Traditional Birch Bark Canoe Builders in Canada
The Barriere Nation Cree Band at Rapid Lake, Quebec
and the Algonquin Nation Band at Maniwaki, Quebec and also at
Golden Lake (Pikwakanagan), Ontario
The art of building Birch Bark Canoes has been practised by First Nations people all over North America for milennia.
Unfortunately, this traditional skill / way of life, is dying out. The two main neighbourhoods where this art is
practised now are both close to Ottawa, Ontario, the capital city of Canada.
In 1850, a new reserve was established for the Algonquin people who were living at Oka, on the Ottawa River, east of Montreal.
At about the same time, the Tetes Boules band of Cree were migrating southward from Hudson's Bay to settle near
the Hudson Bay Company's fur trading post at Rapid Lake, Quebec, (Lac Barriere Lake), about 100 miles north of Maniwaki, Quebec.
The second great tradition of building birch bark canoes in this area was at the Algonquin First Nations Reserve at Golden Lake,
Ontario. This reserve is now called Pikwakanagan. The 36 foot long canoe shown in the photograph was built by Mr. Matt Bernard
at Pikwakanagan in 1956.
Here are nine essential books about the history of Birch Bark Canoes. All of these books can be purchased, used, online
(1) Birchbark Canoe, by David Gidmark, General Store Publishing House, Burnstown, Ontario,
1989, ISBN 0-919431-44-5 (Author builds birch bark canoe with Algonquins in Maniwaki)
(2) Author: Edwin Tappan Adney and Howard I. Chapelle
Title: Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America published by the Smithsonian Institute.
(3) Author: John McPhee
Title: The Survival of the Bark Canoe, ISBN 978-0-374-51693-2, 1975.
(4) Since Time Immemorial: "Our Story", by Stephen McGregor,
The Story of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinàbeg, Kitigan Zibi Education Council, 2004, ISBN 0-9734910-1-9,
Research Team: Sandra Diabo Decontie and James Odjick, 344 pages.
This is an amazing book describing the history of the Algonquin Nation
in the Ottawa River Valley and it's watershed, mainly in the River Desert
region at Maniwaki.
(5) Algonquin Traditional Culture: The Algonquins of the Kitchissippi Valley: Traditional Culture at the Earliest Contact Period,
by Kirby J. Whiteduck, 2002, ISBN 0-9733543-0-5.
(6) The Voyageur, by Grace Lee Nute, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1931, ISBN 0-87351-213-8
(7) Leonard Lee Rue III's "Barrière Indians" was published in The Beaver magazine in the August 1961 edition and
is reproduced here, below.
(8) Here is a paper "On the Construction of Birchbark Canoes", by Mr. J. Gottfred who builds canoes at Fort William, Ontario,
at Fort Kaministiquia.. Fort William was one of the major inland centres of the fur trade.
(9) The classic book by Henry David Thoreau is Walden in which he documents his two year stay deep in the woods in
New England in the early 1850's. However by far the best book about wilderness travel is his book The Maine Woods which
is based on several long canoe voyages which he made by Birch Bark Canoe with First Nations guides. There is an amazing amount
of information which shows how the First Nations skill with the canoes and in the bush helped to initiate the early
voyageurs and explorers into travelling in the wilderness.
April 5, 2016:
(10) Fort Temiskaming and the Fur Trade, Elaine Allan Mitchell, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1977,
ISBN 0-8020-2234-0 -- good reference book which shows the links, both economic and cultural, between the forts and
the communities at River Desert, Rapid Lake, Lac des Sables (on the Lievre River), Grand Lac Victoria and Lake Timiskaming.
Mike Dufour from the Facebook group "Fort Coulonge, La Passe, and Westmeath History Forum" has sent to me, through
Facebook, a copy of this very interesting article as it was reprinted in the Ottawa Journal on
June 23, 1962, pg.39.
This band is called the Tetes Boules (Round Heads, because they kept their hair trimmed very short).
About twenty years ago on an annual fishing trip north of Maniwaki, we went to an area called "The Camatose"
for about 5 days. After about day two, we were visited by canoes by a group of Barriere Lake First Nations folks.
This was near the Cabonga Reservoir. They were interesting and fun people. That was the trip when we were trolling
for walleyes, far from shore, and a large moose swam across the bow of the boat on his way to a large island. Not a
camera in the boat! Honest! Every hour or so, we would hear yelling from all directions: "Lac This, Lac That, Lac Whatever"
as various fur traders, lumbermen, fishermen or First Nations members called out loudly to indicate where they were located. Long before cell phones and very effective where voices carry for miles.
March 11, 2016:
Here is a portion of a Google map showing Barriere Lake and it's geographic location relative to Maniwaki, Quebec.
Birch Bark Canoes - Films about their history and construction
Thanks to Jacques E. Bertrand who posted this link to a National Film Board film about Cesar Newashish, a 67 year
old man who passes along his amazing skill and artistry as he builds a birch bark canoe from scratch.
Mr. Newashish is a member of the Tete Boule branch of the Cree First Nation.
In the next film, Ray Mears learns how to build a Birch Bark Canoe from Pinock Smith, an Algonquin from Maniwaki, Quebec. See
HOW TO BUILD A SPRUCE BARK CANOE! -- Thanks to Jocelyn Legault for this link!
... Allan Lewis
February 18, 2016:
Source: Ottawa Citizen, December 15, 2010, page A6
Keywords: Birch Bark Canoe, John Enys, Canadian Canoe Museum at Peterborough, Ontario, Canada
Mike Dufour posted this article to the Facebook page for Pontiac County Genealogy
(Source: Mike Bernard>ottawa journal>june 29 1946 pg13)
February 27, 2016:
There is a new database of Voyageurs' Contracts during the fur trade.
March 10, 2016:
Drawings of two birch bark canoes from the Ottawa, Ontario, Canada area. Top Canoe is an Algonquin Gatineau River Canoe. Bottom Canoe is
an Ojibway canoe on the Ottawa River at Mattawa, Ontario.
Source: A Portfolio of the Sketches and Models of Edwin Tappan Adney, 1868-1950 as appears in the
Appendix to John McPhee's book The Survival of the Birch Bark Canoe.
March 13, 2016: (added the following video):
Thanks to Jocelyn Legault who sent us a link from Laval University in Quebec City.
This link (en francais) talks about some techniques for building a birch bark canoe.
Again, on March 13, 2016: Here is a wonderful photograph of an Algonquin man, Mr. Vincent Mikans (Makakons ?)
in 1927, aged 100. When he was born, there were almost no white settlers where the city of Ottawa is today.
A Birch Bark Canoe, made by members of the Algonquin Nation for
R. Tait McKenzie. This photo is at the Mill of Kintail Museum
Photo Source: Ramsay Reflections, 1836-1979, Ramsay Township Council, no ISBN, page 44.
April 12, 2016:
In 1966, a dugout canoe was discovered in Pontiac County, Quebec.
This was originally Algonquin Territory First Nations territory; they traditionally travelled in the
region. The Algonquin First Nation
inhabited the Ottawa River watershed and they had the best source of natural birch bark for canoe building. The Cree
Nation at James Bay (the Barriere Lake band) ran out of large birch trees for canoe building very early. The Iroquois Nation
along the St. Lawrence Valley similarly did not have a good supply of birch bark once the Adirondack Mountains area was depleted.
So who built this dugout canoe? Was it the Iroquois? Or was it built by European settlers, possibly as a short-term solution to
gain access across a particular lake? I remember in the 1950's when I was very young, my uncle and aunt had a cottage and we had
a couple of very old wooden row-boats. Every fall we would submerge these old row boats in the lake, below the frozen ice level,
to preserve them over the winter.
Names for search engine: Hearty and Mousseau.
May 12, 2016:
Thought you would like to see these two web articles. See links below. Interesting canoe story. Also provides more info about
noted painter Frances Anne Hopkins? It fits somewhere in your bytown.net pages.
When you have time, check out the many other stories via the 'home' page.
Best, Mark Cullen
July 1, 2016:
Here is another beautiful photograph of a birch bark canoe. Thanks to Jocelyn Legault who posted this photo
to the Birch Bark Canoe Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=1228174427195433&set=gm.964227797031759&type=3&theater.
April 10, 2019: (post retirement)
Source for the following picture is Les coureurs de bois, by Jeanne Pomerleau, page 82
E-mail Allan Lewis
Back to Bytown or Bust - History and Genealogy in the Ottawa, Canada, area -- First Nations History