Algonquin ‘guardians’ explore culture one spruce point at a time

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Members of an Indigenous land stewardship group in Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg have taken on an ancient challenge for themselves.

Since 2016, the Land Needs Guardians program has grown with groups of appointed guardians in many First Nations across Canada to help monitor and care for lands and waters.

They call themselves the “moccasins and mukluks” on the ground for their communities, managing protected areas, testing water quality and working to restore animals and plants.

In Kitigan Zibi, a group of three Guardians learn to build a birchbark canoe, just like their ancestors, and Algonquin elder Pinock Smith guides them with decades of experience.

Pinock Smith shortens a hand-shaped piece of cedar that will become a gunwale, or the top edge, on this birchbark canoe. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Smith has built dozens of traditional birchbark craft over the years and many are on display in museums and homes across the country.

It’s not just the craft’s buoyancy – Smith said building a birchbark canoe using ancient methods would elevate its builders.

And he won’t take credit for the ingenuity with which materials from the forest were transformed into a light, durable and repairable craft.

“I would try to walk on water if it were up to me,” he joked. “But I’m very proud of it, my ancestors did it. … It makes you proud of your ancestry and it comes back to you too.”

Caretaker Dolcy Meness prepares a piece of cedar for her boat. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Dolcy Meness, 21, is learning to prepare roots to use as ‘thread’ and says the course has rediscovered knowledge about the Algonquin’s connection to the land, which she calls ‘amazing’.

“Our elders won’t be here forever,” said fellow Guardian Blythe Commando. “We won’t be the broken link [between the past and the future].”

Guardians must harvest all materials from the earth, including the spruce oil and sap that seals the birch seams, the spruce root that binds them together, and the white cedar that provides light strength.

Any reasonable amount of care will keep a well-made canoe in good condition for 100 years.

Blythe Commando uses a pull knife to thin out a piece of wood for the gunwale of the canoe. (Stu Mills/CBC)

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