SASKATOON -- A hand-made canoe crafted in the early 1970s by a master builder in northern Saskatchewan has made its journey home after being stored somewhere unexpected for decades.

Isabelle Hardlotte remembers being 11-years-old and watching her grandparents, Isaiah and Annie Roberts, build a traditional birch bark canoe from scratch in Otter Lake. 

“We used to go out with my grandmother and go to the bushes and help her pick roots and she taught us how to do that because there’s only certain roots you can use. And then she also taught us how to dye the roots,” Hardlotte told CTV News. 

The canoe was made as an educational tool for a film called My Last Canoe. 

The film was produced in both English and Cree. In it, Isaiah and Annie Roberts, both from the Lac La Ronge Indian Band, outline their canoe-making process, showing step-by-step how to use materials found on the land to create a fully functional and long-lasting canoe. 

Isaiah Roberts

Archival photo of Isaiah Roberts who was a master canoe builder and member of the Lac La Ronge Indian Band (Courtesy of Western Development Museum, WDM-1977-S-395) 

“It did take about six to eight weeks to actually build the canoe, but the whole process took a lot longer than that because my grandfather had to go into the bush earlier in the springtime to start collecting what he needed — the birch bark, the birch trees,” Hardlotte said.

Hardlotte even made an appearance in the film along with her two brothers. 

After the film was completed, Hardlotte didn’t see the canoe again for decades. Over the past few years, she and her two sisters started searching for it. 

Earlier this year, they learned it was still intact and had been sitting in the basement of the Archaeology Building at the University of Saskatchewan. 

“It was kind of bittersweet to find it after how many years of wondering where it was,” Hardlotte said. 

Hardlotte’s sister, Rose Roberts, works as a Woodland Cree scholar at the U of S and also had no idea the canoe she and her family had been looking for was there all along. 

Canoe

The decades old birch bark canoe was found in the basement of the Archaeology Building at the U of S earlier this year. (Courtesy Terence Clark)

It is estimated the canoe was in the university’s care for the past 40 or so years. It is unknown why or how it ended up there, but one thing that seemed clear is that it needed to return home. 

Terence Clark, an assistant professor in the U of S Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, said he spent the better part of a week building a nearly five-metre long crate to safely transport the canoe in from Saskatoon to Grandmother’s Bay. 

“I think repatriation is an important aspect of reconciliation. I think it’s really incumbent on universities and museums to look at what they have in their collections and how they got that material,” Clark said. 

“It was about sort of completing the circle and sending it back home where it belongs. And I feel like there’s probably lots of other stuff in museums and universities around the country that should be sent home as well.” 

Canoe in crate

Terence Clark, assistant professor in the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the U of S, built a nearly five-metre crate to safely transport the canoe in from Saskatoon to Grandmother’s Bay (Courtesy Terence Clark)

Lac La Ronge Indian Band Councillor Gerald McKenzie also played a large part in bringing the canoe home. He said it safely arrived in Grandmother’s Bay last Wednesday. 

A repatriation ceremony was held two days later with close family members in attendance. The event happened outside with a small number of people due to COVID-19. 

McKenzie said the plan is to put the canoe on permanent display in a cultural centre named after Isaiah Roberts so that it can continue being used the way it was intended: for education.

“He was one of our last birch bark canoe makers and we wanted it back for our history and also for learning for our youth,” he said. 

“Hopefully we can learn from it and then hopefully somebody in the future would tackle to build another canoe like this, the birch bark canoe, the way our ancestors travelled back in the old days.” 

canoe repatriation

Isabelle Hardlotte and her sister Rose Roberts stand beside the canoe outside of Isaiah Roberts Memorial Culture Centre on Oct. 23 in Grandmother’s Bay, Sask. (Courtesy Isabelle Hardlotte) 

Hardlotte, who works as a teacher at the Cree Language and Culture Program in Stanley Mission and helps with land-based learning, agreed that preserving the canoe and using it for educational purposes is crucial. 

“I think it is very important that kids learn that our people are capable of making all these things,” she said. 

“So much of our history is getting lost and is not being passed down so in that regard, I think it is very important that we have the canoe back.”

She added that seeing the canoe in-person again was emotional for her because many of the people who helped build it have since passed on, including her grandparents and her father who she lost 30 years ago. 

The hope is that their memories and work will live on.