He’s a M’ikmaq who builds birch bark canoes, and during this summer he apprenticed Mi’kmaq youth. Where he taught them was at the Millbrook Cultural and Heritage Centre in Millbrook, Nova Scotia. The apprentice program was called the Mi’kmaw Birch Bark Canoe Builder Live Exhibit and Youth Apprentice Program. It started on June 5th and had run for 6 weeks.
What’s interesting is that Todd Labrador had never built a canoe with his own hands until he learned from a German Nova Scotian.
Todd Labrador had learned from his dad, Charlie Labrador, what materials to harvest and use, but his dad had never assembled those materials into a canoe. Todd’s grandfather, Joe Jeremy, had taught Todd’s dad to gather and prepare the materials, but not how to craft those materials into a canoe.
The name of that German boat builder was never mentioned by the Globe and Mail nor by the CBC. Either only emphasized that he had learned from other Mi’kmaqs.
In an interview with Beverley Ware of the Halifax Herald on Tuesday April 7th 2009, which was called “Transforming bark to boat“, Todd mentioned the German boat builder:
This interview isn’t stored in the online archives of the Halifax Herald. The website archives only go back to 2012.
Instead Dr. Daniel Paul, a Mi’kmaq, had made a copy of the interview on his website.
Transforming bark to boat
By BEVERLEY WARE South Shore Bureau
Tue. Apr 7 – 7:21 AM
HEBBS CROSS — With toughened hands, Todd Labrador threads a stripped, wet piece of root from a spruce tree through a hole in the top edge of the birch bark and pulls it out the other side.
It takes effort to yank the entire length of tree root through the hole, and then he lifts it back over the lip of the canoe and threads it back through the birch bark again from the outside.
“It’s hard work, it is,” Mr. Labrador said. His daughter Melissa usually does most of the sewing. She develops calluses as she threads over 15 metres of root over the course of a couple of days. Mr. Labrador is Mi’kmaq and learned the ancient art of making birch bark canoes from his father, Charlie Labrador, who learned from his grandfather, Joe Jeremy.
His grandfather died in 1961, a year after Todd Labrador was born, “but I always heard stories about him from my father,” he said. “I became fascinated by it quite young.”
His dad showed him how to collect birch bark, dig up tree roots and bend wood, but Charlie Labrador had never made a canoe.
Todd Labrador’s desire to do that took him to Halifax in his early 20s where he got his first lessons from, of all people, a German man living there. “He was fascinated by the First Nations culture,” Mr. Labrador said, and he set him on his path.
“I made a lot of mistakes,” Mr. Labrador grins, but he was an enthusiastic student.
He began by making models that ranged from one to two metres and as he did so, he continued to learn from books, his father and by asking elders for their advice.
Today, he has three canoes in a large workshop behind his white and red pine log home, which sits on the edge of Minamkeak Lake in Hebbs Cross, just west of Bridgewater.
Inside the shop, the gentle smells of pine, spruce and ash warm the senses. As he works, Mr. Labrador can watch the wind toss the grey lake water. The ice is gone now, and he’s looking forward to taking one of these canoes down to the water’s edge.
Students from native and non-native schools come here to see the two canoes he made for his family, watch him work on the five-metre canoe that will be ready for launch this June, and learn about the Acadia First Nation.
On the wall over the expansive window hangs a worn birch bark canoe, its old green paint scuffed away in parts. It was made about 100 years ago and given to him by a friend who knows of his passion. “For me, it is a wealth of information. I study it. I look at it.”
It takes him back in time; imbues him with patience and respect.
“If you work with things, they teach you, if you allow them to, and if you go about it in a respectful way. If you’re trying to force a piece of birch bark or a piece of wood, it will break on you. If you think about it, work with the material and respect the material, it is amazing what you can do with it.”
The two finished canoes are works of beauty. Their bark is bleached by the summer sun; they are concrete images of a culture that honours nature.
His craft extends to etching petroglyphic-like pictures onto slate and making drums from deer and moose hides that are stretched over spruce frames, and then painted with designs important to native culture.
He has made seven full-sized canoes that are in such places as the Bear River Cultural Centre in Queens County, Glooscap Heritage Centre in Millbrook and a little museum in Les Ormes, south of Paris, France.
“I’d like to have a bunch of canoes that I can take out, show to people, get people in them and using them and learning about native culture. It’s important to me that they know and that I involve as many people as I can, especially the youth.”
He hopes to take them to the International Canoe Federation’s world championships at Lake Banook this August. But his immediate goal is to make an ocean-going birch bark canoe. It will be bigger — about 6.5 metres — and have a raised hump in the middle.
“It’s something in me I have to do.”
A German who was living in Halifax, Nova Scotia, had known how to build a birch bark canoe because he was “fascinated with First Nations culture” and he had taken the time to teach Todd Labrador. A German Nova Scotian had valued First Nations culture, and his name should be mentioned in today’s narrative of reconciliation between all Canadians and the First Nations.