High School Donates Birch Bark Canoe to the Aquatarium

Birch bark canoe handoff

L-R: David Sheridan, Thousand Islands Secondary School (TISS) Principal Gordon Cooke, Aquatarium Executive Director Bill Rogerson, Janet and Chuck Commanda.

Brockville ON – Thousand Islands Secondary School (TISS) has donated a birch bark canoe built by students in a Native Studies class to the Aquatarium. The canoe was built with Algonquin First Nations Canoe maker Chuck Commanda as part of a class project at the Brockville high school.

The 12-foot canoe will also be used as a “working artifact” such as it was during a maiden voyage in the St. Lawrence River during the city’s Tall Ships Festival in 2013 and participate in similar events. “It’s a practical working artifact at the Aquatarium,” said retired TISS art teacher David Sheridan whose Native Studies class for the Upper Canada District School Board created the canoe with Commanda. The canoe will be exhibited as part of the otter exhibit which features a painted mural of the animals’ Thousand Islands habitat. “This would be very much what would be plying the St. Lawrence waters hundreds of years ago,” said Sheridan. “It’s a perfect fit.” Aboriginals called the Thousand Islands Manitonna or “Garden of the Great Spirit” long before European settlers explored the St. Lawrence River in the 1600s.

Commanda learned his unique craft from his grandfather Chief Dr. William Commanda, a famous native elder and recipient of the Order of Canada. Chief Commanda built a similar birch bark canoe for Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau in the early 1970s. “I remember when Trudeau came to get it,” said Chuck, who was 10 at the time when Trudeau arrived at his Kitigan Zibi First Nation in Maniwaki Quebec. “He greeted us before anyone else.”

Commanda’s great-grandfather Charlie Smith taught William how to make canoes, passing the craft through the generations. William, since passed away, blessed the Human Rights Monument in Ottawa along with the Dalai Lama and presented Nelson Mandela with an eagle feather in 1998 on behalf of First Nations people. Chuck, near Renfrew Ontario, said he is happy his family’s tradition will pass on the history of Canada’s aboriginals to students and Aquatarium visitors. The canoe is made from the bark of birch trees and its seams are sealed by heated spruce gum and animal fat. Chuck’s wife, Janet, also took part in the TISS project, teaching students the craft of birch bark basket making.

The canoe has been displayed at the Brockville Museum since its 2013 voyage. “We want to give the Brockville Museum credit for taking such good care of it,” said Sheridan, adding it was created to be a working canoe for aboriginal studies students at TISS and Upper Canada District School and will be used as such in its new role and new home.

TISS Principal Gordon Cooke praised the canoe project “as a physical embodiment of collaboration between the school and community groups. It’s a tangible result of what can happen when schools and communities work together.”

“We are thrilled to display this important artifact,” said the Aquatarium’s Executive Director Bill Rogerson. “To know that local students received such an authentic learning experience creating the canoe makes it all the more important to us. It aligns nicely with our commitment to lifelong learning where we encourage critical thinking and continued learning. The birch bark canoe will be proudly displayed in the otter habitat where it looks right at home.” The Aquatarium is a 25,000-square foot interactive, learning and discovery centre located on the shore of the St. Lawrence River that will focus on building awareness and appreciation for the 1000 Islands region by inspiring curiosity through experiential learning.

For more information please contact:
Trish Buote, Director of Development
613 246-1927

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