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Indigenous Students Paddle Handmade Birch Bark Canoe On Speed River
by Tiffany Mongu · CBC News
The experience was an opportunity for youth to learn more about their heritage
From left to right: Will Truttenbach, Troy Pavis, Avaline Booth, Adison Evans, Appi Kumaluk, Chuck Commanda. Together, the five Indigenous students and Commanda built a birch bark canoe in a wood shop at John F. Ross Collegiate Vocational Institute in Guelph, Ont. (Tiffany Mongu/CBC)

Five Indigenous students from the Upper Grand District School Board (UGDSB) have built a handmade birch bark canoe and paddled it on the Speed River.

Mentored by longtime canoe builder Chuck Commanda, it took the students nine days — working seven hours a day — to craft the vessel. They used natural materials including spruce root, birch bark, cedar, ironwood and oak.

Commanda is an Algonquin Master Canoe Builder who hails from Kitigan-Zibi, Que. He is one of the few remaining people who continues to build birch canoes, traditional snowshoes and baskets.

He's kept the tradition alive for many years by visiting schools and museums to educate and share with community members important Indigenous cultures and traditions.

Chuck Commanda is an Algonquin Master Canoe Builder who hails from Kitigan-Zibi, Que. He is one of the few remaining people who continues to build birch canoes, traditional snowshoes and baskets. (Tiffany Mongu/CBC)

"The message I got from my ancestors from beyond was to bring it back to the communities," said Commanda.

Because his parents attended residential schools, there was a gap in passing along traditional knowledge. Instead, Commanda said he learned these skills from his grandparents.

"My grandparents, they continued that tradition from their parents and so on," he said. "I was one of 12 grandchildren that took it seriously, I became their helper. I was about 12 years old when I first started learning."

Commanda recalls his grandparents teaching him the value of harvesting, giving back to mother nature and sustainability. Today as he continues to pass down these teachings across Ontario, he finds younger generations are eager to be stewards of the land and protect it.

"I figured these kids can champion their local politician or at some point. Maybe we're looking at a future prime minister, or future environmental minister," he said.

"These words that we talk about when we're doing a canoe build will resonate with them later on in life."

Cedar was used for the inside of the canoe, pictured are Commanda and Kumaluk. (Submitted by Colinda Clyne )
Spruce root was used to make the threading on the canoe. (Submitted by Colinda Clyne)
This spruce gum was collected by the students and used on the outer parts of the canoe to prevent leaking. (Submitted by Colinda Clyne)
The group spent seven hours each day constructing the life-size canoe, all while using traditional Algonquin knowledge, building techniques and material. (Submitted by Colinda Clyne )
Final product of the birch bark canoe at Eramosa River, after the launch Wednesday. (Tiffany Mongu/CBC)

Students value preserving ancestry

For the students, the experience was more than just building a canoe, it was about learning more about their heritage and seeing the importance of preserving it.

"It feels so important to me to be able to go back to my original, traditional ways and [learn] these things as an Indigenous person," said Avaline Booth, 15, a high-school student from Centre Wellington District High School.

"I feel very honoured to be a part of this because it's traditional to who I am and it's just been like a great community [of] people that I've been able to meet and get to know and now, I'm so close to them," she said.

Avaline Booth, 15, from Centre Wellington District High School, enjoys her canoe ride with Algonquin Master Canoe Builder Chuck Commanda. (Tiffany Mongu/CBC)

For Adison Evans, who is going into Grade 10 at John F. Ross, the canoe is symbolic; it was her ancestors' only mode of transportation to travel.

"We need to remember that our ancestors could only travel in that way and how important it was to them, so it should still be important to us," she said.

"It's not about the canoe, it's about the teachings that came with the canoe and that's why it's so valuable to me."

Colinda Clyne, Anishinaabe Kwi also from Kitigan-Zibi, Que., said she was emotional when the first student got in the canoe because as curriculum lead for First Nations, Métis and Inuit education at the school board, it's her role to create these opportunities for students in the community.

Colinda Clyne, curriculum lead for First Nations, Métis and Inuit education at the UGDSB, settles in for a ride in the students' handmade canoe. (Tiffany Mongu/CBC)

"This is their birthright to have access to this knowledge and it doesn't happen in the system. My job is to try and make that happen for them. It filled my heart."

More learning opportunities needed

Booth said the project made her realize the importance of traditional Indigenous practices, and how vital it is for the school system to educate children about their Indigenous heritage.

"The school system right now, I find, is extremely colonized, ... It's not inclusive of other cultures," she said. "I feel it's extremely important to decolonize that system to go back and teach Indigenous children about where they come from and who they are."

Natalka Pucan, co-chair of the First Nations, Métis and Inuit Education Association of Ontario told CBC News that all Canadians should learn about the events that occurred in residential schools, since it's a matter of intergenerational grief, loss and trauma that continues to affect people in profound ways.

"Our kids are empathetic, and if we teach them the true history of this country, they'll help find a better way," she said. "We owe it to our kids to help them understand what happened in this country."

Clyne said the project was an opportunity to give the students access to traditional knowledge.

"I don't want the students to just go back to their schools, and this is the only Indigenous opportunity that they have," she said.

"I'm hoping that all of their teachers see this and then they start looking at how they might also include Indigenous content in all of their courses that they're taking."

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