Please don't call my beloved canoe a 'symbol of cultural appropriation'

canoes at the lake
© K Martinko -- Canoes at my childhood home

As a Canadian who's been paddling longer than I've been walking, I take issue with the suggestion that we should view the canoe as a product of theft and genocide.

Canadian author Pierre Berton famously said, “A true Canadian is one who can make love in a canoe without tipping.” While I cannot claim expertise in that particular area, I do know that I learned to canoe before I could walk, which should be another fair claim to being a true Canadian.

My parents, who were avid canoeists, bundled me up in a tiny life jacket and tucked me safely between the rear seat and the stern of the boat. There I sat happily for hours, while they explored the lakes of Muskoka and Haliburton, the beautiful rugged region of Ontario, Canada, where I grew up. My parents still chuckle about the time when I was two and fell out of the boat. My uncle, who was padding behind, reached out with his paddle, caught the back of my life jacket, and dropped me into his canoe, dripping wet.

As I grew older, living on the edge of the lake, canoeing was as natural to me as biking is to other kids. I paddled to friends’ houses to play. I paddled to look for loons’ nests and snapping turtles, to fish for small-mouth bass and pick water lilies. As a homeschooled kid, I’d often pile my schoolbooks into the bottom of the canoe and paddle to a sunny, south-facing rock to do my studying. Over the years, I mastered the J-stroke, which keeps the boat in a straight line, and learned to maneuver with ease, regardless of the lake’s conditions. I grew comfortable carrying it on portages while camping in the forest.

canoeing with kids© K Martinko -- My children are also growing up surrounded by canoes.

So you can imagine my surprise when I turned on CBC, Canada’s national radio station, and heard someone saying that I had no right to feel so connected to this gentle and beautiful mode of transportation. Misao Dean, a professor of English at the University of Victoria, stated in an interview that the canoe should no longer be viewed as a “morally untouchable” symbol of what it means to be Canadian because that “obscures” the truer narrative of theft and genocide that, according to her, we should all be thinking about while canoeing.

I can only guess at what Dean thinks about while canoeing, but I know my own thoughts certainly do not include inward cackling over the atrocities my white ancestors inflicted on First Nations people, nor gleeful delight at having ‘stolen’ their form of transportation. When I do think about it, I feel tremendous sorrow. Instead, while paddling, I marvel at the natural world around me and the silence of my boat; I feel fascination at the thought of the people whose lives once depended upon this; and I’m filled with a profound sense of peace.

Dean claims that the canoe is a symbol of cultural appropriation because most canoeists are white privileged males, all highly educated. That has not been my experience. My family, while white and educated, had very little money; my parents scrimped and saved to buy their first lightweight canoe. We were year-round residents of a village that emptied in the off-season, part of Haliburton County, one of the poorest in the country. Many of our friends paddled the wilderness lakes in our region, and nobody had much money. Some of the canoes were homemade; the (white) man who still lives down the road is a rare and respected builder of traditional birchbark canoes — an art that most people don’t care to learn these days.

'Appropriation' itself is a tricky term to use, as it suggests taking without permission, and yet many of the early settlers to Canada were taught how to move on the land by First Nations guides. The canoe was less about ownership than logic; it was the only way to travel in the centuries before roads and motors were created.

Despite the many years of integration, Dean suggests that non-natives should employ alternative methods to get to their destination, such as hiking and motorboats -- an absurd suggestion for those of us who live far from the urban centres where intellectuals ponder these cultural questions. Some places have not changed much in 300 years and are not accessible on foot or by motorboat, such as my south-facing study rocks. And even if a motorboat were a possibility, it is far more destructive to a lake’s sensitive ecosystem than a canoe, so why on earth would that be considered a logical solution? It hardly seems respectful of the beautiful territory that once belonged to First Nations people, if that is what she’s so concerned about.

What better way is there to honor the native people of my region, and to forge better relations for the future, than by embracing the canoe? It has become my heritage, too; it’s in my blood now and I will treasure it forever, passing it on to the next generation of young Canadian canoeists.

Tags: Boats | Canada


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