Todd Labrador

The Art and Spirit of the Bark Canoe

Date:June 2016

Todd Labrador, the only practising Mi’kmaw canoe builder, a cultural archaeologist who seeks to learn, understand and preserve his people’s traditional knowledge and world-view. He’s also a graphic artist, whose work is rooted in the ancient petroglyphs carved in the Nova Scotia rocks.

Todd Labrador is a respected and celebrated traditional Mi’kmaq canoe builder, in fact he’s the only one still practicing the craft. In this exclusive Green Interview he speaks with Silver Donald Cameron about the painstaking process involved in making the traditional birch bark canoes and how he hopes it will help to preserve the knowledge and worldview of his ancestors who lived sustainably on the east coast of Canada for millennia. Labrador is also an artist who paints and makes traditional drums decorated with designs derived from the ancient petroglyphs carved in the rocks of his Nova Scotia homeland.

Family History

Todd Labrador learned the ancient Mi’kmaq art of making birch bark canoes from his father Charlie Labrador, a respected leader and first chief of the Acadia First Nation who died in 2002. Though Charlie never made a canoe himself, he remembered the stories and how it was done by watching and listening to his own grandfather, Joe Jeremy Labrador, who raised him and died in 1961, a year before Todd was born. Joe Jeremy was a master canoe builder and Todd grew up hearing the stories about his great grandfather and became fascinated by them. Joe Jeremy continues to serve as Todd’s guide and inspiration.

Birch Bark Canoes

Todd Labrador’s father, Charlie was five years old when he remembers the last canoe being built by his grandfather Joe Jeremy. If it weren’t for Todd taking up the craft the tradition would likely have been lost. Charlie taught Todd that the birch bark had to be a certain quality and special thickness: about an eighth of an inch thick. “On most trees the bark is paper, so it’s a matter of finding the right thickness,” he explains, “and then you can build a canoe.” Charlie also taught Todd how to find and collect the right birch bark, dig up spruce tree roots, split them into long cords and how to bend wood, but Charlie had never actually made a canoe himself. His knowledge came from listening and watching his grandfather Joe Jeremy make canoes. While Todd was fascinated by the stories he needed some practical guidance and took canoe-building lessons from a German boat builder in Halifax. “It took a long time to gather the information and learn the skill because it’s difficult to learn how to bend a piece of wood from a book…it’s something you have to learn yourself and the material will teach you because if you’re not using that material with respect, it’ll break,” says Todd. Today some of his canoes are housed in several major museums in Canada and in France.

Mi’kmaq Petroglyphs

The largest collection of petroglyphs found in eastern North America are found at Kejimkujik National Park and National Historic Site. The Mi’kmaq have lived in what is now Nova Scotia for millennia and their culture and worldview are depicted in these slate rock carvings. The images of people, animals, hunting and fishing, and the decorative motifs of the time represent a culture and an art form. Todd Labrador etches replicas of Mi’kmaq petroglyphs as a way to keep the art form alive. “When I build canoes sometimes I’ll put them on the winter bark—the hunting scenes on my canoes and also when I make drums I’ll use the petroglyphs,” he explains. “It’s very important to us and when you really look at it, it’s an old, really old form of art but with our art today we’re keeping that tradition going.”

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