By Christine Smith (McFarlane)
TORONTO – Anishinaabe-Kwe Sylvia Plain – citizen of Aamjiwnaang First Nation and third year Political Science student at the University of Toronto – is passionate about water.
In July, Plain coordinated the Great Lakes Canoe Project which saw six youth from across Canada come together to build a birchbark canoe from scratch.
“I started the Great Lakes Canoe Project here in Toronto to encourage Anishinaabe peoples around the Great Lakes to start thinking about getting back on the water,” says Plain. “We need to learn about our waterways, the craft of building a birch bark canoe, and provide skills for future generations who will pass on our canoe culture.”
She explains that the project began in 2012 when she, along with other Anishinaabe from the group Tribal Canoe Journeys, was invited by the Squaxin Island Tribe in Washington State.
“We built a birchbark canoe and paddled in the Puget Sound. Our group gifted the canoe named Anishinaabewin, to the Squaxin Island Chief and Council, as a symbol of our friendship,” says Plain.
Housed in OCAD University (formerly the Ontario College of Art and Design) in Toronto, the youth started the project in a good way by working with Elders. They learned how to harvest the materials used to build the birchbark canoe, and how to put it together through teamwork.
Sage Petahtegoose, 19, citizen of Atikameksheng Anishnawabek, joined the project after seeing an advertisement.
“I wanted to check the project out because it seemed very thorough, and would teach me skills I didn’t know beforehand,” says Petahtegoose. “Sylvia taught me that this project wasn’t an office job, it was a project that offered firsthand knowledge of how to build a canoe and to learn the teachings behind it as we built it.”
Plain says that after the harvesting and preparation, the canoe took seven days to build.
“The birch bark canoe is a vessel for us to move on the water,” says Plain. Our first motivation is to work for the water. We hope through the canoes, and community canoe programs, we will begin to strengthen our roles in caring for the water. When you are on the water, you begin to see things from a different perspective. You start to understand what is in the water, what is beside the water, such as the fish, plants, food, medicines, you learn about navigation through the stars, water and weather conditions. The canoe journey is for the people and for our united vision for the Great Lakes and the future.”
Petahtegoose says that it is not a mistake that Plain invited youth in hopes of them getting more involved.
“I hope to bring the teachings to my community and also strike an interest in youth becoming more aware and more familiar with the way things used to be – the traditional teachings that we have in all aspects of being Anishnaabe or whatever Nation you are from,” says Petahtegoose.
Plain is hoping from the Great Lakes Canoe Project that participants will learn as much about the birchbark canoe as possible, and go home to encourage their families, friends and peers to take on similar projects.
“We hope communities around the Great Lakes will be inspired to start their own canoe journeys amongst themselves, and in the future to host other communities, and to visit one another. It would be amazing if all the communities could have a birch bark canoe,” she says.