The Canoe: A symbol of resilience, resurgence, and nationhood for Indigenous peoples
Today (June 26th) is National Canoe Day! To celebrate, educate, and work toward our goal to enhance our understanding of the relationship between colonialism and recreation in the NWT, and advocate for decolonization and reconciliation in the recreation sector, we are sharing a lesser-discussed history of what is seen by many as the quintessential Canadian watercraft: the canoe.
The canoe has been an important part of Canadian history, but the story of the canoe in Canadian history is often told through a colonial lens of being integral to the exploration of, and trade within, what is now known as Canada.
To some, the canoe is viewed as one of the seven wonders of Canada; a Canadian icon and a symbol of Canada. One that represents Canadians’ connection to nature, reverence for history, and a tool for exploration and discovery outside of urban and suburban centres.
However, this dominant narrative contributes to obscuring the history of theft and genocide that Indigenous peoples experienced through settlers’ use of the canoe. It hides that the canoe can represent a symbol of colonialism, imperialism, and marginalization. And it ignores that the canoe is a symbol of resilience, resurgence, and nationhood for Indigenous peoples.
Indigenous nations across this land we now call Canada designed and built beautiful, architecturally ingenious canoes adapted to the diverse environments of the coasts, prairie rivers, and boreal watersheds that each nation thrived in prior to contact. The canoe was essential to each nation’s way of life as they traversed their lands and waterways in search of resources, people, and trade.
In the 16th century, Europeans came to the coasts of what is now called Canada, and flourished when they learned Indigenous technologies, including the canoe. Traders and settlers adopted using the canoe as a practical, necessary tool for “exploring and discovering” Indigenous lands and peoples further and further into the interior, driven by the fur trade and resulting in displacing Indigenous peoples, and imposing far-reaching harm.
The fur trade was domineered by the Hudson’s Bay Company, which was charged by the British monarchy with governing the territory deemed Rupert’s Land, and forming the foundations to the eventual creation of Canada.
The canoe remained vital to settlers they surveyed and mapped the territory in pursuit of the creation of what has become today’s Dominion of Canada—facilitating European settlement, resource extraction, and industrial development.
“It is no coincidence that at the same time that Euro-Canadian canoeists were taking to the water in boats appropriated from Indigenous nations, the Canadian state was implementing the Indian Act, a comprehensive set of laws introduced in 1876 to destroy Indigenous cultures and assimilate the continent’s First Peoples into mainstream settler society. Residential schools, forced settlement on reserves, the outlawing of cultural practices such as the potlatch, and the destruction of traditional economies, all profoundly affected Indigenous lifeways, including the construction and use of canoes.”— Cultural manoeuvres by Jessica Dunkin (Canada’s History. 2019)
Today, the canoe continues to be appropriated from First Nations in a way that remains inaccessible to many of them.
Frequently, “wilderness” canoeists come from privileged backgrounds—higher education, upper middle class, male, and white—often looking to escape their day-to-day urban lifestyle and “explore” Canada. This is a very similar narrative to the first explorers. The way canoeing is represented in Canadian literature, non-fiction, and popular culture—historically and in present-day—and is practised by non-Indigenous recreational canoeists, is appropriative and exclusionary.
Indigenous peoples’ knowledge and skills with the canoe have been pushed to the side by national certification organizations created and run by non-Indigenous peoples. These certifications are typically made mandatory by insurance companies for any organizations to lead paddling programs. While certifications do incorporate Canoe History, these courses often include little-to-no guidelines for what should be taught. The skills and knowledge of these courses are from a Western perspective and most instructors are settler Canadians, thus the course content does not include (or ignores the contributions of) Indigenous knowledge and skills for canoe safety. Furthermore, it’s important to recognize mandatory certifications can become a barrier for remote communities wishing to take advantage of funding programs to support Indigenous peoples getting out on the land.
The canoe is also a symbol and tool of sovereignty, resurgence, and resilience for Indigenous peoples. Today, Indigenous nations are reclaiming the canoe through canoe-building, and paddling their ancestral trails. These reclamations, often only accessible through funded on the land programs, are integral to strengthening Indigenous peoples’ connection with their traditional waterways, and ways of being.
On the land paddling programs happening here in the NWT:
- Wha Dǫ Ehtǫ K’è (Trails of Our Ancestors) – Tłı̨chǫ
- Yundaa Gogha (For the Future) – Dehcho First Nations
- Rediscovering Tsiigehnjik: Resilience and Capacity Building – Chief Paul Niditchie School
- Youth Canoe Trip in Nahą Dehé on the South Nahanni River – Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ First Nation
- Nahanni: River of Forgiveness
- Sahtú Youth Dene National Assembly Canoe Trip – Dene Nation/Sahtú Divisional Education Council
- Sahtú Kaowe Guardians On the Land Retreat – Délįnę Got’įnę Government
Euro-Canadians of settler descent and newcomers to Canada, especially paddlers, should rethink the popular narrative of the canoe and challenge what they know about it. To decolonize the canoe, and nurture respectful relationships with Indigenous peoples, we all need to educate ourselves on the history of the canoe as a tool for colonialism and take action.
Some questions that we can all ask, research, and reflect-on before a canoe trip:
- On whose traditional territory do I wish to canoe? (Find out here.)
- Which treaty/ies apply to this land, if any?
- How do Indigenous peoples of this land demonstrate respectful relations with the land? What are my obligations as a visitor?
- Are there protocols I must follow while paddling here to show my respect for the local people and land?
- How did the nation’s territory become public access?
- How do I feel about celebrating this narrative?
- Is the nation fighting to protect their territory, or reclaim access to their territory? How can I support them?
These aspects of canoe history are important and aim to inspire us all to think more deeply about a watercraft we may have thought we already knew everything about. As you head out on the water to experience the beauty of the land and its waterways, we hope this article stays with you.
Canoe and Canvas: Life at the Encampments of the American Canoe Association, 1880-1910 by Jessica Dunkin
Is the Canoe a Symbol of Canada, or of Colonialism? – CBC News
Inheriting a Canoe Paddle: the Canoe in Discourses of English-Canadian Nationalism by Misao Dean
Nahanni: River of Forgiveness
The Last Mooseskin Boat – National Film Board; film by Raymond Yakeleya