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    The Grandfather Akwiten canoe

In 2009 a traditionally-crafted canoe completed a unique 180-year voyage across oceans and generations to be welcomed by the Maliseets of St. Mary’s First Nation with a smudging ceremony, drumming, chanting and dancing.

Grandfather Akwiten canoe
I was fortunate to view the Grandfather Akwiten canoe when it was exhibited at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton.

"We are Wolastoqiyik people, and that means people of the river,” said Candice Paul, chief of St. Mary's First Nation, at the occasion. “So the canoe is the symbol of who we are and it represents us as a people."

Named The Grandfather Akwiten Canoe, it had been crafted in the 1820s with wood from the New Brunswick forests. Its traditional construction required birchbark to be shaped over cedar ribs, then attached with black spruce roots, and sealed with pine resin and bear grease. Along its length the canoe also included hand-sewn buoys that were decorated with flowers and fiddleheads; decorations that are still used by Maliseet canoe-makers.

mi'kmaq canoers
Here's what it might have looked like back in the day, on the water.

Stephen Augustine, a Mi'kmaq hereditary chief from New Brunswick, declared this six-metre canoe the oldest and one of the largest Maliseet cargo canoes he had ever seen. He said it spoke highly of aboriginal technical prowess.

"It has endured 200 years and this technology and indigenous science attest to how well the indigenous thinking has survived," said Augustine.

Maliseet chiefs meet clergy by the Wolastoq River
Maliseet chiefs meet clergy by the Wolastoq River

The story of its survival is complex and traces back to 1825 and British army captain Stepney St. George. He had been stationed at what was then the colony of New Brunswick at a time when the Miramichi Fire had devastated the colony, leaving about 15,000 settlers homeless. It is likely that St. George helped Governor Sir Howard Douglas with the relief effort.

When he left the colony, St. George shipped three canoes, including the Grandfather Akwiten, to his family's historic home, Headford Castle in Galway County where it remained for over two decades. These canoes had likely been used to transport military personnel, surveyors and furs up and down the Saint John River.

Unfortunately, St. George died from famine-related disease in 1847, and the canoe ended up at the National University of Ireland where it remained into the 21st century, essentially gathering dust in storage. Luckily, the canoe had been stored above an open staircase where the dampness of the Irish climate allowed the bark, ribs and spruce root lashing to remain moist and intact.

In 2003 geology professor Kathryn Moore began investigating the origins of this ancient canoe and established its Canadian aboriginal roots. After some negotiations, the canoe was shipped from Ireland to the Canadian Museum of Civilization for restoration. By 2009 the refurbished Grandfather Akwiten canoe was shipped to Fredericton to be the featured guest of honour at an exhibition held at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery.

The National University of Ireland has indicated that the canoe can stay in Canada on loan to the New Brunswick Museum.

Maliseet logo

Adapted from a Government of New Brunswick release

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