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Canada A path forward: The reinvention of the Canadian Canoe Museum

A conceptual rendering of the Canadian Canoe Museum.

Heneghan Peng Architects and Kearns Mancini Architects.

Such sweet irony…

This vast former factory on Monaghan Road in the city’s west end was once home to Outboard Marine Corporation (OMC), the international company that grew out of Ole Evinrude’s 1909 invention of a three-horsepower engine that could churn a below-water propeller. Its existence meant hunters and fishers and campers no longer had to paddle to get where they wanted to be. OMC’s Evinrude and Johnson outboards were once so popular there were a dozen such factories in North America, with 8,000 employees and more than $1-billion in annual sales.

That was then; this is now.

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The Peterborough factory closed in 1990, not long before OMC declared bankruptcy. Today, the building is home to the Canadian Canoe Museum – celebrating the very thing Ole Evinrude’s invention was supposed to eliminate: paddling.

And on Monday, Canadian Heritage and Multiculturalism Minister Pablo Rodriguez was in Peterborough to announce a federal donation of $10-million from the Canada Cultural Spaces Fund that will go toward a brand new facility for the museum to be built next to Lock 21 on the Trent-Severn Waterway.

The Canadian Canoe Museum has room to showcase about 100 canoes and kayaks but its new facility will be able to display most of its collection of 600 water crafts.

Jeff Brooke

“A museum honouring the canoe should not be landlocked,” the minister told the gathering. “It should be connected to the open water – and soon this vision will be a reality.”

While the museum paid $1 to take over the old outboard factory in the mid-1990s, by 2022 it hopes to move into a dramatic, state-of-the-art facility that will cost $65-million. Even before the federal announcement, it had passed the halfway point of its fundraising goal.

The current structure is situated on a busy suburban street and cursed with a gravel parking lot, but the new museum will feature a “green” roof with walkways through more than 50 local plant species and a wildflower meadow. Inside will be a 30-metre chute of “rapids” down which children can send small wooden canoes. Apart from the canoes and artifacts on display, there will be three classrooms, workshops, a large rental space for weddings and special occasions and even a recording studio for the gathering of oral histories on the canoe. The parking lot will be paved. Organizers hope to have the first shovels in the ground by mid-summer. (An animated “fly-through” of the new facility can be found at www.canoemuseum.ca.)

For more than two decades, the old factory has served as a museum to the iconic canoe, a First Nations vessel that back in 2007 the CBC declared first of all in its national contest to name the Seven Wonders of Canada. (The six others were Pier 21, Old Quebec City, Niagara Falls, Prairie skies, the Rocky Mountains and the igloo.) There are 606 watercraft in the museum, the vast majority of them hidden away in a warehouse at the back of the museum.

The collection includes birch bark canoes that pre-date Confederation. There is a section for the Mi’kmaq legend of Glooscap and his stone canoe. There are “courting canoes,” including one with a fold-up gramophone capable of playing 78-rpm vinyl records.

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The displays cover everything from Pierre Trudeau’s buckskin jacket to a birch bark canoe built by legendary craftsman and Algonquin elder William Commanda. There are ancient canoes, working canoes and canoes owned by the likes of songwriter Gordon Lightfoot, filmmaker Bill Mason and artist Robert Bateman. Mr. Bateman’s green 12-foot canvas-and-cedar canoe, which is on display twice, once as it is and once in a painting, was built by May Minto, who once produced 25 canoes a year in the central Ontario village of Minden.

Display at Canadian Canoe Museum.

FRED THORNHILL

The collection is magnificent, where they are collected not so much. “This facility is so tired,” museum curator Jeremy Ward says.

The building and its accompanying warehouse were perfect, however, for the first assemblage of the hundreds of different canoes collected in the second half of the 20th century by Kirk Wipper. Mr. Wipper was a Manitoban who owned Kandalore Camp near Haliburton, Ont. He developed Kandalore into a premier “tripping” camp, sending mostly urban children into the Haliburton Highlands and Algonquin Park to spend days and weeks paddling and portaging under the care of trained staff.

Mr. Wipper, who died at the age of 87 in 2011, was obsessed by this First Nation vessel and began collecting a wide variety of canoes and kayaks from all over Canada. When he ran out of space at his camp, he took to storing them in barns and buildings around the province.

To him, the canoe was “the gift of freedom," as he once told the CBC’s Ideas program. Go on a canoe trip, he said, and “you are removed entirely from the mundane aspects of ordinary life. You’re witnessing first hand beauty and peace and freedom – especially freedom. … Flirtation with the wilderness is contact with truth, because the truth is in nature…”

It is a familiar sentiment among canoe trippers. Nearly a quarter-century before he became prime minister, a young Montreal academic named Pierre Trudeau penned an essay in which he argued, “Travel a thousand miles by train and you are a brute; pedal five hundred on a bicycle and you remain basically a bourgeois; paddle a hundred in a canoe and you are already a child of nature.”

One of Kandalore’s young campers was James Raffan of Guelph, who became equally entranced with the vessel and went on his first Algonquin Park canoe trip at the age of 8. Mr. Raffan spent 14 summers at the camp, eventually guiding long trips, and became a disciple of Mr. Wipper. He went on to guide trips throughout Northern Canada for Black Feather Wilderness Adventures, became a high-school teacher and then spent nearly two decades as a member and eventually head of the outdoor education unit at Queen’s University’s Faculty of Education.

Artisan paddles on display.

FRED THORNHILL

“I was deeply affected by a man who believed the canoe was the way into the country,” Mr. Raffan says, “that it was a metaphor for entering the conscience of the country.”

People in Peterborough stepped up when Mr. Wipper decided he had to do something with his enormous collection or it would be lost. They brought his canoes to the abandoned factory and began to establish a small museum. Mr. Raffan, who left Queen’s University in 1999, became involved and eventually served eight years as the museum’s curator. He is now deeply involved in promoting the new museum.

The project certainly has its support. Though it has yet to be officially deemed a national museum, as have Halifax’s Pier 21 and Winnipeg’s Canadian Museum of Human Rights, the Senate has declared the Canadian Canoe Museum “a cultural asset of national significance.” And Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, who became passionate about canoe tripping while attending nearby Lakefield College School in the late 1970s, is both a patron and serves as honorary chair of the museum’s national council.

“I believe this is a project of immeasurable cultural value and national resource,” the Prince has said.

Royal canoe display (canoes that royals have used in Canada).

FRED THORNHILL


While the federal grant was seen as pivotal toward moving into the actual construction phase, there have been plenty of other donors. Of the $65-million total, $30-million will come from private donors (the W. Garfield Weston Foundation gave $7.5-million, the Dalglish Family Foundation committed to $1.2-million and an anonymous donor recently gave $1.25-million). Another $30-million is from government sources. Along with the recent federal commitment, the province of Ontario has promised $9-million, the City of Peterborough $4-million and the County of Peterborough $500,000. An additional $5-million will come “in kind” from a variety of sources, including The Globe and Mail.

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For Peterborough, a city of 80,000 that lies between Ottawa and Toronto along Highway 7, the museum would bring new life to an area that has boasted such industries as Outboard Marine, General Electric, Quaker Oats and others, only to see some vanish and others reduce their work force. The new museum is predicted to produce approximately 1,000 jobs during its construction and to have an economic impact of more than $100-million by the time it officially opens.

Canoe manufacturing, in fact, was among the very first industries of the area, which was opened up to logging and settlement in the 1800s. So popular were the vessels built by the Peterborough Canoe Company that the word “Peterborough” often came to stand for “canoe” in North American paddling circles. The last Peterborough canoe to come off the line in 1947 was sent by the government of Canada to England as a wedding gift for Princess Elizabeth and her new husband, Phillip. It is now on exhibit in the museum.

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's canoe jacket.

FRED THORNHILL/The Globe and Mail

There is little debate over whether the canoe stands as a Canadian symbol as powerful as the beaver, the moose, hockey or Tim Hortons’ Roll-Up-the-Rim welcome to spring. Canoes were once counted as “baggage” on Canadian passenger trains, the trains stopping at designated drop-offs and pick-ups for hunters, fishers and recreational canoeists.

A former U.S. ambassador to Canada, Ray Atherton, wrote back in 1947 that, “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.”

Perhaps the best description, however, was by a past general manager of the museum, Janice Griffith, who called the canoe a 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.”


The Canadian Canoe Museum, Mr. Raffan says, is in the process of “re-inventing” itself. “What,” he asks, “is a museum in this particular time?” It is a question museums around the world are facing, some with more success than others.

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“It’s really going through an evolution,” adds Carolyn Hyslop, the museum’s executive director.

“It’s about re-location and re-invention,” says Mr. Ward, the current curator. “And re-thinking our relationship with First Nations, Métis and Inuit across the country.”

To that end, the museum has appointed Robin Binesi Cavanagh its first director of Indigenous Peoples’ Collaborative Relations. Mr. Cavanagh is a member of Sagamok First Nation on the north shore of Lake Huron, as well as a graduate of Peterborough’s Trent University. He was previously senior policy adviser with the Chiefs of Ontario.

The current museum and the future museum stand on the traditional territory of the Williams Treaties First Nations, which includes the Chippewas of Beausoleil, Georgina Island and Rama, and the Mississaugas of Alderville, Curve Lake, Hiawatha and Scugog Island. Mr. Cavanagh’s job is not only to liaise and consult with those First Nations, but to reach across the country to Indigenous groups.

Historic Native Indian canoe on display at Canadian Canoe Museum.

FRED THORNHILL

“Not all of those relations have always been great,” Mr. Cavanagh concedes. “But there never has been an instance where somebody says ‘Give me my canoe back or I’m not going to speak to you.’”

In this time of truth and reconciliation, ownership is undeniably an issue for the canoe museum, just as it is for cultural artifact collections around the world. Jessica Dunkin, a Carleton University instructor who studies the culture of sport and leisure and is herself an avid paddler, writes in the current issue of Canada’s History magazine that the European explorers and settlers inarguably appropriated the First Nations invention. The canoe, she writes, “enabled the expansion of European economies and the colonial state, expansion that infringed with devastating consequences on the lives, lifeways and lands of Indigenous peoples.”

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It is, however, a complicated issue. “The canoe is an object with a complicated past,” Ms. Dunkin writes. “It has long been, and continues to be, a symbolic tool of settler colonialism. But it also remains a symbol and tool of Indigenous nationhood, resilience and resurgence.”

Mr. Cavanagh and others at the museum are dedicated to the latter description. When the award-winning design team was selected – Heneghan Peng architects of Dublin, Ireland, working with Kearns Mancini Architects of Toronto – the museum had the designers spend three days meeting with Indigenous advisers. Talks were frank, at times heated, but the design team listened.

“We have to create relationships,” Mr. Cavanagh says. “We have to sustain relationships.”

Curve Lake First Nation leaders have held smudgings for the canoes in the warehouse. Last summer, Chuck Commanda, grandson of renowned Algonquin builder William Commanda of Kitigan Zibi, gave a 15-day workshop on building a birch bark canoe using only the traditional methods. In the future, welcoming ceremonies will be held for any future canoes and artifacts coming to the new facility. There are Indigenous staff, volunteers and, on the museum’s national council are such native leaders as Matthew Coon Come, former Grand Chief of the James Bay Cree, Chief Phyllis Williams of Curve Lake First Nation and Victoria Grant of the Teme-Augama Anishnabai Qway, former chair of Community Foundations of Canada.

Young students look at canoes.

FRED THORNHILL

“Together we need to learn, understand and acknowledge our shared history,” Ms. Grant says. “We can’t do that without first knowing and understanding the impact of the canoe in Canada’s story, from those very early times when the first visitors came to our shores. The Canadian Canoe Museum provides us with an opportunity to learn, to feel, to smell, and to see the canoe in its diversity and endurance.”

“The canoe must be seen as more than an artifact,” Mr. Cavanagh adds. “Here, canoes are thought of as inanimate objects, but to First Nations, canoes have their own spirits.”

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Mr. Mason, who was not Indigenous, obviously felt similar. As he wrote in Path of the Paddle, “The first thing you must learn about canoeing is that the canoe is not a lifeless, inanimate object; it feels very much alive, alive with the life of the river. Life is transmitted to the canoe by currents of air and the water upon which it rides. The behaviour and temperament of the canoe is dependent upon the elements: from the slightest breeze to a raging storm, from the smallest ripple to a towering wave, or from a meandering stream to a thundering rapid.”

Mr. Cavanagh is convinced that this “re-invention” of the Canadian Canoe Museum will be a national success, not just a local attraction, and that those who created the vessel being honoured here will feel that the museum is doing justice to the history and traditions of the First Nations canoe.

“We will find a path,” he says, “just as water finds a path.”

Just as the Canadian Canoe Museum finds its own path to be, finally, on the water itself.

Roy MacGregor is a member of the Canadian Canoe Museum’s national council.

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