Magic Canoe

By James Raffan

Early in the planning phase of what became Canada C3, Expedition Leader Geoff Green and I talked about the possibility of connecting a series of canoe trips on all of this nation’s major rivers that would meet up with a ship-based voyage circling the country from Toronto to Victoria. Sadly, although there are lots of canoe-based projects going on this year in this nation of rivers, we couldn’t pull that together in a way that made sense. Instead, Geoff suggested that we place a canoe in the main meeting space of the Canada C3 vessel. And that’s exactly what happened.

The Canadian Canoe Museum delivered to the ship in Toronto (thanks Mike Ormsby) a beautiful little handmade birch bark canoe, part of the world’s largest collection of canoes, kayaks and self-propelled vessels, that was suspended from the ceiling in the decommissioned helicopter hanger aboard the Polar Prince. On either side, we hung Baffin-style skin-on-frame qayaqs built at the Canadian Canoe Museum as part of a Students on Ice Foundation partnership project called Q is for Qayaq, northern expressions of the canoe idea as embodied by the classic birch bark canoe.

It wasn’t until the start of Leg 2 that we got the canoe properly installed in the hanger. But when it was all tied up with proper slings to see it safe through rough seas, I got the chance to explain that in a nation of rivers that nourishes a river of nations, the one device that First Nations, Inuit, Métis, French, English and New Canadians have in common, going back to the beginning of time on Turtle Island and taking us right up to the present day, is the canoe. As such, it is the canoe (in all of its expressions from coast to coast to coast) that connects us to the land and to each other. As a symbol hanging over the main meeting space on the ship, the canoe can serve to remind all Canada C3 participants that we are all ‘connected by canoe.’

There, of course, is more to say about that … but when someone asked what does a coastal journey like Canada C3 have to do with canoes and rivers, I reminded them of writer Rudy Wiebe’s image, so evocatively presented in his book of essays called Playing Dead: A contemplation on the Arctic, that Canada isn’t so much a network of rivers flowing to the sea as it is gnarled fingers of the sea reaching up to the alpine pastures in the Rockies. And, with a bit of word play, I asked them to imagine huge waves from three oceans crashing into Canada—cascades of wind-driven ocean from Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic that are flung high into the air as they connect with Canada. In the spray that is created by the force of that coastal intersection, the letters o-c-e-a-n swirl with the spray, resorting themselves into c-a-n-o-e, thereby providing the ideal vessel for continuing inland … in this nation of rivers called Canada.

Yeah, yeah … too cute by half. But somehow that canoe in the hanger, where all manner of discussions, tears, expressions of joy, exasperation and heart-warming harmony have flowed … that beautiful little birchbark canoe in the hanger has embodied the idea that Canada C3 participants are all ‘in the same boat’ and ‘pulling together’ is a way to reimagine our country and to engage the main themes of the project—youth engagement; diversity and inclusion; science and environment; and reconciliation—as the journey makes its way from community to community on this remarkable 150 day Odyssey around the longest national coastline in the world.

Of course, the bark vessel in the hanger is not the only canoe on board the Polar Prince. A loan from the Mason Family in Chelsea, Quebec has made it possible for another wee paddler to join the team. Paddle to the Sea—North America’s most famous canoeist— star of Holling Clancy Holling’s epic children’s story and Bill Mason’s most-viewed NFB film ever … Paddle is also along for the ride, taking dips in the ocean whenever he gets a chance. And then, in Miawpukek, the only Mi’kmaq community on the island of Newfoundland, friend of C3 and the Canadian Canoe Museum, Chief Misel Joe, gifted another exquisite locally-made bark canoe to Geoff and the Canada C3 team, with an encomium on the last day of the Pow Wow about how Canadians from sea to sea to sea are all ‘connected by canoe.’

The goodness of what is happening on Canada C3 has no single source, no single point of origin. Energy is flowing into and out of this project from the ship’s crew, from C3 staff, from the youth ambassadors and all the participants from across the country, and, of course, from the burghers of all the communities big and small who have welcomed the ship with open hearts. But I can’t help thinking that the canoe in the hanger is providing a bit of a focus, a nexus, an idea that is catalyzing or filtering through every discussion that is happening on or near the Polar Prince. And Exhibit A (so far) in what power the nation-of-rivers, river-of-nations, connected-by-canoe idea has for Canada is an anthem written in response to the first explanation of why there might be a birch bark canoeing hanging in the main meeting space on the ship.

Über Leg 2 musicians, Alex Cuba (my roommate … still can’t believe that!!!!), Andrea Menard (sigh …) and Heather Rankin (that voice, that VOICE) picked up the idea of canoe. They noodled it around as we made our way down the St. Lawrence River. There was a bit of a ‘developmental workshop’ on a rickty old school bus that took us to the Mohawk Community of Kanawak’e. They sang when we should have been sleeping. They recorded versions in a nasty little “studio” (closet) a few steps down from the quarter deck. And, when all was said and done, with the help of the C3 Comm’s Team they pulled off a bit of a “we are the world” recording session with all and sundry on the Flight Deck of the Polar Prince (#beststageincanada) with only minutes to spare before Leg 2 participants whirled into the same wind that blew in everyone for Leg 3.

Ladies and gentlemen, my bosom FB friends … here’s the result

Without putting too fine a point on the emotional effects of being part of this intense Sesquicentennial Project (which began hard on the heels of a very similar but much shorter and yet equally impactful Canada 150 journey called Connected by Canoe, I can say that having shared words and tears with many willing Canadians about reconciliation since the beginning of May, I’m having a harder and harder time singing O Canada. River of Nations is not a replacement but it’s a sovereign placeholder for now and just humming the chorus makes heart sing. Maybe by the time we add verses in Northern and Western Indigenous languages, to the French, English, Mohawk and Spanish verses that are there now, this ditty might be heading into anthem territory. For now, I’m quite sure it’s just the start of the canoe magic brewing aboard Canada C3. Lots more yet to come. Please join us and follow along (