On the canoe: Yellowknife researcher explores paddling's past, present

Jess Dunkin is a paddler first and researcher second.

"Something that I've spent my life doing is paddling and I wanted to understand more about who I am and the things that I'm interested in," says the Yellowknife resident and scholar. 

So she wrote a book about it. 

Specifically, Dunkin wrote about the early years of the American Canoe Association, an organization founded in 1880 to promote the outdoor activity and bring together canoe enthusiasts from across North America.

In the recently-published monograph, Canoe and Canvas: Life at the Encampments of the American Canoe Association,1880-1910, Dunkin examines the sport of canoeing in the late 19th century. In so doing, she deepened her relationship to paddling, as well as her place on Dene lands.

Mindful of place

Dunkin moved to Yellowknife and took a job with the NWT Recreation and Parks Association in 2015. 

She said she didn't always think so much about the places she was paddling — but living in the North changed that.

In the Northwest Territories, Dunkin became "mindful of where I am paddling, and whose land that's on, and what kind of relationship I have with the people there."

Angela Gzowski

As she writes in her book, the American Canoe Association brought people — mostly middle-class white men — together at outdoor encampments over a shared love of canoeing. 

While Dunkin relates to the association's love of nature and the canoe, she was turned off by other aspects of the encampments. 

Some members would dress up in blackface and perform minstrel shows. The association excluded women from the encampments for a time, and gave little credit to the black, Indigenous and working-class people it relied on for labour.

"There were elements of the encampments that suddenly didn't resonate with me," Dunkin said, "so I found myself kind of stepping back from it, and asking questions about what they were doing."

 I love the canoe, and I don't think that asking these kinds of questions have lessened that love. - Jess Dunkin, Yellowknife researcher

At the same time, she was thinking about her own relationship to the canoe.

"I've benefited from the same kinds of colonial systems and practices that allowed these canoeists to use a canoe for leisure, to appropriate that Indigenous technology and go out and use it as a recreational craft," she said. "I had to think really deeply about my implication in those histories."

But despite some unpleasant revelations, Dunkin's love for paddling on the open water remains.

"I still love paddling, and I love the canoe, and I don't think that asking these kinds of questions have lessened that love," she said. "If anything, it's helped me to have what I hope is a more ethical relationship with the canoe."