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A birchbark canoe builder's watercraft will be displayed in Gatineau, with a story that goes back generations

Todd Labrador works to carefully get under the bark of a birch tree for harvesting purposes in Queen’s County, N.S.

On a small crest of sand off the Wildcat River, Mi'kmaq master builder Todd Labrador launches his birchbark canoe into the sepia-hued water. As man and canoe glide with barely a ripple, it's clear how Mr. Labrador earned his Mi'kmaq name, Amalkat Sam'qwanijtuk – One Who Dances on Water.

It was here in the Wildcat community – a Mi'kmaq reserve that's part of Acadia First Nation, 150 kilometres south of Halifax – where Mr. Labrador's great-grandfather, Joe Jermey, also built and launched canoes. It's where his shrewdness not only saved his grandchildren from residential schools, but in doing so, also preserved a vital part of Mi'kmaq culture and heritage: how to build a birchbark canoe.

Today, Mr. Labrador's 16-foot birchbark canoe, built with help from his daughter and his twin grandchildren at nearby Kejimkujik National Park in 2015, is a key part of an exhibit opening Canada Day at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau to celebrate 150 years of Confederation.

Todd Labrador, left, gets help stripping bark from boiled spruce roots from his grandchildren Nakuset, centre, and Tepkunaset, right, as his son-in-law and the children’s father Corbin Hart spools the roots at their home on the Wild Cat Reserve.

"The canoe not only represents a powerful connection to the past and traditions that have existed for thousands of years, but it represents that these traditions are still being used to reinforce community, they're still being used to reinforce rights to land and of course they're still being used to reinforce relationships to family," said Matthew Betts, curator of Atlantic Provinces Archaeology at the Canadian Museum of History.

To many Canadians, the canoe is an icon of First Nations culture and colonial exploitation. The story of how birchbark canoe-making survived in Mr. Labrador's family began on what's now just a plot of long grass surrounded by tall pines next to the Wildcat River.

Joe Jermey had a workshop here and built baskets, mast hoops and birchbark canoes to earn a living. As Mr. Labrador tells it, back in the 1950s, Joe Jermey raised his grandson Charlie Labrador, who was Todd Labrador's father. On many days, Joe Jermey smoked his pipe and split spruce roots for sewing baskets and birchbark canoes while several of his grandchildren frolicked nearby.

A photo of Joe Jermey, Todd Labrador’s great-grandfather, is seen in a photo album.

On multiple occasions, however, his meditative state switched to alarm when the tell-tale black car of "Indian agents" drove up the community's single dirt road. They were arriving to seize the children and take them to Shubenacadie Indian Residential School, 60 kilometres northwest of Halifax and the only residential school in Atlantic Canada.

From his perch, Joe Jermey yelled to his grandchildren, including five-year-old Charlie, to run and hide in the woods. "It was like scared little rabbits running for their lives," Todd Labrador said. "They would spend days in the woods."

Joe Jermey would then argue with the white men in black clothes – telling them his grandchildren already attended a one-room schoolhouse on the reserve and there was no need to send them to a residential school. Somehow, he avoided jail time, which was the threat if parents refused to co-operate.

Corbin Hart teaches his twins Nakuset, left, and Tepkunaset how to use a curved paddle to remove winter bark from the body of a birch tree.

The survival of birchbark canoe-making in Mr. Labrador's family rests on this pivotal moment in time.

"If it hadn't been for my great-grandfather hiding the kids in the woods, I wouldn't be building canoes today," Mr. Labrador said. "My father was able to retain the knowledge that was passed on to him because he was here."

Joe Jermey didn't expressly teach young Charlie how to build a birchbark canoe. But he grew up around it and retained knowledge through exposure, much like how Todd Labrador and his daughter Melissa Labrador now involve her twins, five-year-olds Tepkunaset and Nakuset, at her home near the Wildcat River.

Todd Labrador, right, and his daughter Melissa paddle the Rocky Run section of the Wild Cat River in one of his birchbark canoes.

However, Charlie – who went on to become the chief of Acadia First Nation – did teach Todd some of the art of building a birchbark canoe, from gathering spruce roots to harvesting bark to bending wood. The rest he learned from other First Nation canoe builders and elders in Canada.

Today, Todd Labrador lives most of the year on Vancouver Island with his wife, but regularly returns to his ancestral home in southern Nova Scotia. When he's here, he travels around the Maritimes sharing his knowledge and teaching others how to build Mi'kmaq birchbark canoes.

His daughter is his long-term apprentice, and Tepkunaset and Nakuset, who are home-schooled, are always in tow. As a family, they harvest huge rolls of bark off century-old birch trees. They dig hundreds of feet of spruce roots in the forest. (Seven-hundred feet are needed to build just one birchbark canoe.) And in the workshop in Ms. Labrador's yard, they boil spruce roots and split them, in order to use them to sew birchbark canoes. Tepkunaset and Nakuset are at their feet, frolicking and joining in now and then to gleefully peel bark off freshly boiled roots. From bow to stern, the entire canoe-making process takes about 400 hours.

Todd Labrador straddles the draw horse while shaving wooden pegs to hold the canoe’s gunwale cap in place.

"When you have something that very few people have, then you have a responsibility – and that is you've got to share it and make sure that it's passed on," Mr. Labrador said.

As he splits spruce roots and paddles through the dark water, his connection to the land and his great-grandfather is more visceral than what can ever be shown in a museum: "A very good warm feeling follows me and it's a very soothing, comforting feeling. It's like he's right there. Even though I can't see him, I know he's right there."