Mi'kmaq History and people: Transportation and the birch bark canoe

By J Benwah

je'sn penwa
Thunder Cloud

Pjila'si (welcome),

The first thing I think about in reference to our aboriginal ancestors traveling long distances is the world famous birch bark canoe.

These vessels were also used to cross from Cape Breton to Newfoundland, which was a traditional extension of their hunting and trapping territory.

On July 18, 1999 Saqamaw Mise’l, along with Donny Benoit, Gerard Jeddore, Andrew Joe, Ricky Jeddore and Sulia’n Joe made the journey from Cape Ray, Ktaqmkuk to Chapel Island proving that these journeys were not only possible but regular when they traveled the ancestral voyage from Unama’kik (Cape Breton) to Tuywegannmikuk (St. Paul’s Island) to Baie St-George or Cape Ray and towards Conn River.

The Jesuits said this of the birch bark canoe and the Mi’kmaq ability to travel:

“…they do this easily through the skillful use and great convenience of canoes, which are little skiffs made of birch-bark, narrow and closed at both ends, like the crest of a morion; the body is like a large hollow cradle; they are eight or ten feet long; moreover so capacious that a single one of them will hold an entire household of five or six persons, with all their dogs, sacks, skins, kettles, and other heavy baggage. And the best part of it is that they can land wherever they like, which we cannot do with our shallops or sailing boats; for the most heavily-loaded canoe can draw only half a foot of water, and unloaded it is so light that you can easily pick it up and carry it away with your left hand; so rapidly sculled that, without any effort, in good weather you can make thirty or forty leagues a day; nevertheless we scarcely see these Savages posting along at this rate, for their days are all nothing but pastime. They are never in a hurry. Quite different from us, who can never do anything without hurry and worry; worry, I say, because our desire tyrannizes over us and banishes peace from our actions.”

Our people were very adaptive and as a result embraced some of the French lifestyles. The men quickly learned to build larger boats with sails that could travel farther and take more individuals than the traditional canoes.

The University of Cape Breton’s Mi’kmaq timeline records the building of the fishing schooner by a Mi’kmaq family in St. George’s Bay, Newfoundland, beginning in 1822. Ship’s registry in St. John’s records the vessel as the “Jane”. It was a twenty-six ton, one deck, and double mask schooner. It measured 38 feet 2 inches Registered to Francois Benoit, Sr., the Jane, was commissioned in August 24, 1824. It was lost in stormy weather in 1851. The Captain of the ship was Francois Benoit, Jr., whom is my great great grandmother Jane (Genevieve)’s father. Our forefathers could never of imagined that today we would be traveling across the gulf in such large super ferries with so much ease.

Welálin (thank you).

Compiled by Jasen S. Benwah

Local Mi'kmaq Researcher

Cape St. George, NL.(Ktaqamkuk)

Wantaqo'ti, (peace).

As appeared in The Georgian Newspaper, May 25-31, 2004


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