learned and experienced Oshkinigig in action, hands-on.”


To see Oshkinigig, visit Killbear Provincial Park’s Discovery Centre. Thanks to Dawson and Taylor, who shared these teachings at the Parry Sound Nature Club’s Learning with Oshkinigig presentation.