Canadian Canoe Art

Artist Bill Reid said:

“Western art starts with the figure: West Coast Indian Art starts with the canoe.”

Perhaps the most famous Canadian canoe artwork ever produced is the Spirit of Haida Gwaii, subtitled “The Black Canoe” by Bill Reid.  It appears on the Canadian twenty dollar banknote.

“Here we are at last, a long way from Haida Gwaii, not too sure where we are or where we’re going, still squabbling and vying for position in the boat, but somehow managing to appear to be heading in some direction; at least the paddles are together, and the man in the middle seems to have some vision of what is to come.”

Starting in the late 1700s, Europeans became interested in acquiring souvenirs from North America.  This metre long war canoe by Jean-Baptiste Assiginack, was made circa 1820.
Assiginack, a chief of the Ottawa (Odawa) Nation, carved and painted these wooden figures (originally seven) with distinct facial features  representing real people known to Assiginack, among them a distinguished orator, a chief, and a warrior. Assiginack provided the paddlers with leggings, breechcloths, garters, sashes and feather head-dresses; one even has a tiny pair of moccasins. According to the Canadian Museum of Civilization, the canoe itself is much older than any of the Museum’s full-sized bark craft and its painted decorations on both bark cover and wooden framework are of an unusual type that is very rare in ethnographic collections.

Frances Anne Beechey Hopkins painted during her travels by canoe accompanied by her husband who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company. Led by voyageurs, Hopkins travelled the routes of the fur trade.

Tom Thomson was a skilled canoeist and the wilderness of Ontario was a major source of inspiration. Beginning in 1914 he acted as a fire fighter and guide in Algonquin Park in Ontario. During the next three years he produced many of his most famous works, including The Jack Pine and The West Wind.  Thomson featured his canoe in two of his paintings and there were several photographs of him by his canoe.  Coincidentally enough, Thomson was believed to have drowned after falling from his canoe although it was never recovered.

From the blog

“…debates about his canoe are less well-known. What kind of canoe was it? Where did it end up? Was it somehow responsible for Tom’s death? All we know is that the vessel tipped over at some point, and Tom was found with a suspicious head wound and an even more suspicious length of fishing line bound around his left leg 17 times. There was a campaign to recover the canoe in 1930 at Camp Ahmek, but none of the canoes investigated were Tom’s. This seems to have been the last attempt to rescue the vessel.”

Emily Carr (1871-1945), painted Indian War Canoe while visiting Alert Bay near the Broughton Archipelago in 1912. This painting depicts a large canoe bearing an image of a wolf. In the background, two large sculptures and a totem pole occupy the space in front of the houses. The canoe, displayed in the public square at the entrance to the village, was one of three old war canoes commemorating the history of the Kwakiutl nation (now Kwakwaka’wakw).

Walter J. Phillips made several woodcut prints including this one during a stay at Kingcome Inlet in 1933. Phillips, an art teacher originally from England, was inspired by   his travels to the west coast and some of his art was later published by the Hudson Bay Company in their magazine, “The Beaver.”  The Hudson Bay Company held a retrospective of his work in 1970.

“I once enjoyed a long canoe trip with a professor who was very sure of his knowledge, but denied that there is colour in stars or in the aurora, that there is a patina of blue in a distant landscape, and that colours are reflected on adjacent surfaces. He was blind to half the beauty of nature.”

The Lost Art of Cree Birch Bark Canoe building

Cree elder Noah Custer  agreed to build a full-sized sixteen-foot Cree canoe for the Museum of Manitoba in 1967. Apart from the length, he was given no other specifications as the Museum wanted to be sure that the canoe was a purely Cree canoe, uninfluenced by any other design. The whole process was photographed and documented by a local amateur historian Doug Evans.

In 2008, Evans published his book, Noah’s Last Canoe: The Lost Art of Cree Birch Bark Canoe Building. This book is a must read for anyone interested in birch bark canoes. Evans was a thorough note taker, even the stitching is thoroughly explained.

This video, taken in 1971, follows a 67 year old Cree elder as he takes down a birch tree and makes a canoe.  What a feat!

César’s Bark Canoe by Bernard Gosselin, National Film Board of Canada

To learn more about the craft of canoe making,