Canoe builder Darren Lentz shares some of the techniques of building a birch bark canoe with youth during the June 12-14 Neechee on the Land Workshop on the Building of a Birch Bark Canoe on Mt. McKay in Fort William.

By Rick Garrick

Fort William and Neechee Studio presented the fourth “Neechee on the Land” workshop for youth on the building of a birch bark canoe from June 12-14 at Mount McKay.

“It’s been really great,” says Abby Pelletier, a youth worker with Fort William. “You just see that culture being brought back to life. It’s nice that they get to get a grasp on those skills and get introduced to them.”

Pelletier says the workshop included youth from Fort William and the City of Thunder Bay.

“It’s kind of like unity — we’re bringing people together,” Pelletier says. “We’ve always talked about wanting there not to be a division between the town and the reserve, so this is a nice way to do that.”

In addition to helping with the birch bark canoe, the youth also had opportunities to create birch bark scrafitto and a mini birch bark canoe during the workshop, which was held on the Fort William Pow Wow grounds. Birch bark scrafitto involves the scraping away of the outer layer of bark to create a design by exposing a different shade or colour of bark.

Aroland’s Shelby Gagnon, a fourth-year Lakehead University visual arts student, enjoyed working on the birch bark scrafitto project during the workshop.

“We are just drawing out some designs and then we are going to soak up the birch and then be able to carve out our designs,” Gagnon says. “I’m in art school, so we did this for print making. It’s kind of a similar process. It’s a really awesome program that we have going on here. I definitely want to be more involved in it in the future.”

Blake Evans, youth outreach liaison with Neechee Studio and a fourth-year Lakehead University visual arts student, says it was “very interesting” to learn the skills being taught at the workshop.

“Yesterday we were working on some scrafitto on the birch bark as well and making some mini birch bark canoes with more of the pliable (bark),” Evans says. “And a lot of the other people were doing lashing on the bigger canoe, just learning how to sew with the spruce roots into the canoe and learning about the different parts and mechanisms of how to shape the ends of the canoe. Piece by piece we were learning about the different parts that hold the canoe together and how it all works together to make the final product.”

Fort William also hosted three previous Neechee on the Land Workshops, included Sewing and Photography, Porcupine Quill Embroidery and Copper Embossing, with Neechee Studio during March, April and May though special funding from the Ontario Arts Council. The fifth and final workshop in the series — Graffiti Mural by Amanda Strong and Jeneen Frei Njootli, both from Vancouver, and Christian Chapman from Fort William — is scheduled for July 10-13 at Mt. McKay.

“It’s a wonderful project for youth,” says Gail Bannon, culture and recreation coordinator with Fort William. “Hopefully these programs plant seeds of interest with the youth that keep them going. And it’s bringing inter-city youth out on the land.”

Bannon adds that Fort William will be holding another birch bark canoe build this summer for five weeks beginning in July.

“This year will be our third canoe build with Darren (Lentz),” Bannon says.

Since Neechee Studio was initially started in 2013 at Definitely Superior Art Gallery in Thunder Bay, it has provided a fun and creative space for Indigenous and other youth to learn new art techniques from a wide range of artists.