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 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 called 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.


Unfortunately, this narrative hides the one of theft and genocide that Indigenous peoples experienced through non-Indigenous peoples 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, 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.

WATCH: Tłı̨chǫ K’ıelà: The Dogrib Birchbark Canoe Project 1997. Produced by ©Lone Woolf Productions for the Dogrib Divisional Education Board.

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 Indigenous lands and peoples further and further into the interior. The truth at the core of this is that the canoe played a far-reaching role in assisting settlers displace and harm Indigenous peoples as it enabled them to expand the colonial market economy that was the fur trade.


The fur trade was domineered by the English monarch-backed Hudson’s Bay Company, and was charged with governing the territory deemed Rupert’s Land which led to the eventual creation of the Canadian state.

The North West Company logo to this day uses the canoe, signalling the watercraft’s central role in the company’s history. The North West Company merged with the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1826.

The canoe remained vital to settlers as they surveyed and mapped the territory that became 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, 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.

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 are:

  • On whose traditional territory do I wish to canoe? (Find out here.)

  • Which treaty/ies apply to this land, if any?

  • How does the nation understand respectful relations with the land? What are my obligations as a visitor?

  • What are the protocols I must follow while paddling here?

  • 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?

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 ancestral 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 Government

  • Yundaa Gogha (For the Future) – Dehcho First Nations

  • Rediscovering Tsiigehnjik: Resilience and Capacity Building – Chief Paul Niditchie School

  • Youth Paddling Leadership Training Trip – 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

  • Summer Canoe Trip – Sahtú Youth Network

  • Canoeing in Tuyeta – K’asho Got’ine

Dehcho Youth on the Yundaa Gogha Trip

Resources

Cultural Manoeuvres - Jessica Dunkin

Canoe and Canvas: Life at the Encampments of the American Canoe Association, 1880-1910 - 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 – Misao Dean

Nahanni: River of Forgiveness

The Last Mooseskin Boat – Raymond Yakeleya

The Royal Charter – Hudson’s Bay Company

The North West Company Historical Timeline