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August 21, 2009

Paddling Your Own Canoe 2009

Last week I wrote about Mattawa’s Roger Labelle who makes beautiful birch bark canoes.  I mentioned that I would write about his son Marcel and his return to his native roots.  Marcel’s father is French and Algonquin and his mother French and Iroquois.  Roger’s father’s family made canoes in the past. Roger was a businessman and fur harvester and began to make canoes later in life.

Marcel Labelle and  Samuel de Champlain canoe Excursion member in Marcel’s canoe arriving on Explorers Point Mattawa Aug. 7 

Marcel grew up on the trap line north of Mattawa during the harvest season and at the Fur Harvesters in North Bay in the late 1980s.  I spent a fascinating day on his trap line with him 20 years ago.  When the anti-fur campaign hit, his business collapsed and he struggled to survive.  He attended Nipissing University and graduated with a degree in Environmental Studies.  He took related work and moved with his wife Joanne and their 2 children to Arthur Ontario where he had a good job.  They opened a flower shop as well.  The kids grew up and got married and Marcel felt he was “dying.”

Samuel de Champlain canoe Excursion members, plus Marcel Labelle (left) in front of Marcel’s canoe at Mattawa Museum.

 He began to go back to his native roots and went on a Vision Quest trip with a friend.  He quit his job and began making birch bark canoes and became an advocate for the native way of life.  His sincerity and commitment paid off and he was soon speaking in schools, selling his canoes and making a go of it.

By 2009 he had as much work as he can handle.  His canoes take upwards of 600 hours  to build which fills his time when he is not busy on his other work.  The quality of his canoe work won him the highest Ontario Arts Council Aboriginal Grant given recently and he is in demand in schools and elsewhere.

He is currently making the parts for hundreds of small birch bark canoes he will use in his visits to schools to show children how they are made and to talk about the native way of life.  Last weekend he was at the pond at Harbourfront in Toronto putting on a morning and afternoon presentation.  He is at Trent University for 10 days now as a teacher in an intensive 10 day overbooked summer course that examines indigenous knowledge from a holistic “on-the-earth” perspective.He works regularly on a canoe project in Kitchener

He was asked to visit the parliament buildings recently where he proposed building  a canoe on the parliament grounds and it is being considered. He had the honour of attending the 95th birthday party for William Commanda the famous Elder and canoe builder from Maniwaki Quebec  at the Museum of Civilization.
Marcel has his own website www.birchbarkcanoes.ca where you can see articles on him, his school and other schedules and information on canoe building etc.  He goes by his native name Mahigan (Wolf) which Elders gave him. He can be contacted at  mahi_gan@hotmail.com
French Canadian Canoe Excursion

The Ontario Ministry of Culture sponsored a 400km Samuel de Champlain canoe excursion from Huronia on the shores of Georgian Bay to Mattawa in late July.  When I heard about their arrival in Mattawa August 7th I arranged for them to visit Roger Labelle and see the birchbark canoe he was completing that I wrote about last week.

Some Excursion members chatting with Roger Labelle about his canoe at his home in Mattawa.

Coincidentally son Marcel and his wife (along with their birch bark canoe) were visiting Marcel’s dad and mom and were camping on  Mattawa Island near his parents home.  Again, coincidentally, the 6 members canoe brigade decided to camp there overnight prior to a Mattawa arrival party at the Mattawa Museum on Explorer’s Point the next day.

Marcel met the group and since they had abandoned their birch bark canoes for more modern ones asked him to join them in a gesture reminiscent of the past, in their entrance to the Point.  One of the brigade members joined Marcel in his canoe and participated in the celebration.  Marcel’s dad was there for the celebration with speeches and food  put on by the Museum. The group went to see Roger’s canoe in progress later, asking questions, taking pictures and ending an experience of a lifetime for 6 young French Canadian men and women.

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