People, Environment, History
Canoe Cousins: How Building a Wiigwaas Jiimaan Brought Anishinaabek Youth Together
Curated by Vanessa Cunningham
Storytellers: Dawson Bloor, Gracie Crafts, Kyla Judge, and Taylor Judge
December 22, 2021
On the cool, overcast morning of October 25th, 2019, members of the Georgian Bay Anishinaabek Youth (GBAY) gathered at the water’s edge of eastern Mnidoo Gamii (Georgian Bay). They were there to launch Oshkinigig, a wiigwaas jiimaan (birch bark canoe), that they built over 20 days. Dawson Bloor, Gracie Crafts, Kyla Judge, and Taylor Judge are all members of GBAY. They shared their stories with me about this particular day, as well as the entire building process. As much as their stories were individually unique, they are also collectively linked. During our conversation, they recalled memories of this time together, filling the space with their bright, heartwarming laughter.
Prior to the launch, Gracie, who was lead Fire Keeper for this event, lit the sacred fire. Everything seemed to happen quickly after that. “We carried the jiimaan down to the water, then we had a ceremony, we sang songs and we offered our tobacco, and we announced Oshkinigig’s name for the first time; the next thing you know we’re all throwing on life jackets and we’re all getting ready to paddle the jiimaan,” described Kyla.
In groups of two, three, and sometimes up to five, they pushed Oshkinigig off from Old Town Beach in Parry Sound and into the tranquil, grey-blue waters of the inlet for an inaugural paddle. Oshkinigig took to the water well, her deep and rounded hull carrying many paddlers, helping her to glide smoothly. “Not very many people were comfortable paddling a canoe in general, and the jiimaan especially, because you don’t want to be the person that breaks the jiimaan on the first day,” said Taylor. “You don’t want to be the person that tips over for the first time,” added Kyla. “No one tipped but that kind of would have been funny. The water was so cold that day…”. Back on the shore was an enthusiastic crowd made up of family, relatives, friends, colleagues, and students from surrounding First Nations communities, as well as other spectators from the town. They were all there cheering, feasting, and celebrating this monumental moment.
It was quite the day for everyone. Powerful, emotional, and overwhelming were all words that Gracie, Kyla, and Taylor used to describe their experiences. Although the launch was an all-around success, it took a lot of work to get there and involved a fair share of challenges. Organizing and managing all the logistics was a major challenge that GBAY members did not expect. A particularly difficult component was getting an actual fire in place for the lighting of the sacred fire since the municipality of Parry Sound has bylaws in place that prohibit fires in public spaces without a permit. “There were a lot of hoops we had to jump through. Even having a fire, did we need a permit for that? What does that look like? All of these things that to us were normal, having a sacred fire, but we had to consider bylaws and you’re like well that would have never been an issue, but you know, now it’s just how it is,” explained Gracie. Kyla agreed, “I’ve never had to do anything to request to have a fire on public property because everything I’ve done with regards to fire, has been on a First Nation.”
In addition to the fire permit protocols, there were also restrictions as to who was allowed to paddle Oshkinigig. Many students from Parry Sound High School came to the launch event. Unfortunately, many of them were unable to paddle Oshkinigig due to policies and procedures of the boards of education. “None of those students were allowed to go in the water, they weren’t even allowed to paddle because of the school board liabilities. They all would have had to have swim tests, and only a handful of them did. Otherwise, they would only be allowed to paddle if their parents signed them out of school, and that is just what they did, they didn’t go as a student down to the launch,” explained Gracie.
Not being able to give everyone at the launch the experience to paddle was disheartening. Of the people that were allowed to paddle, for some it was their first time paddling, ever. Despite the deep rooted cultural practices of canoe building and paddling, many of the Anishinaabe people that participated – including both youth and adults – never had these same kinds of opportunities as their ancestors because of historical and ongoing colonial policies, including the Indian Act which banned all First Nations’ cultural practices from 1884 to 1951, and continues to have consequences for First Nations peoples today. “There were so many of us that didn’t have a connection to being on the water in terms of canoeing and kayaking, and that’s another conversation. It’s about Anishinaabek people not having those opportunities to build our capacities and skill sets as people of the water,” said Kyla.
The process of creating a wiigwaas jiimaan was an important step toward changing recent history and required community to make it a reality, from start to finish. The idea came from Elders, knowledge holders, and community members, who shared a goal to build a birch bark canoe and support youth in the process. In partnership with the Georgian Bay MnidooGamii Biosphere, they received funding to do just that. The initiative brought together over 200 people from different communities, and a core team of 10 builders, who all supported each other through the process of building Oshkinigig. It was nothing short of a collective, intergenerational effort that included toddlers, youth, adults, and Elders. “It was just so cool to see community come together. I think it’s been a long time since we’ve had community come together in such a big way, so unitedly from everywhere,” said Taylor.
People really did come from all over so that they could be a part of it. For example, there were youth who explicitly said that they had very little connections to their Anishinaabek identity that decided to participate. “For some reason they just decided, ‘hey I’m gonna go to Parry Sound for the month of October and stay with my aunt who I haven’t seen in years and I’m just gonna go build a birch bark canoe with these people I’ve never met in my life’,” said Kyla.
Others, like Taylor and Gracie, traveled from Ottawa and Peterborough where they study at postsecondary institutions. Initially Taylor planned to stay for the weekend, but that quickly changed upon her arrival. “I stayed for the day, and I was just like oh my gosh, this energy, just being here, this something that I need to do. So I emailed all of my professors that night and I’m like ‘I’m not coming back until I’m done.’ How long is that? I’m not sure, I’ll be back eventually, probably, hopefully,’” she said. Taylor and Gracie did not abandon their studies and instead upheld their responsibilities to both their university and wiigwaas jiimaan studies. “I remember one day, Gracie and I were both just in the corner, we both wanted to be there, but we both had things to do like studying for midterms, writing exams and assignments. So, there we were, sitting in the corner, wrapped up in blankets, hats, mitts, winter coats, and we’re studying in the corner at the canoe build,” laughed Taylor.
Building Oshkinigig took place inside the large, watercraft garage at Sail Parry Sound. It was an intensive process that called on the physical, mental, and emotional strength of everyone involved. The weather was cold, which was not only uncomfortable, but also made certain tasks difficult, such as bending the ribs of the canoe, which is usually done in warm, humid conditions. The days were long, usually averaging between 10 and 12 hours, and all the skills they were learning were very new. Other than the building team, there was a constant influx of people made up of school groups coming for a tour, curious beach walkers, and other community members bringing food, coffee, and whatever else was needed. “It was almost a potluck every day. People would bring coffee, tea, all sorts of food, lots of doughnuts, lots of timbits, muffins, and all sorts of coffee. People would just bring food; hardly anyone showed up empty handed,” described Kyla.
The result was Oshkinigig, a beautiful wiigwaas jiimaan with her own life and agency. “Once something is given a name that’s not a human being, they have a spirit of their own and they’re their own person,” explained Gracie. Oshkinigig smells of cedar and is flanked on each side by two 12-foot pieces of beautifully etched winter bark. It took members of the canoe building team until 4 am, only a few short hours before the launch, to finish the etching. “Winter bark is a really gete (old) Anishinaabek, method and process of knowledge documentation and sharing. When the time came for us to begin the winter bark etching, we quickly realized that very few of us had that skill set. Those of us that were interested in winter bark etching on Oshkinigig had to practice and show the lead canoe builder, Kevin, as mistakes cannot be erased on winter bark. All of us were put on the spot and given a scrap piece of winter bark to test our etching skills. If someone’s etching was not up to the standards of the teams, then that person was not allowed to etch at all, which happened to quite a few people,” explained Kyla.
Not only is Oshkinigig a tangible being to see, smell, feel, and touch, but she also represents and holds the knowledge, cultural practices, and relationships that went into building and caring for her. It took the skill of many hands and hearts to bring Oshkinigig to life, and the collective effort cannot be emphasized enough. Coming together to work on a common goal created deep, meaningful connections, especially among GBAY members who led the initiative. “It took an immense amount of community work. I remember by the end a bunch of us were like ‘we’re all canoe cousins now’. We all have this one thing in relation to us all,” said Gracie.
Oshkinigig is now two years old, and since the launch day, many people have had the chance to paddle her thanks to the efforts of Gracie, Kyla, Taylor, Dawson, and other GBAY members who travelled around to communities with Oshkinigig throughout the 2020-21 summers. She also went on a multi-day paddling trip around Wasauksing First Nation, where she had a handful of firsts including portaging and landing on rocky beaches. Being on this trip with Oshkinigig provided a chance for reflection and conversations about the ancestral connections to paddling and place. “It’s also interesting thinking about how our ancestors did this?Or, when was the last time a birch bark canoe would have done a route similar to what we did? So it was very interesting for us and it was really cool to hear kids and youth asking, ‘I wonder when was the last time this lake has been paddled by a birch bark canoe? I wonder if my great grandparents did this?” said Taylor.
The presence of Oshkinigig among the First Nations communities of Mnidoo Gamii is helping to normalize the wiigwaas jiimaan. This is significant for many community members, and especially for younger generations and those involved in Oshkinigig’s caretaking. “They know it’s special but to them, it’s just a normal part of their life, they know the seasonal responsibilities of caring for Oshkinigig. This is really cool because when I was that age there was nothing like that. There was nothing happening that was close to that,” says Gracie.
Oshkinigig currently lives at Killbear Provincial Park. She is continuously cared for by GBAY and other community members and receives many visitors who come to marvel at the remarkable craftsmanship and reflect on all that she stands for in the past, present, and future.
Dawson Bloor: Dawson is from Wasauksing First Nation of the marten clan, and is a Youth Advisory member of GBAY.
Gracie Niizhogiiziskwe Crafts: Gracie is from Wasauksing First Nation of the marten clan, and is a Youth Advisory member of GBAY. Gracie is also a student at Trent University where she is a Senior Fire Keeper and studies Indigenous Environmental Science.
Kyla Zhowshkawabunokwe Judge: Kyla is from Shawanaga First Nation of the marten clan, and is the Coordinator of GBAY. Kyla also works at Georgian Bay Biosphere Reserve.
Taylor Nanowaygahkekwe Judge: Taylor is from Shawanaga First Nation of the marten clan and is a Youth Advisory member of GBAY. Taylor is also a student at Carleton University where she studies Law.
To learn more about Georgian Bay Anishinaabek Youth and to follow their work, visit: