Free Issue! Try Saltscapes Magazine before you buy. Download Now

I am on my hands and knees, digging up chunks of dry, dusty forest floor. The roots of the spruce trees above me bind the dirt. I find a root half the thickness of my pinkie and tug it, following it through the soil until it’s no longer thick enough for my purpose.   

“When you’re out in the forest, digging in the ground,” says Todd Labrador, as if it’s an everyday thing, “it’s very healthy for you.” As he continues, I’m expecting the wisdom of the ages born of countless generations of Mi’kmaw who have harvested building materials from the landscape. Instead, he cracks a joke: “In the forest, you might make a few friends. They’re called blackflies and mosquitoes.”

I’m participating in Todd Labrador’s birchbark-canoe-building workshop at Kejimkujik National Park deep in Nova Scotia’s interior. Humour helps break the barriers between instructor and participants — a couple from Quebec and an Indigenous man from Nova Scotia. Labrador has built many canoes in Keji, using almost exclusively materials he harvests from the forest. The roots we’re pulling up will become long, thin bindings to stitch birchbark onto the frame of the canoe.

Labrador thinks about the weather. “The ground is so dry, it’s dusty,” he says. It’s August and we’re in the middle of yet another summer drought on the East Coast, nearly unknown until about a decade ago. Today, however, the sky is heavily overcast with the promise of rain. “This rain will be great.”

We make our way down to the shores of Kejimkujik Lake as rain begins to fall. Labrador  wades into the shallows and pulls a coil of roots from the water. “I was in the forest early this morning right after daylight to dig these,” he says. He usually soaks them overnight to make them more flexible, but a few hours will do.

We follow him to the nearby shelter where he’s working on a six-metre canoe that will eventually need about 300 metres of root rope to hold it together. His workshops run all summer. With Labrador’s guidance, many people have contributed to the construction of this canoe. It’s approaching completion and I’m keen to say I’m among them.

After we gather around the canoe, Labrador reviews his construction techniques, talks Mi’kmaw history, and drops bits of his own story. While it’s not a completely lost art, only a few First Nations builders in North America know about the techniques, tools, design, and construction. Labrador is one of them.


Todd Labrador collects a coil of spruce root he soaked overnight in the lake

 

When he says he could put a canoe together anywhere, I believe him. As the only Mi’kmaw builder, demand for his work is high. He’s built canoes in PEI and the Nova Scotian communities of Millbrook and Bear River. In 2005, he boxed up all his tools and supplies to build a four-metre craft in Paris, France. In the summer of 2023, visitors are welcome to drop by his workshop here on Merrymakedge Beach and watch as he builds a six-metre canoe.

Labrador works the tip of a thin rope made of spruce root through a tiny hole in the birchbark to fasten it to the gunwale. “We don’t have the elders to teach a lot of these things anymore. But … if you don’t have the elder to teach you, the root will teach you. The birchbark will teach you. The wood will teach you. In the beginning, it was the root, the tree, the bark that taught my ancestors. You can still learn but you have to be a good student.”

The art of birchbark canoe construction faded over the past 500 years, along with so much other Indigenous knowledge and culture. The first European settlers, Samuel de Champlain among them, recognized the genius of the canoe, perfectly suited to navigate a vast river-stitched continent. Settlers adopted the craft almost universally as they made their way inland. It was the impact of those same settlers that led to the loss of the knowledge of how to build them.

Once Labrador has woven the length of spruce binding onto the canoe, we return to preparing more. We’re handed coils of boiled root and strip the bark from them. With a sharp knife, we split them along their lengths as evenly and as far as possible. It takes Labrador a full day’s work to split about 60 metres. As we work, Labrador offers an analogy to help us think about the character and delicacy of particular roots.

“I always say roots are like human beings,” he says. “We all come in different sizes, shapes, colours and personalities. When you’re working with roots, sometimes they have a good personality and they split easy. Other times, they’re not happy and they don’t split.”

When I finish splitting my few metres of root, Labrador takes me over to the canoe. I learn how to use an awl to punch a tiny hole in the birchbark. I thread the spruce root binding through the hole and loop it around the gunwale. I repeat this step until I use all of the root rope. A few more centimetres of birchbark binds to the frame of the canoe. 

Back to the roots again, Labrador sits on his chair and works at splitting another length. He works without looking down, so he seems to be contradicting himself when he says, “You need to focus completely on what you’re doing. You need to let go of whatever happened at the office or last night. It’s almost like meditation.” He’s looking at us, teaching us with stories, humour, and bits of wisdom, as his hands work from muscle memory, or perhaps from a deeper, cultural memory.

The Indigenous man in the workshop is a good student. He’s paying close attention, both to Labrador’s words and his hands. He tried to teach himself to build a canoe at home but had some setbacks.

He tells Labrador he used pine roots, but they didn’t work well. This workshop has taught him that spruce is better. As he slices down the length of a root, he learns to centre the knife blade. If it strays too far to one side, the root will snap, making a shorter binding. Labrador shows him how to work the knife back to the centre by prying on the thicker side. Perhaps this man will be the next in a long, though broken line of Mi’kmaw builders, handing down to future generations the eons-old techniques Labrador recovered.

Laurie, Labrador’s wife, interrupts the work to call us to supper. “She’s the most important person here,” says Labrador.

Supper is a rich beef stew with thick slices of homemade bread. In the past, Laurie says, this might have been moose or bear stew with a side of bannock. We take our places around the table.

As we dig in, Labrador continues teaching, thinking ahead to the completion of the canoe, now just days away. When his ancestors finished a canoe, they sealed the seams with pine sap or spruce gum. They’d melt it over the fire, then add a little bear grease and crumbled charcoal. Labrador doesn’t use these traditional materials.

“It will melt if you keep it in the hot sun,” he says. “You have to keep it in the shade or the water. If owners don’t have the knowledge, they can get in a sticky mess.” He uses a marine sealant — the only part of the craft not from the forest.

Over our delicious supper, Labrador turns from the minutiae of spruce roots to the expanse of history. “I like to come to Keji because they allow us to harvest in here,” he says. “I come here because my great-great-great grandfather lived right up here, and my other one — Stephen Labrador — lived over here. This was our land. This is where we lived. We’ve been here for at least 6,000 years, so we’re really connected. It’s like coming back home.”

Kejimkujik is a national park, the only one in the country also designated a national historic site. Labrador points to a photo on the wall of a petroglyph. A collection — the second largest in Canada — of over 500 petroglyphs on rocks around the lake gives Keji its double designation.

“The petroglyphs in Keji are fading quickly, but we try to keep them alive,” Labrador says. “My father told me this is a mawio’mi, or gathering place. Here, ancestors would come and gather, celebrate and share stories, maybe talk about who hunts where.”

He takes a spoonful of stew, mulls, then adds that he’s pleased to be able to talk about the petroglyphs and the skills he’s learned in this sacred place.

“When you’re building something that’s so rare,” he says. “It’s nice to share it with the public.” 

 


Other Stories You May Enjoy

Muskrat tales (and love)

The “rodent version of a hobbit” is found throughout the region

Book Review: The Little Tree by the Sea

A significant piece of the story of the Halifax Explosion came in its aftermath. One of the first communities to respond to the disaster with almost immediate (by 1917 terms) assistance was the city...

The Country Store

A place where you're a neighbour first and customer second… A place where a week's groceries can be bought on credit… A place that, these days, is on the endangered species list.