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Canada by Water


The Canadian Canoe Museum; The Launch of a new era

The canoe, one of Canada's most enduring symbols, will finally get the home it deserves. After a multiple-year closure, the Canadian Canoe Museum is preparing to reopen at a new location (2077 Ashburnham Drive) on the waterfront of Little Lake in Peterborough, Ontario, about 118 km (73 miles) from Toronto. The newest cultural destination—of enormous significance to the people of Canada—is anticipated to welcome guests in late summer or early fall, perhaps in time for National Canoe Day (June 26).

More than meets the eye: The canoe is often associated with the fur trade and the romantic figure of the voyageur, but often overlooked is that it is also a symbol of resilience, resurgence, and nationhood for Indigenous Peoples. It has a rich and complex history, deeply intertwined with Canada itself. According to Jeremy Ward, curator at the museum, “Whether the stories they tell are of ancient connections to waterways, the latest high-tech innovations at the Olympics, or they are expressions of cultural reclamation, pride and endurance of Indigenous Peoples today, canoes let us form new understandings of connections to our environment, other people and ourselves.”

Story repository: The Canadian Canoe Museum has spent more than two decades stewarding the world's largest collection of canoes, kayaks and paddled watercraft. Numbering over 600, the specimens and their stories represent an important element of Canadian heritage. The museum was declared a cultural asset of national significance by the Senate of Canada in 2013. However, despite its importance, the old museum was limited by a lack of suitable space and inland location: less than 20 percent of its collection was displayed, and on-water programming was restricted.

Gathering place: The new two-hectare (five-acre) site features inspiring views of Little Lake and connects to the Trans Canada Trail, the longest network of multi-use recreational trails in the world. It's surrounded by public parks, and will be a gathering space for community activities, including canoeing and other outdoor programs. As it is situated on Treaty 20 Michi Saagiig Territory, the dialect of Anishinaabemowin – the language of the Michi Saagiig – will be used throughout the building, along with English and French.

Natural flow: The building's design, overseen by Ontario-based Lett Architects, is inspired by craftsmanship, with natural elements used to honour the connection between the land and the art of canoe-making.

Within its two storeys and 65,000 square feet, the building will house a Collection Hall displaying watercraft in a controlled environment; a 17,000-square-foot Exhibition Hall; a lakefront events centre; a canoe-building studio for youth and adults; an accessible library and research room; and a café with fireplace and lakefront terrace. Importantly, the building has water access that includes docks and an accessible launch area for kayakers to explore the waters.

Birth of an icon: While the history of the canoe stretches back millennia, with roots tied to many regions of the world, its construction was perfected by the Indigenous Peoples in Canada. Before the 19th century, the Indigenous of the Eastern Woodlands (stretching from the northeastern coast of present-day US and the Maritimes, to west of the Great Lakes) used the canoe as their primary means of water transportation; during the fur trade, voyageurs adapted the traditional vessel as a means of forging Canada's rivers and waterways.

Form and function: The different shapes, sizes and materials of canoes reflect the region's diverse Indigenous cultures and their relationship with the land. According to the Canadian Canoe Museum, “In the history of watercraft, the canoe of the Aboriginal Peoples is perhaps the ultimate expression of elegance and function. All of its parts come from nature, and when it is retired, it returns to nature.” It's also a symbol of sovereignty, resurgence and resilience. Today, Indigenous Nations are reclaiming the canoe through canoe-building and paddling their ancestral routes.

Cool collection: The Canadian Canoe Museum's collection features massive West Coast cedar dugouts, different styles of kayak skins, and bark canoes representing First Nations cultures across Canada. There's also a canoe that belonged to former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (father of the current prime minister), and royal canoes that Canada gifted to Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in 1947, and to Charles and Diana in 1981.

Journeys by canoe: Besides visiting the new museum, there are many ways visitors can experience the canoe and Canada's vast landscapes. There are paddling routes in every province, which can be experienced on a guided tour or at your own speed. Popular routes include the Nahanni River in the Northwest Territories, which winds through cavernous canyons and mountain ranges, and past the imposing Virginia Falls (twice the height of Niagara Falls); the Missinabi River, a Canadian Heritage River in Ontario, which features challenging rapids alongside stretches of placid water and beautiful scenery; and the Bowron Lakes Circuit in BC, where paddlers cross glacial lakes in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains.

Proper paddling: Visitors should ensure they adhere to Leave No Trace principles as well as learn about Indigenous history and traditions while enjoying Canada's open spaces. Questions visitors can ask, research, and reflect on before a canoe trip are: On whose traditional territory do I wish to canoe? What are my obligations as a visitor? And, What are the protocols I must follow while paddling here?

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