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The Birchbark Canoe

WabanakiBirchbarkCanoe 1720 1780 Credited to Paul VanDerWerf

Wabanaki Birchbark Canoe (1720-1780) - Credited to Paul VanDerWerf

The birchbark canoe served as a major means of transportation as well as a fishing vessel for many of the Indigenous peoples of North America. Birchbark canoes are handmade from all-natural materials harvested from birch trees, with the frame often harvested from cedar trees. There is a complex interplay between the arts, science and engineering that goes into the planning, design and construction of a birchbark canoe. Unlike the synthetic canoe which is formed in a mold and has layup applied to improve its strength, the birchback canoe is made by carefully piecing its various components – birch bark, ribs, planks, gunwales – together, under the directive of the lead builder.

Marcel Labelle, a renowned Metis artist who is passionate about reconnecting Indigenous people with their roots and culture through the knowledge of birchback canoe construction, began a birchbark canoe-building project in March 2017 at the University of Ottawa. Marcel grew up in Mattawa where he spent a great deal of his childhood trapping, learning “ how to live with and from the forest (“Birch Bark Canoes by Mahigan”, n.d.).” He pointed out that having knowledge of trees and wood is an essential asset for a birchback canoe builder. It enables the builder to recognize and harvest the right quality material at the right time.

When building a birchbark canoe, some key design considerations are its efficiency, manoeuvrability, and durability, which can be achieved by adjusting some elements such as the length, beam, hull, and materials used.

Some of these design elements are discussed below:

Length: This is the end to end horizontal distance between the stern and the bow. The longer the canoe, the faster it paddles through water, although its increased length leads to decreased manoeuvrability.

Beam: This refers to the width of the canoe. The stability of the canoe on water is associated with this design element. An increase in width creates a more stable canoe, but generally causes a decrease in speed.

Depth: This refers to the distance between the top of the stern and the bottom of the boat. Increasing the depth increases carrying capacity, which in turn enhances its balance on water, making it easier to paddle.

Hull Profile: The type of hull profile of a canoe can greatly influence its behaviour on water. A flat bottom hull has great initial stability, but would easily capsize due to wind or waves. A round bottom hull is the opposite. They have very poor initial stability, but good secondary stability. Adjusting these shapes to create a shallow hull gives the canoe the desirable characteristics of both the flat and round bottom hull.

Marcel Labelle graciously shared his knowledge as he guided the students and volunteers through the steps of building a birch-bark canoe at the University of Ottawa. First, they rolled out the birch bark on a wooden template and secure it with rocks. Then they placed a prefabricated frame on the birch bark to form the floor of the canoe and then rolled up the back around the frame, securing it with stakes. The participants in the construction project performed different tasks under the direction of Marcel Labelle, working together to gradually construct a beautiful birchbark canoe.

BirchBark2 With Permission of Marcel Labelle

Birchbark Canoe in the making- With Permission from Marcel Labelle

Marcel Labelle explained that Indigenous ways of thinking are holistic, so when building a birchbark canoe, the technical aspects are integrated with the spiritual. Every canoe has its own spirit name, which is revealed to the builders during the material collection process. The canoe built at the University of Ottawa has the spirit name of Nbi Aki. Nbi means water and Aki means land.

Nbi Aki Birch Bark Canoe With Permission from Marcel Labelle1

Nbi Aki, Birchbark Canoe- With Permission from Marcel Labelle


The Art of Canoe Building. (n.d.) Retrieved April 15, 2018, from

Birch Bark Canoe. (n.d.) Retrieved April 15, 2018, from

Canoe Design. (n.d.). Retrieved April 15, 2018, from

Park, J. (February 14, 2017.) U of O students learn how to build a birch-bark canoe. Retrieved April 15, 2018, from

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