The Politics of the Canoe

By Ian J. MacRae

Edited by Bruce Erickson and Sarah Wylie Krotz, University of Manitoba Press, 2021/$27.95/272 pp.

When Justin Trudeau was photographed, by his carefully positioned media team, solo paddling a red canoe down the Bow River in Calgary on September 17, 2015, ostensibly travelling to a federal leadership debate on the economy that evening, it is not a stretch to say he was hoping to paddle into Canadian history. The ascendant politician was building a brand, generating images that doubly encoded his father’s genealogical and political inheritances, while channeling accessible tropes of history and place. Simply enough, Trudeau was putting into practice the politics of the canoe.

As this edited collection of 10 academic essays makes clear, the place of the canoe in “popular”—mythical, colonial, mainstream—narratives of nation is currently a contested space. It is an important subject closely tied to much of what is unique and challenging and often in need of re-vision, in settler–Indigenous relations, which is to say in Canadian history and identity. The Politics of the Canoe seeks to enlarge these conversations, both culturally and historically, and to politicize the various meanings and modalities of the canoe and “canoe culture.” That it manages to do so is no small feat.

The range of subjects is significant—from the famed voyage of Don Starkell and sons from Winnipeg to the Amazon, to the politics of dam-building on the Petawawa River, to the Tribal Canoe Journeys, the large gatherings that draw northwest coast Indigenous peoples together, linking youths and Elders and putting Indigenous protocols and lifeways into practice.

The Indigenous-centred essays in this book are both necessary and convincing. They assert Indigenous senses of sovereignty regarding the role and history of the canoe, putting forward the notion of the canoe as an animate being, a member of the family, and foregrounding the role canoes play in economic, social and cultural resurgence. As Heiltsuk Hereditary Chief Frank Brown said at the “Paddle to Seattle” in 1989, “The canoe is the cornerstone of our culture on the Pacific coast.” Essays on canoe-building in Algonquin territory, on Chinook peoples paddling the Salish Sea, and on Tłįchǫ journeys between Great Slave and Great Bear Lakes, known as “The Trails of Our Ancestors,” make clear this is true elsewhere in Turtle Island.

Several essays present a collaborative vision of Indigenous knowledge holders, organizers and activists working with academic researchers to create compelling, interdisciplinary, multi-voiced narratives. As one writer notes, the canoe activates a cross-cultural space, bridging the distance between cultures and between people and the land. The best writing about the canoe does much the same.

Ian J. MacRae is an associate professor at Wilfrid Laurier.

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