Mi’kmaq elder Junior Peter-Paul embraced a unique opportunity to paddle into the past of his people.
The Charlottetown resident and elder Methilda Knockwood-Snache both worked with elder and master canoe builder Todd Labrador of Nova Scotia to create a beautiful, traditional birchbark canoe.
The project, a partnership between the Mi’kmaq Confederacy of P.E.I. (MCPEI) and Parks Canada, helped transport Peter-Paul well back in time.
“I felt a lot of connection in history of our Mi’kmaq people when they used to build them,’’ he says.
“I felt a lot of presence of them. It felt good being out there harvesting the spruce roots, harvesting the birchbark, harvesting the parts of the trees.’’
Peter-Paul says building the canoe involved a patient process. More than six weeks was spent harvesting and preparing the material to build the canoe. Another six weeks was spent constructing the canoe, primarily at Skmaqn-Port-la-Joye-Fort Amherst Historical Site but also in Lennox Island and Scotchfort.
Peter-Paul raised his arms in jubilation Tuesday after taking part in the ceremonial launch of the canoe, which saw him dip the boat in for a short paddle off the shore of Skmagn-Port-la-Joye-Fort Amherst.
“In the Mi’kmaq history, that was our transportation in the rivers and the lakes,’’ he says.
“I kind of got so connected to (the canoe building) when I heard a lot of ancient stories from the elders and knowing that the first people that stepped foot on this Island was the Mi’kmaq people… They were the ones that came across the strait there with their birchbark canoes.’’
Traveling across the #Confederation bridge from #NewBrunswick to #PrinceEwdwardIsland with my 19' ocean going birch bark canoe on my truck. Thinking about our #Mikmaq ancestors who made this journey by paddling a canoe 💕#Mikmaqpeoplearetough#Wearesurvivors#proud#indigenous pic.twitter.com/MI3JApW1c3— Todd Labrador (@MyToddglabrador) October 7, 2019
Labrador, who has spent many years fine-tuning his craft of building birchbark canoes – a talent he can trace back to his great-grandfather – says he was “very proud’’ to be involved in the project.
Jesse Francis, manager of strategic initiatives dealing with the partnership between the MCPEI and Parks Canada, says the canoe construction is part of a larger project to enhance the presentation of Mi’kmaq history at Skmaqn-Port-la-Joye-Fort Amherst that started in 2017 with the building of a Mi’kmaq birchbark wigwam that serves as a venue for cultural programming.
“It really accomplishes several joint goals: sharing the Mi’kmaq history of the site but also allowing the same project within the community to share traditions and keep the cultural element of it going from one generation to the next,’’ says Francis.
“It helps create a great experience for visitors here but also something really important for our community members.’’
Francis adds the Mi’kmaq birchbark canoe will be used as a teaching tool at Skmaqn-Port-la-Joye-Fort Amherst, in schools and at different events.
The canoe, he adds, will continue to hit the water as well.
“The goal is certainly to have it as a working canoe…visually it’s a work of art,’’ he says.
Peter-Paul sees the project as a positive step in preserving Mi’kmaq heritage.
“I’m hoping we are strongly bringing back our Mi’kmaq culture,’’ he says.
“It’s important to us.’’