Ode to the Canoe: Symbol of Canadian Unity

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This is a re-print of last year’s blog, returning in honour of Canada Day.

As summer comes to a close, and this writer returns from a week of paddling on the French River, it seems appropriate to pen a short piece in praise of that quintessential Canadian icon, the canoe. Why? Because there is arguably no other single image that can symbolize the country’s origins, history and geography, as well as our popular and political culture.

Even those who have never been in a canoe know that it was invented by the indigenous peoples who inhabited North America before the arrival of Europeans, and that it constituted an invaluable contribution to the exploration and settlement of the country. As Ray Atherton, the first American ambassador to Canada, wrote in 1947, “What the covered wagon has been to the United States, this and more the canoe has been to Canada…The story of the canoe is Canada’s story because Canada is a gigantic waterway, a complex system of lakes and rivers stretching from the Atlantic to the Rockies.”[i] His view is echoed by Trent history professor John Jennings, who argues the canoe made Canada. “Canada exists today because of the canoe. In the United States it was the horse that determined national boundaries, in Canada, the canoe.”[ii]

Canoes were once such a prevalent feature of everyday life in Canada that they were considered baggage on passenger trains and accommodated without additional fees. Canoes were also the means by which some of the greatest Canadian art was produced by members of the Group of Seven such as Tom Thomson.

As for geography, legendary canoeist Bill Mason often pointed out that other commonly cited symbols of Canada – such as the maple leaf, the beaver, the moose or the loon – are only found in certain parts of the country, and some, such as the beaver, are hardly viewed with affection by many Canadians who have been victims of their devastating habits. And canoes allow Canadians to visit and explore remote parts of the country that are simply inaccessible by other means, educating them about the remarkable diversity and majesty of the Canadian wilderness. Politicians from Pierre Trudeau to John Turner and our current prime minister have all been ardent proponents of the canoe, attributing much of their in depth understanding of the country to their varied experiences paddling across the land.

Perhaps somewhat tongue in cheek, and with obvious personal bias, a previous general manager of the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ontario once claimed the canoe is “the perfect metaphor for the Canadian character. It’s not loud, pushy or brassy. It’s quiet, adaptable and efficient, and it gets the job done.”[iii]

Nor is the canoe today simply the recreational tool of the white upper class, as some critics have attempted to argue. With more than one million Canadians currently paddling their own canoe, and countless millions more individuals and families enjoying the occasional paddle with rentals located at virtually every accessible body of water across the country, the canoe remains one of the most popular and inexpensive recreational summer activities. It requires no specific athletic ability. And Canoe/Kayak Canada also provides federal grants to community organizations across the country offering programs to learn to paddle, focusing in particular on attracting new Canadians and those with disabilities.[iv]

In recent times the canoe has also played an important role in the reclamation of indigenous heritage. The famous Haida artist Bill Reid, for example, used the canoe as the subject for some of his most recognized works, including “The Spirit of Haida Gwai” black canoe at the entrance of the Canadian embassy in Washington, and the jade canoe at Vancouver International Airport.

Given the importance of environmental issues these days, it is self-evident that the phrase “my canoe runs on water” takes on increased meaning. Many lakes now have restrictions on powerboats. The canoe, (and its close cousin the kayak), meanwhile, are not only the quiet enemy of noise pollution but an excellent alternative to motorboats of all kinds, and especially gas guzzling sea-doos.   

Finally, the canoe can be seen as an aspirational metaphor for Canadian political culture more broadly. As anyone who has spent time at the Canoe Lake Outfitters in Algonquin Park will tell you, tourists from many foreign countries can often be seen sitting facing each other in their newly rented canoe, going around in circles and making no progress. Only when they are correctly seated– facing and pulling in the same direction, working in tandem, cooperating and compromising — can they achieve any of their objectives.   Luckily, canoe season is not yet over

[i] Cited in Roy McGregor. Canoe Country. (Toronto: Penguin Random House, 2015). p. 6

[ii] Loc. Cit.

[iii] McGregor. P. 7.

[iv] https://calgary.ctvnews.ca/new-canadians-learning-skills-and-belonging-through-learn-to-paddle-program-1.5481623