The canoe is Canada’s original and preeminent social innovation. There is no other invention that has impacted us so profoundly and for so long. The canoe defines us as Canadians. It is relevant to every nook and cranny of the country whether you are an urban or rural dweller, whether you are First Nations, settler or newcomer. And whether you are using a birch bark, clipper, Kootenay or cedar dug out canoe or a kayak or bidarka.
The canoe was of course a technological innovation. The early explorers could not negotiate the country with their heavy, clumsy vessels. They quickly turned to the birchbark canoe. This adaptation of a local technology by white explorers has no counterpoint anywhere else in the world.
The canoe was a commercial innovation too. Can you imagine the Northwest or Hudson Bay empires without them? 25 foot freight canoes could be portaged for hours by just two men.
The canoe was also a transportation and communication innovation. How else could you get the word out across vast stretches of water and land? How else could such a small number of Europeans gain control over the northern half of a continent? The answer – through a partnership among First Nations and Europeans that was largely based on the canoe.
Which brings me to the canoe as a social innovation. Canoes are the original, collaborative vessel. You won’t get anywhere without learning to paddle together,literally and figuratively. Even though you may paddling with those you don’t like, don’t know or don’t respect. The canoe facilitated a sense of community and helped imprint a social contract of egalitarianism, inclusion and peacemaking. We survived and thrived in a harsh climate with a small population and limited resources, thanks to the presence of the canoe.
We will reach the just society we desire only by paddling together.
'Canoe Journey Along the Coast' by Eric Parnell. Available at Indian Art from the Edge
It is as if God made the canoe and then set about creating a country in which it could flourish. That country was Canada.
Bill Mason as quoted in the excellent book, Canoe Crossings by Sanford Osler
Give me a canoe and let me go.
The Canoe Song by Saskatchewan’s preeminent songwriter/singer Connie Kaldor.