Birch bark canoe returned to master builder's family almost 50 years after it was made

·3 min read

Isabelle Hardlotte was with her sister while the large, narrow, brown box was being unloaded.

As the box opened, the birch bark canoe her grandfather built almost 50 years ago was back with his family where it belonged.

Isaiah Roberts built the canoe in the 1970s. It was part of a project to teach the next generation and was filmed to capture the process.

The film My Last Canoe, featuring Isaiah Roberts and his family, was meant to be an educational tool to document the process of a master canoe builder.

"The summer of 72, I was about 11-years-old, and I do remember a media crew there every day," Hardlotte said. "And helping my grandmother search the bushes, the woods for spruce root that she used on the canoe."

Hardlotte said it took almost the entire summer — about eight to 10 weeks — to build, plus gathering the wood took months in the spring.

"I'm not even sure who commissioned him to build it. But after it was built, the powers that be then asked for it," Hardlotte said. "They did take the canoe away and we had never seen it again."

Decades later, a now-retired professor found the canoe in the basement of the University of Saskatchewan's anthropology department, said Terrence Clark, a professor with the university's archaeology and anthropology department.

The now-retired professor emailed faculty members about the canoe. That email made its way to Hardlotte's sister, Rose Roberts, who works at the university.

The anthropology department and family connected and on Oct. 21, the canoe was returned to them.

Submitted by Terence Clark
Submitted by Terence Clark

Hardlotte said it solved a bit of a mystery.

"We've always wondered whatever happened to the canoe. We knew it was somewhere," Hardlotte said.

"We've been told that it was at the Western Development Museum and then a couple of years ago, my two other sisters, Rose and Martha, really took it on to find out exactly where it was and if it was still some place being kept or displayed."

Submitted by Terence Clark
Submitted by Terence Clark

It's about 12-feet long and about three feet wide, Hardlotte said. She remembers her grandfather talking about it in the film.

"He said 'You could probably put a full moose on there and it'll float,'" Hardlotte said.

The canoe can't float anymore. The birch bark has dried, Hardlotte said. Because it was brittle, the university put it in a large wooden box for shipping.

"It was very emotional because this was something that we had helped so many years ago, build it even though we were just kids," Hardlotte said.

Submitted by Terence Clark
Submitted by Terence Clark

Clark said the canoe has really come full circle.

"It was made as an educational tool to show the next generation how to build these canoes and that's what it's going to be used for up in Grandmother's Bay," he said.

The canoe is now at the Grandmothers Bay school. It will eventually be placed on permanent display at the Isaiah Roberts Memorial Cultural Centre.

"Now it is just going to be displayed and admired," Hardlotte said.

Submitted by Terence Clark
Submitted by Terence Clark