Four birchbark canoes glided through Kejimkujik Lake, N.S., this weekend, leading a flotilla of paddlers there to celebrate a summer of canoe building.
Todd Labrador constructed the Mi'kmaq canoes by hand and had help from apprentices from Bear River First Nation for the two newest ones. Fourteen-year-olds Karlee Peck and Cedar Meuse-Waterman collected spruce roots, harvested bark and spent weeks transforming the raw materials into the 16-foot vessels.
Cedar's mother, Rosie Meuse, worked alongside them as they whittled then sewed the spruce root through the bark and shaped the hull with cedar ribs, using skills that were new to them.
More than a hundred people gathered in Kejimkujik National Park, 165 kilometres west of Halifax in central Nova Scotia, Saturday morning as the group took their first official paddle.
"It was beautiful, I loved it. They glide so nice... I felt like I was in a Ferrari," said Meuse as she slid into shore. "I can't wait for my next one."
Meuse said it was moving to see her daughter and Peck learn under Labrador's tutelage.
"It was amazing, I'll cherish it forever," said Peck. "It's definitely made me appreciate my culture a lot more. I feel like I took it for granted before, but I don't now."
On Saturday morning, the two 14-year-olds paddled in the canoe they built, accompanied by Carol Dee Potter, Bear River's chief.
"I feel proud after when I got out there… just taking it all in was really amazing," said Meuse-Waterman.
"It was really special to get it out and be out there with everybody. It paddled well, there were no leaks or anything. I think we're lucky about that," said Peck with a laugh.
One of the canoes will go to Bear River First Nation, the other to Annapolis Valley First Nation.
Potter said traditional skills won't be lost as long as people keep practising their culture.
"The power and the strength that was in that canoe, and the confidence in those girls … The ancestors, the spirits, were with us and I just give thanks to them," she said.
The canoe project was part of summer programming in the national park. Visitors were able to drop by Labrador's workshop in a converted kitchen shelter several afternoons a week.
"Where they built these canoes on the shores of Keji lake, they turned this space into being absolutely alive with culture, a sense of family and a sense of community and sense of fun," said park superintendent Jonathan Sheppard.
Labrador's family has paddled along the waterways in the area for generations. Locations through the park — like Jeremy's Bay and Luxie Cove — now bear the names of his relatives.
Labrador told the group assembled for the launch that he remembers running around the park as a youngster the day it opened in the 1960s. He was there with his father, the late Charlie Labrador, who was a chief of Acadia First Nation.
"Sometimes it takes a long time to get it right, but I think we're in the best situation now that we've ever been to getting it right," he said as he thanked Parks Canada staff before guiding the canoes into the water.
Though he joked that his hands and back are sore, Labrador said as he has aged it's become more important to share his craft and involve communities in his work.
"It's all about getting the word out there to let people know — across Mi'kma'ki, across Nova Scotia, and across the world — that we're still here. We've gone through hard times. But we're still here, we're still people and we have so much to share and offer."
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